It safe to say that most of us these days have cottoned on to the fact that travel doesn’t need to be expensive. (*And yes, we know ‘expensive or cheap’ is such a relative term). Thing is, even the (cash-)richest of us have budgets – it’s just a bigger budget but a budget none-the-less (something I’ve said on here time and time again) and as such, we are all interested in getting as much value as possible out of our hard earned cash – especially so when we travel.
Over the year, we’ve found that one of the best things are looking for travel deals is opening yourself up to the possibility of new and exciting destinations outside of the well trodden path.
Thing is though, well-trodden paths are well trodden for a reason, there’s usually a lot to see and do for visitors in said well-trodden destinations and we’re very much advocates of mixing these more popular places with less popular ones when you travel. With that in mind, we’ve looked put together these 15 fantastic cities (quite a few of which are already quite popular, but all of which are bound to see your $$s carry you a lot further on your vacation), which you need to visit in the USA!
Cheap must-eat: The $4 cheeseburger at the local chain Tops Bar-B-Q has everything you could want out of a fast-food burger: it’s thin, salty, and topped with the required slice of American cheese. Best if consumed with baked beans and slaw in one of the 15 locations’ ’70s ambiance.
Best cheap thing to do: Go roller skating at the Crystal Palace, a disco roller rink in South Memphis where the old pros will show you how it is done.
Why it’s worth a visit: Divey and proud, Memphis has kept some of the best parts of its history as a Southern music and food hub. We’re not as flashy as Nashville (we wouldn’t want to be) or as wild as New Orleans, but we’ve got charm and character galore. It’s easy to get comfortable in Midtown’s garage-rock haunts or North Memphis’ famous blues bars.
A good trip to Memphis takes knowing which tourist digs to take on, and which to dodge. Elvis’ famous shag-carpeted residence, Graceland, deserves the hype, but it will cost you. (The candlelight vigil during Elvis Week is a consummately weird local ritual, totally worth attending.) But if you spend too long lingering on the beloved blues drag that is Beale St, you’ll end up spending too much cash on watery drinks and miss Memphis’ best traits. Instead, splurge on music history during the day and then hit up the constellation of local dives. The P & H Cafe is the best for beer and pool; the Hi-Tone is your stop for garage rock.
For the culture buffs, one of Memphis’ most affordable and most unique museums is also its most scenic: located in an out-of-the-way enclave on a Mississippi River bluff, the Metal Museum exhibits contemporary and historic ornamental metalwork. It also includes a working forge and smithy, where master metalsmiths and apprentices are employed year-round. Crosstown Arts, a multipurpose converted strip mall, has a host of free art-related shows and events. Or you could take a free walking tour of Elmwood Cemetery, home to some of the most sculptural headstones on either side of the Mississippi.
Lodging is affordable but public transportation is not so good. Best to go by car, if possible, or use some of the city’s newly installed bike paths. There’s a lot of river to take in, actually — riding two wheels alongside the river, you’ll feel like Huck Finn in no time. — Eileen Townsend, Thrillist contributor
Cheap must-eat:Copycat Co. is a craft cocktail spot where all the food’s less than five bucks, featuring actually filling stuff like $1.25 bao buns and $4 steak skewers. Drinks may run slightly more.
Best cheap thing to do: Everything single thing on the National Mall
Why it’s worth a visit: Theoretically, DC is not a “cheap” place for things like hotels or dining out. Drinks are on par with cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, and meals in decent restaurants can run you over $100 for two people easily. But that’s not always the case. There are plenty of delicious meals to be had here for under five bucks. And decent hotels like the State Plaza and the Holiday Inn by the White House go for as little as $150 a night. Not cheap, but not bank-breaking either.
Once you’ve got lodging/dining sorted, your daily costs in DC should be minimal. Every national museum is free, so your quest to see Archie Bunker’s chair or the Apollo capsules won’t cost you a dime. Same with the monuments. Same with the National Zoo, the reflecting pool, tours of the Capitol, and the like. So those selfies of you sitting on the Washington Monument only cost you your self-respect.
Getting around DC is also alarmingly cheap, as the Metro can get you pretty much anywhere worth going in the city for far less than a cab. And even if you choose to save money and stay in a hotel outside the city, getting in is fairly straightforward. As far as big, famous, tourist-filled American cities go, DC is the one you can do for the least. And you might even learn some stuff along the way. — Matt Meltzer, Thrillist staff writer
Cheap must-eat: Grab breakfast at the Fox in the Snow: a custard-filled donut and a souffled egg sandwich for less than $10. For drinks, Hadley’s Bar + Kitchen serves pitchers of various mules for $25.
Best cheap thing to do: The pick-up basketball games on various courts around the Ohio State campus are the definition of free fun.
Why it’s worth a visit: Calling Columbus the Austin of Ohio may sound like thin praise, but as the state capital and home to a gigantic flagship public university, the parallels are easy. Columbus bristles with the energy of 50,000-plus undergrads packed into a city of 820,000 — if you’re up for beer, sports, and live music, you’re more than covered.
First, hit a pair of free Downtown attractions: the 1861 vintage Greek Revival statehouse, which offers four free tours every weekend; and a historical marker on the spot where the first Wendy’s opened in 1969 (and closed in 2007). Pour out a Frosty (try to, anyway) for Dave Thomas, then pick a neighborhood. Maybe the 4th St corridor, a haven for music and under-$10 cocktails (both, if you poke your head into the Walrus). Or ply High St, a few blocks away, the straight shot from the Brewery District (not as many breweries as you’d hope, but home to quality holes-in-the-wall like Double Happiness) up to the Ohio State campus. That area’s best old-breed, sticky-beneath-your-Chucks rock joint, Bernie’s Bagels & Deli, shuttered last year. For sports, though, it’s still stacked. Find the Village Idiot, quite often home of $2 PBR tallboys or $7 pitchers.
Columbus is more than an NFL factory barnacled by purveyors of near-free lager. File all of these under cheap and better than you’d expect: the Columbus Museum of Art (free on Sundays), fresh off a $38 million renovation; the regular Moonlight Market of pop-up shops and street eats; COSI, the hands-on science museum, mostly for kids but you can always shove past them; and the Scioto Mile, an always-expanding 175-acre park in the bend of the Scioto River, where you can go kayaking or hit the public rock-climbing wall as surely as you can find a food truck, group yoga session, or free outdoor concert. — Sam Eifling, Thrillist Travel editor