Last year, Americans left a whopping 650 million vacation days on the table — four per working person. When asked why, people say cost. Which is just bonkers, because this country — maybe more than almost any other on the planet — abounds with badass cities worth exploring, and at prices often less than what you’d pay in your hometown.
Simply put, taking a vacation you’ll remember for the rest of your life doesn’t need to break the bank. If you’re reading this, you’ve almost certainly been to a handful of these 15 cities — but others, you’re still waiting to explore. We’re here to tell you these are all places worth diving into, and if you save up even a little bit of scratch, you can probably afford to do ’em up bigger than you’d expect. Enjoy: chances are you’ve more than earned it by now
Cheap must-eat: Tacos A Go Go. This Midtown taco joint serves up what many would call the best in Houston for under $3.
Best cheap thing to do: Pocket a $56 Houston CityPASS to get your pick of admission to the town’s top attractions.
Why it’s worth a visit: Houston wants to have you over. The city has built more hotel rooms in the past year than anywhere in America not called New York, and at an average rate of $108 per night, you’ve got your pick of a reasonable lot. Food here is cheap too. The staple cuisines are barbecue and Tex-Mex, both inexpensive styles known for enormous portions. You can get fajitas at Ninfa’s on Navigation — the place that invented them — where a $25 order feeds at least two people. And a half-pound of brisket at the award-wining Pappa Charlies is only $9. Oh, and more tacos. You can seek out the best in town, or the best in town that people overlook. Often, the best is whatever is nearest when your stomach starts sending taco daydreams to your gullible, taco-buying brain.
It’s also a city with surprisingly good public transportation, which means if you’re trying to go places within the city, you probably won’t need a rental car until you head out to the Space Center. Speaking of which, it’s included in that CityPASS, which also rates you admission to the aquarium, Museum of Natural Science, Museum of Fine Arts, the zoo, and the children’s museum. Flights here are reasonable as well, with the United hub at George Bush and Southwest running out of Hobby. And if these suggestions above weren’t enough, here are 45 more things to do in H-town for under a Hamilton. — M.M.
Providence, Rhode Island
Cheap must-eat: The burgers at Harry’s Bar & Burger, all under $7
Best cheap thing to do: WaterFire. Unlike some cities that shall remain nameless, Providence sets its river on fire deliberately during selected weekends, and a city-wide party breaks out to watch it.
Why it’s worth a visit: The biggest reason Providence is the second-best city in America for college students? It’s cheap. Not only is rent in this historic New England city a third of what it is in Boston, drink prices, food prices, and pretty-much-everything prices are a fraction of what you’ll find in other big northeastern cities.
But it’s not just the ability to ball out on a college budget that makes Providence a killer place to visit. It’s a city full of art and history, none of which will cost you all that much. A stroll down the cobblestone mile on Benefit St will take you past one of the densest concentrations of colonial buildings in America. Walking tours of the historic west side of the city are free, as are Sunday visits to the museum at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Providence is often used as the “off-airport” for Boston Logan, meaning flights in here on JetBlue and Southwest are impressively cheap. Hotel rooms under $80 aren’t uncommon. And the city is so full of culture and history that it’s the perfect place to visit if you’re new to the old-school charms of the Northeast. — M.M.
Best cheap thing to do: For $12 the volunteers and educators at the Lowell Observatory (where Pluto was first observed) will guide you around the universe with solar and nighttime viewings.
Why it’s worth a visit: Nature is the best/worst part about setting foot in Arizona. You know Phoenix (elevation: 1,000ft above sea level) as that angry clot of red on every national weather map. But drive two hours north of town, to Flagstaff (elevation: 6,900ft above sea level), and you won’t even be lying to yourself about “dry heat” anymore — you’ll be in dry cool. The old Route 66 stopover still rocks plenty of $60-ish no-frills motels — if, that is, you don’t just opt to camp somewhere instead.
Your morning should be spent somewhere crisp and low-cost; consider the mile-wide Meteor Crater 37 miles east of town, probably Earth’s coolest visible scar. There’s some nifty interactive exhibits there, but let’s face it: giant holes in the ground predicate Arizona tourism. To wit, from Flagstaff you’re only two hours from the Grand Canyon’s south rim — Yaki Point (photo above) is like where Insta- met -gram. A mere 10 miles from town is Walnut Canyon National Monument, and likewise 30 minutes away is Sunset Crater Volcano, where you can hike ancient lava flows. Seriously, every kind of spectacular geological hole is right here.
Once you get back to town, wallet still fat, go ahead and lunch for under $10 at Delhi Palace’s huge Indian buffet, and later splurge at the Museum Club, a piano bar and country venue in a 1931 vintage building, definitely winning social media in the 21st century with such notable recent midweek tweets as: “DIME BEER NIGHT!!” — S.E.
St. Louis, Missouri
Cheap must-eat: St. Louis-style pizza at Imo’s. The lunch special is an 8in personal pizza with a half salad and drink for $7.49.
Best cheap thing to do: The Saint Louis Zoo. It’s one of only a handful of great zoos in America that is completely free. It’s got a polar bear, a live sea lion show, and even the extra-rare red panda.
Why it’s worth a visit: You know what the best city park in America is? Well, obviously, it’s Forest Park in St. Louis because why would we mention Central Park in a section on St. Louis? But you know WHY it’s so great? Well, not only is it a sprawling urban green space that was once a prescribed “natural therapy” for smoke-choked early-20th-century St. Louisians. It’s also home to the zoo, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Saint Louis Science Center, the Missouri History Museum, and other attractions that are all FREE.
St. Louis’ two most famous exports — the Cardinals and Budweiser — can both be experienced relatively cheaply. AB brewery tours are free. And while tickets to Cards games are decidedly not-free, taking in the game at Ballpark Village — the entertainment complex that sits just outside the left-field bleachers — can be. Or can be done for the cost of a few outside-the-stadium beers.
The culinary scene in St. Louis is taking off, but you can still get great barbecue for very little. For example: Bogart’s Smokehouse in Soulard serves an $11 turkey sandwich that’s enough for two meals. Or the city’s trademark St. Louis-style pizza can be had at Imo’s (the square beyond compare!) for under $10. And though AB is still king in St. Louis, the craft beer bars around the city offer great stuff from other local breweries, like Urban Chestnut, for $4 a pint. Throw in an average hotel room rate that hovers around $100 a night, and this might be the most action-packed city of free adventures outside of DC. — M.M.