Just because you don’t have a lot of extra dough doesn’t mean you’re doomed to have a ho-hum getaway. There are plenty of destinations that offer activities and attractions to fit your budget. Head to American cities to get your fill of culture and sightseeing, or make your way to nature-filled destinations less focused on material things. Read on for nine cheap road trip ideas that give your credit card a break.
1. Ithaca, New York
A college town more than a tourist hot spot, Ithaca is bursting with things to do and see that don’t require you to reach deep into your wallet. Cornell University’s campus extends over a varied, dramatic landscape, filled with deep ravines carved eons ago by massive ice sheets. No matter where you are in town, you’re only a short walk from a stunning waterfall or steep canyon brimming with flora, and the spectacular views won’t cost you a cent.
Check out the Cascadilla Gorge Trail, a series of rocky cascades cutting through the heart of campus. Do some window shopping at the mom-and-pop shops in Ithaca Commons before grabbing a slice or a sandwich in this pedestrian-friendly square. And don’t leave town without strolling through the bustling Ithaca Farmers Market, located along scenic Cayuga Inlet.
2. San Diego, California
Cities in Southern California aren’t usually regarded as budget destinations, and San Diego can certainly do damage to your travel budget. But for every indulgent activity you find, you’ll stumble across another cheap or free option that’s every bit as exciting.
Head to Old Town, a living history museum that’s completely free of charge to explore. You’ll see San Diego as it looked in the mid-1800s, a frontier town with strong Mexican influences. Balboa Park, too, is brimming with delights for the senses, from the wood-constructed Botanical Building filled with exotic plants (free) to more than 65 miles of trails (also free).
Nothing beats the beaches in San Diego, and you’ll have a bevy to choose from: hippie-centric Ocean Beach, party-hard Mission Beach, upscale Coronado Beach, and family-friendly Mission Beach, to name just a few. To cap off the perfect cheap trip to San Diego, head to Sunset Cliffs to try to catch a glimpse of the elusive green flash as the sun melts into the horizon.
3. Saugatuck, Michigan
Sometimes you have to think outside of the box when you’re looking for cheap road trip ideas. Though Michigan’s west coast might not be the first thing to pop into your mind as a destination, delightful lakefront towns like Saugatuck have started to earn accolades for their simple beauty and Midwestern wholesomeness.
You can roam for hours in this village’s artsy commercial district, where gallery after gallery showcases the best handicrafts from the most talented local artists. You can admire beautiful flowers in bloom and white picket fences around quaint dwellings.
Take the chain ferry for a mere $2 to cross the Kalamazoo River, and then hike the wooded trail to Oval Beach, consistently named one of the best beaches in the country.
4. Grand Canyon, Arizona
If you’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, traveling to a mile-deep gorge simply to have a look might not sound like the most exciting option. But once you behold this awe-inspiring natural wonder in person, you’ll understand instantly. The Grand Canyon is one of those places every woman should visit in her lifetime, and its affordability makes it a standout among cheap road trip ideas. Depending on how you’re entering, entrance fees range from $20 (for an individual) to $35 (for a car filled with people). And there are several free days throughout the year, too.
Hiking the trails around the canyon’s perimeter gives you an ever-changing view of the geologic formations, a humbling sight to glimpse from any vantage point. Make sure to stay until sunset, when every hue is heightened and the sky fills with a beautiful crimson color.
5. Breckenridge, Colorado
Though primarily a winter ski destination, Breckenridge is a winner for anyone who loves a good summer hike amid the generous beauty of the Rocky Mountains. From dainty wildflowers to rushing creeks, this mountain destination promises an abundance of totally free thrills brought to you by Mother Nature herself. Several trailheads are located close to the center of town, a picture-perfect collection of tree-lined streets and cute shops occupying historic buildings.
Venture to Burro Trail, a peaceful path following a creek through a forest draped in greenery. Or give the 1.5-mile Sawmill Trail with its slight elevation a try. Make a stop at the gorgeous Breckenridge Alpine Garden, a flower-filled green space bordered by the Blue River.
6. Chicago, Illinois
There’s so much variety contained within the Windy City that you could take several trips and not exhaust your list of free and cheap things to do. If you’re not yet acquainted with the city, hop on the “El” train line and let this form of public transit whisk you on a tour through the downtown area and popular neighborhoods. At a mere $2.50, it’s a steal.
Wide-open urban spaces await you downtown, including super-modern Millennium Park and elegant Grant Park, both within walking distance of each other. The former is home to the world-famous “Bean” sculpture, a selfie must. And then of, course, there are the skyscraper-backed lakefront beaches, such as Oak Street Beach and North Avenue Beach. For an even bigger dose of nature, head to the completely free Garfield Park Conservatory, one of the largest collections of exotic plants in the country.
7. New Orleans, Louisiana
The city that invented jazz is packed with sights, sounds, and smells that you could never put a price on. A stroll through the French Quarter gives your eyes and ears plenty to feast on at no charge. Street musicians occupy busy corners, and with a small tip, you can stand around and listen for as long as you like.
Artists display their works near Jackson Square, giving you plenty to admire as you roam the narrow streets, lined with facades in Creole and Greek Revival Styles. Pack a lunch and sit out by the Mississippi River to watch everything from commercial barges to old steamboats pass by. Once you’ve had your fill of the French Quarter, make the trek to Audubon Park, with walking trails and an impressive canopy created by mature live oak trees.
8. Joshua Tree, California
Add this otherworldly national park to your list of potential cheap road trip ideas — even well-versed road-trippers will find something new to enjoy in one-of-a-kind Joshua Tree National Park.
Named for the native Joshua tree with its spindly, warped branches, this massive piece of land is divided between the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert, whose varied elevations make for drastically different landscapes. With an entrance fee of a mere $25, you can spend an entire day hiking various trails, such as the Barker Dam Nature Trail with its hidden-away lake and Skull Rock Nature Trail whose rock formations are eerily striking.
When the day is done, resist the temptation to retire for the night and take the chance to stargaze in the clear night skies.
9. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
With a dive bar on just about every corner, Milwaukee is a hospitable mid-sized city that welcomes penny-pinching travelers looking for unique cheap road trip ideas. Pabst Blue Ribbon, the unofficial beer of cheapskates, was born here and continues to be popular — in fact you’ll only need $4 or $5 for an ice-cold tall boy.
Never fear if beer isn’t really your thing. This city is home to parks, museums, and walking paths along its expansive, scenic waterfront. Head to the Milwaukee Public Market to browse the booths from food and artisan vendors. Then wander the streets in the nearby historic Third Ward and the beautiful Riverwalk, one of the best places for downtown views. For a taste of Wisconsin’s immaculate nature, head north to the Milwaukee River Greenway, complete with trails, fishing piers, a disc golf park, and even a beer garden.