25 Best Cities for Wallet-Friendly Summer Travel Gallery
February 8, 2018
Have a sunnier summer with these affordable vacations
25 Best Cities for Wallet-Friendly Summer Travel
Travel is one of life’s greatest pleasures, yet it often comes at a steep price. However, we’re lucky to live during a time when travel is more accessible than ever, and cheap deals — even in the most expensive cities — can be easily acquired with just a little bit of determination, patience, and research. We’ve done some of that research for you. Here are the 25 best budget-friendly cities to travel to this summer.[related]
Our research is based on the data provided by personal finance website WalletHub. By collecting data from multiple national and federal reports as well as other travel websites, WalletHub identified the most popular and budget-friendly summer destinations in the United States. Then, it analyzed prices of airfare from the six largest airport hubs in the U.S. to the 80 largest metro areas during the month of July. The statistics are based on six key categories: travel costs and hassles, local costs, attractions, weather, activities, and safety. For a more detailed explanation of the company’s methodology, visit the full study.
In layman’s terms, this means that these cities earned a place on this list not solely based on how much or little money you’ll spend getting there, but how much money you’ll spend while you’re there, what value you can extract from the city (based on its attractions), and the relative value of these places right now, as compared to their high tourist seasons. You’ll definitely find some pretty predictable spots on here, such as Chicago and San Diego, but other cities may surprise you, either because of their reputations as expensive destinations or because of their entire lack of a reputation as a destination. As WalletHub’s list largely named metropolitan areas, we took the principal city of each of these areas to bring you the 25 best cities for wallet-friendly summer travel.
#25 Stockton, Calif.
The Stockton-Lodi area of Northern California, which came in at No. 25, is a popular stop for road-trippers in particular thanks to its location along both I-5 and Highway 99. The city of Stockton provides plenty of entertainment and retail opportunities, as it’s home to many shopping centers, movie theaters, and a couple museums as well, among other minor attractions. The area also has plenty of farmland, which also offers the opportunity of wine tastings, and was found to have the second best weather conditions among all the cities examined.
Home of the Philly cheesesteak, Philadelphia has so much to offer that visitors should take advantage of the Philadelphia CityPass, which grants access to six attractions over nine days at a discounted rate. Options for visits include the Adventure Aquarium, Philadelphia Zoo, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the National Constitution Center, the kid-favorite Please Touch Museum, the historic Eastern State Penitentiary, the science-geek favorite Franklin Institute, and 24 hours of on-off privileges with the Philly Trolley and The Big Bus Company. There are plenty of art museums in Philadelphia as well, but you don’t even need to go inside one to enjoy local art; the city is known for its murals, and you can even take a free tour of them. Reading Terminal Market is the most popular attraction in Philadelphia and a must for food-lovers, as is the neighborhood of Fishtown. Visitors should also make a trip to Independence National Historical Park, known as the birthplace of American democracy. Stop by the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall to see more of the history of America. Also nearby are the cities of Camden, New Jersey, and Wilmington, Delaware, which also have plenty of affordable activities that help land this area on the list.
#23 Columbus, Ohio
As the capital of Ohio, Columbus benefits from the presence of the state government as well as Ohio State University in its economic growth, providing plenty of opportunities for a fun vacation. Columbus Crew Stadium hosts many games and concerts, and a visit to the Short North Arts District will treat you to a variety of eclectic shops and eateries as well as art galleries and microbreweries. Come to Short North on the first Saturday of any month for the Gallery Hop, when the art galleries and stores are open late, or visit on the Fourth of July for the Doo Dah Parade, full of amusing costumes and exuberant patriotism. The city as a whole is also a paradise for food-lovers.
#22 Tulsa, Okla.
Tulsa is an underrated arts destination in the south-central United States. It has one of the country’s biggest concentrations of art deco architecture as well as two world-renowned art museums and multiple full-time opera and ballet companies. The Tulsa Zoo is also worth a visit, and Turkey Mountain provides plenty of exploration opportunities as a great spot for biking and hiking.
#21 Greenville, S.C.
Although probably not as cool as Charleston, Greenville is full of cultural events, especially in the summer, like the Upstate Shakespeare Festival and Countybank Main Street Jazz, a jazz street festival held downtown. Greenville was also featured in a book about the best art towns in the country and is home to multiple theater groups and music venues throughout town as well as a thriving social dance scene where you can practice contra dancing, the Lindy Hop, or the Carolina Shag. As part of the Greenville–Anderson–Mauldin metro area, Greenville is the perfect jumping off spot to other Upcountry South Carolina activities such as horseback riding, waterfall tours, whitewater rafting, ziplining forest canopy tours, and more.
America’s Comeback City has indeed come back with a vengeance as a destination not just for domestic travelers but for those from all over the world. After decades of a declining economy and population, Detroit has seen a revival thanks to new additions and attractions, as well as renovations to its many historic buildings. The city’s abandoned buildings have been turned into art galleries, distilleries, and more thanks to growing scene of artists and young upstarts. The birthplace of Motown was ranked the second best in terms of travel costs and hassles, notably lacking them, and made it to the list as part of the Detroit–Warren–Dearborn area, which also encompasses attractions such as the Automotive Hall of Fame and Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.
#19 Charlotte, N.C.
North Carolina’s largest city is divided into 16 districts, which have seen a lot of growth in the past two decades. Charlotte has an entire district of museums, including museums for children, art-lovers, Southern culture and history buffs, and even aviation geeks. Racing fans will enjoy the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which finds its home here, and outdoor sportsmen will enjoy the U.S. National Whitewater Center where you can mountain bike and whitewater raft, among other things. For food-lovers, Charlotte is also home to the state’s best pizza. Charlotte is also home of Carowinds, a Cedar Fair theme park which lies on the border of the two Carolinas, straddled by Charlotte and South Carolina’s Fort Mill. Charlotte made it to the list as part of the Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia metro area, which encompasses seven counties in North Carolina and three in South Carolina.
#18 Portland, Ore.
Portland is a mecca of microbreweries and many outdoor opportunities. A big city with a small town feel, Portland is known for its arts scene and is home to more independent publishers than any other American city. Its many parks and gardens offer a fantastic chance to enjoy the outdoors, and its coffee is world-renowned as well. The city made it to the list as the seat of the Portland metropolitan area, which also encompasses Vancouver, the Brooklyn of Washington state.
#17 St. Louis
St. Louis is quite an affordable getaway, with only Washington, D.C., having more free activities. The iconic Gateway Arch is the world’s tallest man-made monument and faces the historic courthouse where the Dred Scott decision was reached. Take a horse-drawn carriage ride down the cobblestone streets of Laclede’s Landing, visit the Soulard Farmers Market, or visit the Anheuser-Busch Brewery for a free tour with free samples (for those of age) as well as a visit with the famous Clydesdale horses. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis boasts 83,000 square feet of mosaic tiles, all set by a family of artists — one of the largest displays of mosaic art in the Western Hemisphere.
#16 Tampa, Fla.
Tampa was determined to be in the top five of the cities studied in terms of activities available for visitors. It’s home to plenty of shopping and eating opportunities, as well as the Florida Aquarium, Lowry Park Zoo, Tampa Museum of Art, Museum of Science and Industry, and Florida’s Busch Gardens. It’s also known for its craft beer scene. On the list as part of the greater Tampa Bay area, visitors to Tampa also benefit from the proximity of cities like St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
#15 Cincinnati, Ohio
It’s hard to tell whether Ohio is a true Midwestern state, and Cincinnati makes it even harder. In addition to Midwestern influences, you’ll find some of the Northeast, Appalachia, and even the Old South here. Festivals are big, particularly Oktoberfest Zinnzinati, the biggest Oktoberfest celebration in the country. Cincinnati also lays claim to the best chili in America, as well as the country’s oldest culinary festival. A weekend trip here will bring you all kinds of great eats and drinks as well as some of the best and most diverse culture in the Midwestern region.
Phoenix gets seriously hot in the summertime, but as long as you make sure you stay hydrated, you’re sure to have a good time. Visit the Arizona Science Center and the Desert Botanical Garden to explore the region’s natural wonders, or one of the area’s many galleries and museums celebrating American, Southwestern, and native art. Phoenix is full of Arizona’s best art institutions, with plenty of theaters, venues, and events, and it’s also home to multiple professional sports teams. The city landed itself on the list as part of the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, which also includes the cities of Scottsdale, Glendale, and Mesa, among others.
#13 Oklahoma City
Oklahoma City is one of the most affordable cities on this list, ranking as the best in terms of local costs and in the top five for travel costs and hassle. Declared last year as the best place to get a romantic dinner, it’s also home the best date spot in the state and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, among plenty of other museums, art galleries, and delicious restaurants.
Signs, t-shirts, and bumper stickers around the capital of Texas read “Keep Austin Weird,” and the popular expression refers to the city’s eccentricity in an affectionate way. Austin has a unique ambience in comparison with the rest of the state and is the live music capital of the world, with tons of music venues and festivals to check out. Tech is booming here, and the city is also known as “Silicon Hills” due to its reputation for fostering tech startups. Austin offers tons of shopping, art galleries, and multiple museums and parks, and outdoor endeavors are also popular, particularly rock climbing and mountain biking. You can also go for a swim in a spring-fed pool or rent a kayak, canoe, paddle board, or tube. Make sure you try the Tex-Mex while you’re there, too! Austin’s food scene is a great mix of Southwestern and cosmopolitan.
#11 Salt Lake City
The center of Mormon religion and culture, Salt Lake City has a special place in American religious history. Visit This Is the Place Heritage Park to see the spot where Brigham Young allegedly decided to settle his Mormon followers, as well as the fashionable Sugar House neighborhood, historic and now hip. Temple Square, the world headquarters of the Mormon Church, is home to the impressive Salt Lake Temple, and Mormon missionaries fluent in many languages are available to help you tour the grounds and learn about both the Mormon faith and its history. Multiple parks and gardens in Salt Lake City provide peaceful outdoor opportunities, and in the summer, the surrounding mountains provide plenty of opportunities for hiking, biking, and more. The Great Salt Lake and its marinas provide year-round boating, as the lake itself never freezes, and its yacht club has sailboat races all summer. Live theater is popular here as well, as is art and cinema. There are also plenty of shops from which to bring home your friends and family some lovely souvenirs.
#10 New York City
Despite its expensive reputation, New York City is a pretty great value if you’re a tourist. It ranked second best in terms of activities and also scored in the top four for attractions. The New York restaurant scene is unparalleled, with chefs from around the world settling in the five boroughs to set trends, and the world often looks to New York when seeking out the latest in fashion, film, art, and more. New Yorkers, including their mayor, are protective of their world-famous pizza, and their restaurants are among the most Instagrammed in the country, if not the world. Broadway shows continue to lead the world of theater, Fifth Avenue and New York Fashion Week rules the fashion industry, and the modern-day hipster came out of the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. Nearby New Jersey cities such as Newark and Jersey City are great destinations as well and just a quick train ride away.
#9 Sacramento, Calif.
Sacramento is a sacrilegiously overlooked food city, plus it’s in the top three for weather conditions, making it a fantastic summer stop. The Californian capital is home to many museums as well as the Sacramento Zoo, and it made the list as part of the Sacramento–Roseville–Arden-Arcade metro area, giving visitors easy access to other attractions such as Lake Tahoe and the Davis Farmers Market, one of the best in the country.
Dallas has plenty to offer, with two large aquariums, a zoo, the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, and multiple museums dedicated to art and science. Go downtown to see the X that marks the spot where President John F. Kennedy was killed in the back of an open-topped limousine and visit the Sixth Floor Museum, located in the building from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot him. Zero Gravity Thrill Rides Amusement Park, the world’s only amusement park dedicated to thrill rides, has five extreme rides, and Six Flags Over Texas is the original Six Flags park. Dallas also has a great food scene that isn’t to be missed, and made it to the list as part of the Dallas/Forth Worth metroplex, which also provides access to the Western nostalgia of its twin city of Fort Worth.
Recently named the most diverse place in America, Texas’s largest city is fantastic for food-lovers. You can find amazing and authentic Mexican food anywhere in Houston, but other certain areas specialize in specific cuisines. Chinatown is, of course, best for Chinese food, while the Mahatma Gandhi District is full of Indian or Pakistani fare. Go to Koreatown for Korean cuisine, Midtown for Vietnamese, the predominantly Jewish Meyerland for anything kosher, and Bissonette Street for something Nigerian or Ethiopian. Make sure you don’t leave Houston without visiting the NASA Johnson Space Center, and make sure to check out the plethora of museums as well as the Houston Zoo. You’ll also do well to buy a Houston CityPASS to get into up to six attractions within a nine-day period, before hitting up the rest of the Greater Houston area (which Houston made the list as part of) for fantastic Texas cuisine thanks to the diverse population and great nightlife thanks to its many colleges.
Home to the busiest airport in the world, Atlanta isn’t hard to reach, putting it in the top four cities for travel costs and hassle. Once you do get there, there’s plenty to do in terms of food and fun. The world’s favorite soda has its headquarters here, and a tour of the World of Coca-Cola provides sweet insight as well as samples. Visitors can also visit the world’s largest aquarium by volume of water, take a tour of CNN’s studio headquarters, or visit the largest dinosaur ever excavated at the Fernbank Natural History Museum. You can pay tribute to the civil rights movement here as well, as the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site gives visitors the opportunity to visit the civil rights leader’s birthplace home, church, and grave site, along with a museum and memorial dedicated in his honor. The city’s role in the civil rights movement is memorialized in the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and the Civil War gets a tribute in one of the world’s largest oil paintings, the Atlanta Cyclorama, a cylindrical panoramic of the Battle of Atlanta, and the largest collection of Civil War memorabilia resides at the nearby Atlanta History Center, as well. A number of other ancient, modern, and natural history museums and exhibits populate Atlanta, and those who wish to see as many as they can should take the time to buy the Atlanta CityPASS, a nine-day discounted pass to visit five local attractions, often with the ability to cut lines.
#5 San Diego
Right across the border from Tijuana, Mexico, San Diego is Southern California at its finest. Its gorgeous beaches, pleasant climate, and ethnic diversity create a colorful atmosphere that anyone can enjoy and put it at No.1 in terms of the quality and quantity of activities available to visitors. San Diego offers a few different city passes which will help you gain admission to the city’s many attractions, which include the famous San Diego Zoo, Sea World, and all Balboa Park museums, as well nearby Legoland, Universal Studios Hollywood, and Disneyland. San Diego is a beach-lover’s paradise, with the San Diego coast perfect for swimming, surfing, and building sandcastles, as are the beaches of plenty nearby towns. The city also has plenty of wineries and its restaurant scene is much like the rest of California’s: deliciously diverse.
The nation’s third largest city is a perfect summer getaway for those who prefer a more urban vacation with both a vibrant dining and arts scene. It made the top four cities in terms of activities and also ranked in the top five for attractions. Its famous skyline boasts not only the Willis Tower (formerly and often still known as the Sears Tower), but also some of the world’s best museums, art galleries, parks, and more. You don’t need admission to anything to witness some of the Second City’s great art, however; downtown Chicago has an entire collection of modern sculptures that you can enjoy on your own or with a two-to-four-hour walking tour. Lake Michigan may not be an ocean, but it provides some great beaches all the same, Chicago being considered the second cleanest urban waterfront in the world. The Windy City is also home to Taste of Chicago, the world’s largest outdoor food festival, and of course, the Chicago Deep Dish.
“The Happiest Place on Earth” just keeps getting happier as its many theme parks make additions and updates every year. Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort, and SeaWorld Adventure Park are just the top three amusement parks here, each with multiple, massive sections to them. Disney World may not sound like a very wallet-friendly option, but there are plenty of ways to save while you’re there. Orlando also has a thriving downtown and nightlife as well as tons of golf courses for you to enjoy and ranked in the top three in terms of activities among the cities studied. The city made the list as part of the Greater Orlando area, which also encompasses cities like Kissimmee, where you can go on ecosafaris or visit one of its many museums, and Sanford, which has boat tours, art galleries, and the Central Florida Zoo.
#2 Los Angeles
Los Angeles ranked No. 2 in terms of attractions, which makes sense considering it’s home to Hollywood and all the attractions that come along with it. If you’re not the star-struck type, however, there’s still plenty to do and plenty of areas to explore like the beach neighborhood of Venice and the hipster mecca of Silver Lake. Los Angeles is a foodie’s paradise and also has plenty of trendy bars and shops for you to visit as well. The city made the list as part of the Los Angeles–Long Beach–Anaheim metropolitan area, which includes Anaheim of Disneyland fame and the happy city of Long Beach, among other easily accessible Southern California attractions that make this destination an even better bargain.
#1 Las Vegas
Legalized gambling put Las Vegas on the map as a tourist destination in the 1930s, and its popularity has never waned. While you could definitely spend an entire weekend trying your luck at the city’s many impressive casinos, Las Vegas is so much more than “Sin City,” truly earning its place as the top ranked city for number and quality of attractions. You can eat your money away (the way J. Lo does) instead of gambling it, or you can drive a race car on an actual race track, go indoor skydiving, or learn some risqué moves from local exotic dancers. The Adventuredome at Circus Circus is the country’s largest theme park, and the city also has a huge aquarium, an impressive classic car showroom in the form of the Auto Collections, multiple gardens, museums dedicated to art, neon signs, and even the mob. There are two different sightseeing passes that offer different deals to gain admission to multiple attractions at a steep discount: the Las Vegas Power Pass and the Las Vegas Explorer Pass. For more on how to keep your wallet happy, check out our tricks on how to save money on hotel rooms.