20 Affordable Family Vacations You Haven't Thought Of Before

Birmingham Magic City Arch Covered in Flowers
Photo: Courtesy Melany B. Robinson

It's summertime, and the living's … expensive between growing gas prices, inflation, and the effects of a lingering pandemic and supply chain issues on the cost of everything from bacon and beach reads to rental cars and restaurant meals. Which is unfortunate as you and the fam were really looking forward to hitting the road and making up for lost vacation time.

But just because this might not be the year to take the whole extended clan on an all-expenses-paid cruise or book Dolly Parton's tour bus turned hotel room for $10,000 a night, that doesn't necessarily mean you have to stay home. No, you just have to get creative and find more economical expeditions.

To help, here's a list of 20 budget-friendly, fun-filled family trips found throughout the South that you might not have thought of previously. It's not too late to book a trip this summer, but these getaways can also be saved and planned for a fall foliage tour, winter escape, or springtime vacation next year. Scroll on for inspiration, then take your pick!

01 of 20

Tupelo, Mississippi

tupelo MS
Jennie Curlee

With director Baz Luhrmann's recent Elvis Presley biopic introducing a new generation to The King's music, it's the perfect time to shake, rattle, and roll into his hometown . Tupelo is quite proud of its chart-topping native son; to wit, there are lots of preserved sites including the tiny house he was born in and his church, where a multi-media system recreates services where Elvis gained a life-long appreciation for gospel tunes), murals and sculptures, and a festival (the 25th anniversary of the city's biggest celebration will be held in June 2023). Even the library has his childhood card on display. Staying at the new Hotel Tupelo , which has a Presley-themed package, grants access to bicycles that can be used to site hop. Slide into the marked booth for his favorite meal, a cheeseburger and RC Cola, at Johnnie's Drive-In . Hear a salesperson at the still functioning Tupelo Hardware Company recount the tale of how he came in for a rifle but left with his first guitar. Recreate the iconic "Hands" photo from his 1956 homecoming concert with his statue at the former fairgrounds. Before checking out, get fit for and design bespoke denim beloved by Eli Manning and singer Thomas Rhett Akins from local brand Blue Delta Jean Co. A pair goes great with blue suede shoes!

02 of 20

Tarpon Springs, Florida

Tarpon Springs Man on Boat
Chris Rogers

If isle-hopping around Greece is beyond the budget this year but you're craving souvlaki something fierce, the Sunshine State offers a suitable substitute 45 minutes north of St. Petersburg. No passport required to explore the Sponge Capital of the World , which saw a massive influx of Greek immigrants recruited for their diving skills to harvest the sea sponges that thrived in the Anclote River in the 1880s. Today, with one in 10 residents tracing their heritage across the pond, the town still feels heavily Hellenic, especially down by the docks where strains of bouzouki music spills into the streets, the smell of freshly baked baklava fills the air, and blue and white is the color palette of choice for buildings and boats alike. Vintage vessels take tourists on expeditions and demonstrate in the traditional suits how the creatures are collected and prepared for market. Back on land, use your sea legs to complete a free walking audio tour of Greektown and scour shops for what once outstripped citrus as the state's main export before feasting at mom-and-pop tavernas and bakeries like Mama's or Hellas . If you happen to be there in January, swing by Spring Bayou to witness the largest Epiphany celebration in the U.S.

03 of 20

Bristol, Virginia and Bristol, Tennessee

Birthplace of Country Music Museum
Courtesy Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Nashville tends to get all the glory as the epicenter of the country music industry—but since 1998, these homey hamlets at the feet of the Appalachians have been recognized as "The Birthplace of Country Music" and have a Smithsonian-affiliated museum , shown here, to prove it. Back in 1927, producer Ralph Peer recorded 76 songs including the first tracks by Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in the Bristol Sessions, cementing these twin cities as the main stop on The Crooked Road, Virginia's music trail of fame. These hills are still alive with the sound of music, especially in September when the annual Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival is held or whenever a band is booked at the art deco Paramount theater or the only rooftop bar in town which sits atop The Bristol Hotel . (Hotel guests get free tickets to the museum as well.) Even a meal here can celebrate genre history as Burger Bar is the last place Hank Williams Sr. was seen alive and its dishes are named after his songs. Bonus: Kids will get a kick out of standing in two states simultaneously under the neon sign that spans downtown's main drag, also known as the state line.

04 of 20

St. Francisville, Louisiana

Afton Villa Gardens in St. Francisville, LA
Alison Gootee

Have a budding influencer or photographer on your hands? With its towering oaks dripping in Spanish moss, fragrant blossoms in a ruins garden ( Afton Villa ), bayous fit for a Disney Princess and a Frog, surprising rugged hills and bluffs ( Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area ), an infamous prison with an educational museum ( Angola ), glorious cheese pulls at Magnolia Café , and old cemetery ( Locust Grove ), this charming small town in West Feliciana Parish provides plenty of photogenic subject matter to snap or pose with. Reserve a renovated 1930s motor court cabin to get the money shot as the sun drops low and the twinkle lights that outline them flicker awake.

05 of 20

Macon, Georgia

macon georgia

Smack dab in the center of the Peach State, Macon has made great contributions to America's favorite pastimes. Take your kids out to a ballgame and root, root, root for the home team, the Macon Bacon , whose mascot, a seven-foot-tall strip named Kevin, likes to dance. Its field is often seen on screens big and small ( 42 , Brockmire , The Trouble With The Curve ) as are other parts of town, which recently welcomed The Color Purple remake. The city's musical roots also run deep. Alabama Vest invented the kazoo here and hometown heroes include Otis Redding, Little Richard, and The Allman Brothers. After taking a Rock Candy music history tour , continue talking about local tunesmiths at the Downtown Grill , where Greg Allman proposed to Cher, or at H&H Soul Food , whose founder Mama Louise went on tour with the ramblin' men in 1972.

06 of 20

Natchez Trace Parkway

NanJMoore/Getty Images

Drive back in time on this 444-mile scenic road offering a great combination of outdoorsy pursuits (hiking, biking, horseback riding), educational/cultural stops (Native American mounds, an inn from 1780, Sunken Trace), and natural beauty (Cypress Swamp, Jackson Falls, spring wildflowers). It roughly follows a historic travel and trade route used by foraging bison, Native Americans, Kaintucks, European settlers, soldiers, and famed explorer Meriweather Lewis. It begins just outside of Nashville, ends in Natchez, Miss., and zags into Alabama. Managed by the National Park Service, the visitor center is in Tupelo but the Trace can be entered at many points. Spend a day exploring and stay at either end.

07 of 20

RIVERSPORT OKC, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

riversport oklahoma city

It's more like OK Sea after spending the day at the wet-and-wild adventure park, which also happens to be an official U.S. Olympic and Paralympic training compound for rowing, kayaking, and canoeing. Located alongside the Oklahoma River in the Boathouse District, RIVERSPORT has a continuous wave for surfing and several manmade rapids courses, on which the whole family can try their luck at whitewater rafting, tubing, and kayaking. If you'd prefer to stay dry, shred on the indoor ski simulator, pop wheelies in the bike park and skills trail, touch the sky on the six-story Sky Trail ropes course, climbing walls, or the zip-line. The next neighborhood over, Bricktown, has hotels, restaurants, a ballpark, Brickopolis (mini golf, laser tag, arcade), and nightlife as well as water taxi cruises—some have a historic theme while others include a concert—in the canal.

08 of 20

Greenville, South Carolina

Greenville South Carolina
DenisTangneyJr/Getty Images

It's easy being green in Greenville as there are a ton of parks including the stunning Falls Park on the Reedy (head to Liberty Bridge to photograph the waterfalls at the center of town.), the Linky Park children's garden with interactive displays, a mountain bike skills park, waterparks that host dog-only sessions, and the memorial park where Shoeless Joe Jackson is buried. (There's also a museum in the baseball player's former home.) Ditch the car and take the free trolley around a bustling downtown and to the brand new 60-acre Unity Park with its 4,100 square-foot splash pad, art gallery, and outdoor classroom. The 22-mile car-free Swamp Rabbit Trail , which converted and beautified an abandoned rail line, connects Greenville to the neighboring hamlets of Fountain Inn, Travelers Rest, and Furman as well as Conestee Nature Preserve and the zoo. Spring through fall, Noma Square hosts free live music, yoga classes, and a Saturday market outside. It also costs nothing to wander around looking at the more than 100 pieces of public art sprinkled throughout the city.

09 of 20

Camp Fimfo, Texas

Guadalupe River Tubing
Robbie Caponetto

This is not your grandpa's campground. The sprawling New Braunfels spread between San Antonio and Austin is probably even next level compared to places you pitched a tent as a kid. There are so many accommodation types (tent sites, RV spots, A-frames with mini-fridges, cabins that sleep up to 12) and amenities—water slides for both younger moppets and their older, braver siblings, a pool with private cabanas, limo carts to get around, a coffee station, mini-golf, swim-up bar, playground, food trucks, a jumping pillow, hot tubs, restaurants with craft brews, gem mining, workshops, yard games, and courts for pickle ball, volleyball, tennis, and basketball—that you can hardly call it roughing it. To top it all off, there's the location next to the float-tastic Guadalupe River and minutes from Hill Country wineries and the oldest dance hall in Texas ( Gruene Hall ).

10 of 20

Lexington, Kentucky

Lexington, Kentucky
Getty Images

The Bluegrass State is known the world over for bourbon and broncos. As these breaks are supposed to have all-ages energy, we'll stick to the latter. Louisville's Churchill Downs hosts the annual Derby while the Cerulean Farm in Shelbyville encourages guests to B.Y.O.H (bring your own horse). Humans stay in equine-themed rooms while ponies board in the barn. Lexington, though, is an all day, every day horseplay kind of joint starting with the iconic Keeneland track. Watch morning workouts for free, take a guided tour of the grounds, snap photos in the winner's circle, and stay for the races where BETologists can school you on how betting works and picking winners. Go behind the scenes of the thoroughbred business to see how they are bred, raised, trained, and taken care of when their racing days are behind them through Horse Country, a collective of farms, equine medical clinics, adoption centers, and retirement homes offering tours and experiences. To celebrate its 50th anniversary, non-profit LexArts is bringing back Horse Mania, a city-wide parade of 72 artist-decorated stallion statues, for a third time. The new iteration will be up through mid-November before being auctioned off in December. Life-sized bronzes have taken up permanent residence at Thoroughbred Park.

11 of 20

Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Eureka Springs
JeremyMasonMcGraw.com/Getty Images

Finding safe spaces and seeing welcoming faces is key when traveling as an LGBTQ+ entourage, which is why you should consider what CNN called the "Bible Belt's LGBTQ oasis" and The Advocate dubbed "the gayest small town in America." Even the streets aren't straight as none of them cross at right angles. Long known as an artist enclave, Eureka Springs doesn't limit pride to June instead throwing three annual diversity weekends. There's a lot of opportunity to support small queer-owned businesses like Nibbles Eatery, Just Bee Coffee Bar, Spring Street Pottery, or Wanderoo Lodge , a modernized motor inn with what's rumored to be the largest pool in the state and an onsite outfitter to rent kayaks and SUP for the nearby river. As the name implies, the Ozarks community is also known for natural therapeutic cold springs of which there are about 60 within city limits. Ghost tours, The Great Passion Play , monthly all-ages drag shows and brunches (the ladies of the 37-year-old Eureka Live club also wander the town on Saturdays greeting tourists!), or art walks can fill out your itinerary.

12 of 20

Gulf State Park, Alabama

Gulf State Park
Photo by Billy Pope via Flickr/Outdoor Alabama

Nine ecosystems are represented in this gorgeous 6,150-acre park in Gulf Shores. The best way to see all this biodiversity—from alligators to yaupon holly—is along 28 miles of paved trails and boardwalks and the best way to hit those trails is on two wheels and the best way to secure a ride is the park's complimentary bike share. (Riders need to be 15 and older though children's cruisers can be rented from Beach Bike Rentals.) No matter what time of year you roll through, you'll be rewarded with a variety of wildflowers and birds. A less strenuous way to meet the residents is at the nature center. Littles can learn to fish at the Angler Academy and your family's favorite fur friend can run free at the Dog Pond. Bunk down in cabins, at campgrounds, or The Lodge at Gulf State Park , which sits on some of the park's 3.5 miles of coastline and implements numerous earth-friendly initiatives like passive cooling, HVAC condensation collecting, and migrating bird-safe windows.

13 of 20

Birmingham, Alabama

Birmingham Magic City Arch Covered in Flowers
Courtesy Melany B. Robinson

Birmingham, Alabama, is great city for a family road trip as it's situated just 2 hours west of Atlanta, 1.5 hours south of Huntsville, and an hour north of Tuscaloosa. Once you've arrived in the Magic City, a car will come in handy as you'll have plenty of ground to cover. Kids will especially enjoy a Barons baseball game , trip to The Birmingham Zoo , and an iMax movie or class at the McWane Science Center . For the whole fam, make time for a visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and a short hike up to the Vulcan State Park and Museum . Ready for an education break? Be sure to hit up the local breweries ( Avondale Brewery and Back Forty Beer Co . are two Southern Living faves), BBQ joints ( Carlile's has been a staple since 1945), and unique haunts with cheap eats (like the Garage , the city's original beer garden).

14 of 20

Linville, North Carolina

Linville Falls in western North Carolina is one of the most popular waterfalls along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Kate Silvia / Alamy Stock Photo

Grandfather Mountain is calling and the whole fam must go to brave the America's highest suspension footbridge atop Linville Peak. Built 70 years ago, it swings (ever so slightly!) more than a mile above sea level across an 80-foot chasm, sings like a harmonica when the wind blows, and provides spectacular views of the Southern Appalachians. But that's not the only treasure this UNESCO biosphere reserve holds. The new Wilson Center doubles the size and modernizes the exhibits of the old nature center. Massive wildlife enclosures let you safely observe bears, elk, eagles, otters, and cougars, which sadly are so endangered that they no longer roam these alps, in their natural habitat. Nearby, the visitor center to the Linn Cove Viaduct , an engineering marvel that was consciously built to preserve the fragile ecosystem that surrounds it, provides a quick engineering and environmentalism lesson and you can spelunk in Linville Caverns inside Humpback Mountain where a rare trout species lives in an underground stream. There's also gorgeous hiking and rock climbing in the fee-free Linville Gorge Wilderness.

15 of 20

Assateague and Chincoteague Islands, Maryland and Virginia

Assateague Island
Todd Wright

Horsin' around these barrier islands is a vacation you and your brood won't soon forget between the wide windswept beaches, maritime museums where you'll be regaled with captivating legends of super storms and shipwrecks, picnics heavily seasoned with Old Bay beside salt marshes brimming with birds, clamming hauls, boardwalk strolls under swaying loblolly pines, off-roading in the sand, and ample opportunities to watch the wild ponies the region is famous for prancing in plain view. Every July since 1926, spectators gather to witness saltwater cowboys round up horses and swim them across the shallow channel from one island to the other for auction. Most of the Maryland side of Assateague is a national seashore presided over by the NPS while Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is the domain of the U.S. Fish Wildlife Service. Try Ocean City, Maryland, or the city of Chincoteague when it comes time to settle in for the night as both provide all levels of hotel.

16 of 20

Sebring, Florida

sebring florida

Less than three hours by car from Orlando, Tampa, and Miami, The City on the Circle—so nicknamed because of its downtown's round layout surrounding a circular central park—is dotted with numerous lakes, orange groves, and golf courses. Highlands Hammock , where an elevated boardwalk extends over a cypress swamp and a tram takes older guests around with ease, is Florida's oldest state park. Lucky visitors might catch a glimpse of the elusive panther. If that doesn't get your motor running, spend a day at the track at Sebring International Raceway , North America's oldest permanent road racing facility and home of an annual 12-hour Le Mans-like endurance race. If your family prefers sipping to speeding, grab a cool treat at Sebring Soda & Ice Cream Works , which organizes a soda festival every April. By day, families can taste around 200 craft and classic sodas, listen to live music, and get their faces painted. By night, adults can pop in to taste cocktails created with spirits and soda.

17 of 20

Avery Island, Louisiana

Avery Island (Louisiana)
Getty Stephen Saks/Getty Images

Trying to have a hot family summer? Take a road trip to the home of TABASCO which, despite the name, isn't an island at all. Rather, it's a large salt dome along the Louisiana coast surrounded by wetlands roughly three miles inland from Vermilion Bay. It has been the headquarters of the hot sauce since Edmund McIlhenny came up with the original red recipe 154 years ago. Still in the family and made basically the same way five generations later, foodies can tour the museum and factory, the pepper greenhouse, the barrel cooperage (It ages like wine!), and a recreated salt mine. Culinary experiences like cooking demos, Cajun/Acadiana tastings, and a build-your-own bloody Mary bar further heat up visits. Taste-test all nine varieties at the restaurant and products only found there like TABASCO ice cream and soda at the country store. The compound also includes McIlhenny's prized gardens and a snowy egret rookery (Bird City).

18 of 20


Kruck20/Getty Images

Curious about #vanlife but not interested in committing to camper ownership? Try renting one through this large national online community of leisure vehicle owners . It's basically Airbnb for pop-ups, toy haulers, travel trailers, 5th wheels, and class A-C motorhomes. Available in a wide variety of sizes (invite the whole extended fam!), luxury levels, and price points, renters can task themselves with driving to and from their destination or have stationary units delivered directly to the campsite of their choosing. Some owners will even let you bring pets along for the ride. Some good spots to check out: Sun Outdoors near presidential fave Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, historic Route 66 near Tulsa , or the just-opened Parrot Head paradise, Camp Margaritaville , in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. (Seriously, that RV park is next level with a dog park, waterslide, duckpin bowling, an arcade, and complimentary cable and wi-fi.) The service is available in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

19 of 20

The Waterfall Trail, West Virginia

the waterfall trail

Ignore TLC's advice and go chasing waterfalls in the Mountain State where the first-ever official statewide trail and digital passport makes the jaw-dropping journey easy to complete. (While supplies last, there are even prizes for checking out between three and 20 of the cascades listed.) Though more than 200 waterfalls plunge dramatically in these parts known by locals as "almost heaven," the official trail encapsulates roughly two dozen from well-known natural wonders like Blackwater, Campbell, or Sandstone Falls to more secluded hidden gems like Boone County's Drawdy or Finn's in New River Gorge National Park (a recent addition to the NPS). On the way to each, enjoy picturesque country roads, spirited small towns, and the occasional luxury hotel with an infinity pool and its own on-property brewery ( Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown).

20 of 20

Houston, Texas

Houston Mural
Birdman photos

Wanna trick the littles into learning something while they're out of school? First, get plant proficient at the 120-acre Houston Botanic Garden with a variety of workshops (Meditation With Herbs and monthly plant-based cooking classes) or by enrolling in immersive BotaniCamp (for kindergarten through fifth grade). Blast off to NASA's Space Center Houston where they might be inspired to become an astronaut especially if you spend the night camped out under a rocket doing STEM activities and tours with experts. The Miller Outdoor Theatre concerts and movie screenings at Historic Market Square Park add arts appreciation. Even the Marriott Marquis Houston 's rooftop lazy river in the shape of the Lone Star State can become a geography lesson.

Updated by
Carrie Bell
Carrie Bell

Carrie Bell is a lifestyle journalist who writes about travel, food, weddings, honeymoons, wellness, and wine. She works for a variety of bridal titles like Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, Bridal Guide, and California Wedding Day, as well as generalist websites such as Fodor's, Private Air, POPSUGAR, Seattle Magazine, LiveStrong, and Reader's Digest. She has also covered entertainment for People, Yahoo, Entertainment Weekly, and Vulture. She is based in California, but spends much of her time on the road researching and exploring for whatever travel story she's working on next.

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