By the time spring break rolls around, lots of people are ready for a serious change of pace. The laws of supply and demand make many popular spring break destinations off limits for frugal vacationers, but there are deals to be found for families and students willing to look beyond the usual options. With appealing destinations across the country, there's bound to be a fun spring break trip within driving distance.
Vermont is chock-full of ski resorts, organic farms, and maple syrup, a winning trifecta for many vacationers. Farms such as the Sugarbush Cheese and Maple Farm in Woodstock demonstrate how maple trees are tapped and syrup is boiled down. In early spring, biking, hiking, and even horse rides become options throughout the state and skiers can find discounted rates.
The nation's capital abounds with inexpensive activities that appeal to families and students alike. The monuments and Smithsonian Institution museums are always free, and the city takes on a special glow during the annual Cherry Blossom Festival beginning March 20. Just across the Potomac River, free sightseeing in Arlington, Virginia, includes Arlington National Cemetery, with the Tomb of the Unknowns and John F. Kennedy's gravesite; the Marine Corps War Memorial commemorating the Battle of Iwo Jima; and the Pentagon Memorial.
Biloxi, along the Gulf Coast, is one of the South's hidden gems. The city offers sun, sand, and plenty of gambling. Get some history at the 1848 Biloxi Lighthouse (tours are $5 for adults or $2 for students) and find entertainment five minutes' drive away at the Big Play Family Fun Center, where there's mini-golf (18 holes for $7, or $3 for children 5 and younger) and an adventure park (all-day wristbands are $12). Culture awaits at the Pleasant Reed House and Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, where an emancipated slave craftsman and famed potter are honored in a complex designed by architect Frank Gehry. Combo tickets are $8.
A trip out of the country doesn't usually make for a cheap spring break, but some European-style charm can be enjoyed surprisingly close to home. Head up to Montreal and stroll through the city's historic center, featuring cobblestone streets and stunning architecture. Every Canadian dollar spent costs less than 75 cents at the current exchange rate. Free attractions include Mile End, a neighborhood filled with artistic delights; St. Patrick's Basilica; and Tohu, a circus venue with free spring break activities for kids.
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Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
A true beach vacation on a budget is not out of the question, especially in a versatile and affordable place such as Myrtle Beach. With an abundance of golf and mini-golf facilities, amusement parks, water parks, and restaurants, the beach town makes it possible to choose your own budget. Myrtle Beach also boasts more than 60 miles of waterfront with plenty of beach relaxation that doesn't cost a dime.
For foodies looking for new sensations, this is a unique and affordable destination. Street food has become a phenomenon in the City of Roses, making interesting and inexpensive meals easy to find. Coffeehouses and microbreweries are plentiful and provide restful pit stops between trips to the farmers market, city parks, and free museums.
Sanibel Island, Florida
Known for white sand, abundant seashells, and crystal blue water, this is an appealing and affordable beach destination compared with the state's party-centric spring break hotspots. February to April is high season, when the weather is at its peak. While there are plenty of upscale hotels on the island, travelers on a budget will find plenty of comfortable accommodations.
The wet season typically ends around March, just in time for spring break. One of the most popular destinations in this culture-filled town is Pike Place Market, where more than 200 vendors make browsing just as fun as buying. The Frye Art Museum, a 10-minute drive away and accessible by public transportation, is free.
The average temperature in April is in the low 70s, good weather for exploring the city and nearby mountains. For outdoor activities, the Cumberland River Valley is a popular place to hike. Shelby Bottoms, Stones River Bend Park, and the Old Hickory Dam provide scenery and natural attractions. At night, it's easy to find dozens of cafes and venues with live country music for a small cover charge, or the cost of some food or drinks.
Best known for horse racing and bluegrass music, this can be a family-friendly destination with sites such as the Louisville Slugger Museum and the city's popular historic district. The Kentucky Derby Museum, where admission includes a walking tour of the legendary Churchill Downs Racetrack, is a must (save $1 a ticket by buying online).
Yosemite National Park, California
The National Park Service is celebrating its centennial this year. Yosemite features epic views of granite cliffs and breathtaking waterfalls. Adventure-seeking families can camp, hike, and climb at any time of year and take advantage of free shuttle service in Yosemite Valley.
Explore this Southern city's history and culture at the Birmingham Museum of Art, 16th Street Baptist Church, and Civil Rights Institute (ask about discounts for seniors and students). Head to the top of the tower at the Vulcan Park and Museum for a unique (and cheap) view of the city.
Grand Canyon, Arizona
This is a bucket-list destination that doesn't have to be expensive. A trip of hiking, biking, driving, and camping doesn't cost much more than the price of food and other necessities, and spring sees some of the best weather. Although it gets cold at night and the North Rim is closed until May, the South Rim is the most popular destination and receives visitors year-round. Reservations are recommended.
Everglades National Park, Florida.
The nation's largest subtropical wilderness is enjoying its dry season during spring break, with comfortable temperatures, few biting insects, and lots of activity. For $20 a car, a family can spend up to seven days exploring mangrove swamps, cypress forests, and all the wildlife in between. The park is home to crocodiles, manatees, and more than 350 species of birds and 300 species of fresh and saltwater fish.
Attending a race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is expensive, but a bus tour of the track and admission to the Auto Racing Hall of Fame costs much less. The combo ticket is $30 for adults but only $12 for ages 6 to 15, and children 5 and under get in free. Indianapolis also boasts a famed children's museum.
Baltimore's popular and active Inner Harbor area offers live entertainment, concerts, fireworks, parades, and an abundance of restaurants and shopping. The Baltimore Museum of Art, Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, and Little Italy are free to visit. The Maryland Historical Society museum and library is an all-day trip that costs $9 for adults and $6 for younger visitors.
One perk of going to a city that welcomes the cold weather is there are things to do year-round. Perhaps the best-known is the Mall of America, which is packed with activities including an aquarium, movie theater, and Lego store, in addition to the traditional retail stores for browsing and people-watching. An all-day, unlimited-ride wristband for Nickelodeon Universe is $5 off online and $6 off with a coupon from Subway through March 31.
The Gettysburg National Military Park and its famous battlefield are free to visit, and the park stays open until 10 p.m. beginning April 1. The onsite history museum and its "Treasures of the Civil War" exhibit is $12.50 for each adult and $8.50 for kids 6 to 12. (The privately owned, artifact-packed Gettysburg Museum of History is free but asks donations.) The landmarks and monuments are perhaps best explored via 4- or 10-mile hiking trails.
Charleston, South Carolina
Picture cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, an open city market, and the site of the first shots of the Civil War. Charleston is a charming destination that can be explored on a budget. Check out Free Tours by Foot for walks through the city with ghost, historic, Civil War, and architectural themes.
The Alamo museum is free to visit, and audio tours cost just $7. Nearby and also free of charge are the 11-acre Japanese Tea Garden, with a waterfall and elaborate koi ponds, and the recently expanded River Walk with its shops and restaurants. A riverboat tour is $8.25 for adults and $2 for children ages 1 to 5.
Niagara Falls, Canada
The U.S. and Canadian sides offer different perspectives on the breathtaking falls, which spectators can take in for free from dry land on either side of the border. For visitors with passports, Canada's side offers a glitzier tourist experience, a direct view of the most spectacular falls, and a favorable exchange rate right now.
The shores of Lake Erie offer walking trails and unique architecture, and the local Sandusky Maritime Museum teaches about local shipwrecks, wetlands, and commercial fishing. Admission is for $6 for adults, $5 for children 12 and under, or $14 for an entire family. Drive a half-hour south to visit the plunging Seneca Caverns, which open April 1.
Asheville, North Carolina
Asheville is one of the warmer springtime destinations on this list. Depending on the dates, there may be wildflowers and dogwoods in blossom, as well as more than a dozen farmers markets stocked and ready to enjoy. Check out the downtown art district and Blue Ridge Parkway; it's been named one of the top scenic drives in the country.
Smoky Mountains, Tennessee
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited in the country, with a peak season beginning in June, so a spring break trip is one way to experience this popular destination without the crowds. Spend days fishing, hiking, and relaxing amid scenery teeming with diverse plant and animal life. Take a drive up Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail or visit scenic Gatlinburg, where Smoky Mountain visitors sometimes stay. This mountain resort town is a vacation destination on its own, with good restaurants and a vibrant arts scene.
Point Pleasant, New Jersey
This waterfront town about 70 miles south of New York City boasts an energetic boardwalk and an amusement park that traditionally opens by Easter weekend. An Easter sale March 25-27 includes 2-for-1 ride passes and half-off family admission to the aquarium, miniature golf, and fun house. The town fills up quickly in the summer, but in the springtime, hotel rooms are typically a third of the in-season price.
Beignets and crawfish are calling. The French Quarter Festival, April 7-10, is a good reason to head to the Big Easy for a late spring break. Take in the city's one-of-kind jazz music, free self-guided tours sponsored by the New Orleans Jazz Historical Park, unique Creole-style architecture, and other free and cheap attractions.
After taking a road trip to this coastal city, park the car for good and tour by foot to appreciate cobblestone streets lined by mature oak trees and exuding Southern charm. Spring is a lively time to visit, as the azaleas begin to bloom and River Street comes alive. It's free to visit the McDowell Nature Center and Preserve and hop on a ferry to Hutchinson Island (the ride lasts only two minutes each way but provides gorgeous views of Savannah's historic district and Talmadge Memorial Bridge).
Outer Banks, North Carolina
If the average temperature of almost 70 degrees in April is too cold to surf the waves, it also keeps a lid on crowds and prices. And between the Northern Beaches, Southern Shores, and Hatteras Island, there's still plenty to do here. The Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education and Duck Town Park and Boardwalk will help fill the time for free. The area also features the Wright Brothers National Memorial, an active arts district, and drier beach activities, such as kite flying and nighttime "ghost crabbing."
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