Saving & Spending
Get out of town ... on the cheap
If you're part of the 35 percent of Americans planning to take a summer vacation this year, you're probably also preparing for a major expense. The average vacation costs nearly $1,400 per person, or about $5,600 for a family of four, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But it doesn't have to be that way.
“It's easy to get into that treat-yourself mentality and go crazy," said Hillary Richard, travel writer and author of the travel blog Life with Luggage. “There are a lot of little things you can do when you are planning your vacation or when you are on your vacation so it won't actually feel like sacrifices."
For example, you can cut back on breakfast and save hundreds, she said. Pick a hotel with a free breakfast or grab a bagel to eat while people watching on a park bench.
But her number one tip — the one she calls her “ultimate freebie" — is to simply wander around your vacation spot, chat up the locals and take pictures on your phone's camera.
“It costs nothing to walk and take it all in and observe other people," she said. “It's all totally free and it'll give you some great stories for everybody when you get home."
Check out these other tips for saving money at popular American destinations.
Where to go: New York City
The city has an energy unlike any other, but it can also be pricey if you don't plan ahead.
Visits to each of New York's major landmarks can cost big bucks and eat up much of your vacation time. Instead, consider a boat tour. For around $30, Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises will take you past the Empire State Building, the Freedom Tower and the South Street Seaport. The boat even stops to spin in front of the Statue of Liberty, giving you a better Instagram than you'd ever get standing at the base of Lady Liberty.
If your sea legs are wobbly, put on some comfortable shoes and go see the sights for free. Hiking over the Brooklyn Bridge gives you some of the best views of lower Manhattan and an excuse to treat yourself at the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory. In the trendy Chelsea neighborhood, check out the High Line, an abandoned, elevated railway-turned-park that offers views of the Hudson River, lush gardens and fabulous people watching.
But New York isn't New York without Broadway. Hit up a TKTS booth where you can grab same-day or next-day tickets for as much as 50 percent off. Get in line early and keep track of available tickets with the TKTS app.
One final note on New York City: Take the subway. There are maps everywhere and at $2.75 for a single ride, the subway costs a fraction of a taxi fare.
Where to go: New Orleans, La.
The jazz, the gumbo and the parties lure more than 9 million people each year to laissez les bon temps rouler, according to a 2014 New Orleans Area Visitor Profile study.
Jazz clubs abound in the Crescent City, but you can listen to authentic, toe-tapping music for free by hanging out in front of St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter. Throw a couple of bucks into the donation box and you may get an invite to sit with the band while they play.
Royal Street, Bourbon Street and along the banks of the Mississippi are also great spots to catch street musicians.
For Nicole Haase, who travels often to New Orleans from her Wisconsin home, the mouth-watering New Orleans cuisine is the city's best attraction.
"There's just so much great food in New Orleans that won't break the bank. And there's so many great neighborhood spots," she said. One her of favorites is The Joint in the Bywater neighborhood, where a half-rack of ribs and a side is just $14.25.
"My pick for bang-for-your-buck eating in New Orleans is lunch at Commander's Palace. You feel so important and decadent eating there at lunch time, sipping cocktails," she said. "And there's a $34 three-course classic creole luncheon or a few two-course pairings between $15 to $25. It's always a great mix of society and business and tourists and it's the one restaurant I go back to every time we're in town. "
New Orleans is expansive, so rather than paying for cabs, hop on an open-air street car to branch outside of the French Quarter. For $1.25 each way, you can roll through the Big Easy past the famed above-ground cemeteries or the ornate mansions of St. Charles Avenue.
Mardi Gras is synonymous is with New Orleans, but the city hosts dozens of festivals throughout the year and many of them are free. Late May brings music and traditional New Orleans food to the Bayou Boogaloo along Bayou St. John. And in June, get your dance on at the Louisiana Cajun Zydeco Festival, which highlights the unique music of southern Louisiana.
Where to go: Asheville, N.C.
This burgeoning outdoor paradise is quickly becoming a major destination for outdoorsy types and families alike. This mountain retreat is known for its outdoor sports and booms with trendy restaurants and breweries.
From rafting or tubing down the French Broad River to ziplining across the treetop canopy with breathtaking 360-degree views of the Smoky Mountains, the Nantahala Outdoor Center offers a variety of day packages and discounts for those seeking adventure.
And since you're in the mountains, there's nothing cheaper than hiking — Asheville is home to several waterfalls that are a quick hike away.
Amanda Waltemyer and her husband routinely pack up their two young children and drive to Asheville from their Atlanta, Ga. home for a weekend getaway.
"In order to make these trips more frequently, we have approached the vacation with the mentality of saving in certain areas so we can enjoy others that feed our soul," she said.
"The last trip we took to Asheville, we decided to make it a family camping adventure. We set up camp at Campfire Lodgings versus a hotel stay, which is a huge cost savings," she said, adding that they paid just $40 a night. "We were able to hike the trails, go fishing and truly share a moment as a family."
For a step back in time, head to neighboring Brevard, N.C., where you can find an old-school toy store and the old-fashioned 1950s Rocky's Grill & Soda Shop.
When you make time to explore, there's no shortage of ways to enjoy yourself on the cheap.
Sarah Netter is a writer and TV producer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and ABC News. She lives in New Orleans with her young son and her neurotic Italian Greyhounds. Photo Credits: Iwan_Baan, Sarah Netter, and Nantahala Outdoor Center