My husband and I have a goal of taking our three children to all 50 states by the time they graduate from high school. Already, our two daughters – who are 14 and 12 – have visited nearly half of the states. And our son, who is just 7 years old, has been to 16.
Our adventures across the U.S. have taken us to a lot of cool places – some cheaper than others. But even with pricier trips, we’ve taken steps to keep vacation costs down as much as possible. Here are our favorite places to visit and how we’ve made them more affordable.
When you think of cool places to visit with the family, St. Louis probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind. But my kids have loved our trips to this Midwestern city, which is just a five-hour drive from where we live. Plus, it’s an inexpensive city to visit.
For starters, there are lots of free and fun things to do. The Saint Louis Zoo is free, has more than 16,000 animals and is in a beautiful setting. Just know that there are fees for certain zoo attractions. The Saint Louis Science Center – which has more than 700 hands-on exhibits – is also free, but there are fees for the Imax theater, planetarium and special exhibitions. Admission to the Saint Louis Art Museum is free as well.
One of my kids’ favorite free spots in St. Louis is the Citygarden, a 2.9-acre park with 24 sculptures and three fountains. Kids can splash in the water features, which include a shallow pool with a waterfall and a spray plaza with 102 jets. There are even pool monitors to make sure kids stay safe.
In addition to free entertainment, there are several affordable options. The City Museum, which charges just $16.45 for admission, is the best kids’ museum I’ve ever visited – and I’ve been to a lot – because it’s fun for everyone. You can also take a tram to the top of the Gateway Arch – you know, that giant arch on the banks of the Mississippi River – for $12 per adult, $8 per child. On the Fourth of July, there’s a spectacular fireworks show near the arch, making it a great time to visit.
Road trip through the Southwestern states
My eldest daughter’s favorite trip was one we took over a two-week period when she was 6, moving through Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. The key to saving money on this trip was camping – lots of camping.
We flew into Phoenix on Southwest Airlines, which lets you check two bags for free per person, so we didn’t have to pay baggage fees for our camping gear. On our trip, we visited several national parks, monuments and forests such as the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Camping fees vary from park to park, but the most we paid was $26 per night in Rocky Mountain National Park.
The key to saving money when visiting several national parks or federal recreation lands is to get an $80 annual pass because the entrance fee for individual parks is usually around $15 to $30. And we only did free activities, such as hiking and scenic drives.
The highlight of the trip wasn’t the Grand Canyon but rather Great Sand Dunes National Park, which has the tallest dunes in North America. Yes, sand dunes in Colorado right in the middle of a mountain range. In late May and June, it becomes the perfect beach for kids because melting snow from the mountains creates a creek through the dunes. The water is shallow, so even small children can play in it safely.