A family enjoys a stroll through San Diego's beautiful Balboa Park. — Photo courtesy of Joanne DiBona
Everyone from Grandma to toddlers to the family teen will find something exciting to see and do in San Diego’s Balboa Park---and the good news is that much of the fun is FREE. You can park free, take a free tram ride around the park, and enjoy jugglers, mimes, and musicians as you stroll along the lovely promenades. All sorts of exotic plants can be admired in the Botanical Building, and the park boasts creative playgrounds, hiking paths, fountains and pools, and (for a small fee) a ride on a vintage carousel or miniature railroad.
Costa Rican Clown — Photo courtesy of Bob Betzen
In San Jose, Costa Rica, a fun way to spend the day in San Jose with the family is a trip to La Sabana Park. So large that it was the site of the country's international airport for over forty years, La Sabana has been restored into a verdant green oasis aptly dubbed the "lungs of the city." In addition to the picturesque lake, picnic benches, and tree-lined paths, there may be concerts, sporting events and cultural festivals going on. Admission is free.
The chocolate assembly line at Cerreta Candy Company in Glendale, Arizona — Photo courtesy of Cerreta Candy Company
The whole family will be wide-eyed with wonder with a visit to Cerreta Candy Company, a family-owned chocolate factory in the heart of downtown Glendale, Arizona, just west of Phoenix. Come see how cream centers are enrobed in creamy chocolate, or how a sea of caramel is transformed into chewy, individually wrapped treats. Experience the magic of old-fashioned candy-making by taking one of Cerreta Candy Company’s free guided tours, offered Monday through Friday at 10am and 1pm. Free samples are included as part of the tour.
Neptune Inn on Fort Myers Beach — Photo courtesy of Courtesy of Neptune Inn
Fort Myers Beach, Florida has miles of sugary white beaches and weather that's typically warmer than anywhere in the U.S. Hotel rates in southwest Florida don't go up until a week before Christmas, so early December presents huge bargains. Nearby Lover's Beach offers kayaking and nature trails. And downtown's Times Square Area has ice cream shops, street performers working for tips, and a huge fishing pier that's free for exploring. Find an inexpensive skim board for the kids, a cheap paperback for yourself, and soak up some early December sun in southwest Florida. RSW Airport is served by low-cost carriers Southwest, Allegiant and Airtran; Tampa, Miami and Lauderdale airports are only 2 hours by car.
Recreation in Baltimore's Inner Harbor — Photo courtesy of Shown By Photos
Indeed, traveling as a family can easily get expensive but it doesn’t have to be if you plan strategically. One of the best ways to get the most bang for your family travel dollars is to coordinate your activities around a central location, hence limiting transportation costs. Baltimore’s Inner Harbor offers at least five worthwhile attractions within walking distance from area hotels, thus eliminating the need for rental cars and taxi fares. Travelers wishing to fill their itinerary with budget and family-friendly attractions can do so within a 5-mile radius.
Inner Harbor Amphitheater — Photo courtesy of Mr. T in D.C.
If all else fails and you’re at the end of your wallet’s ropes, picnic with the family in the Harbor’s amphitheater where you can lounge on the stairs, enjoy the harbor view, watch locals and other visitors, or enjoy the occasional outdoor entertainment - all for free.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, most of the best attractions are free and fun for all of the family. Hike or mountain bike the miles of singletrack trails that thread through the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. Park for free at the east end of Spain or Montgomery roads (fee parking is available at the Elena Gallegos Picnic Area or Sandia Tramway). This year-round activity is great at sunset, when the Sandias turn their famous watermelon pink color. You’ll see mule deer, coyotes and even the occasional rattlesnake, so be on the lookout for wildlife. Mountain bikers will enjoy on of the best trail systems in the country.
Trails also line the Rio Grande Bosque, accessed through several free parking areas (http://www.cabq.gov/openspace/riograndevalley.html), or visit the impressive Rio Grande Nature Center ($5 per vehicle, http://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/prd/rgnc.htm). As you walk through the cottonwoods, look for sandhill cranes, Canada geese, bald eagles and other species of birds that call the bosque home.
At Petroglyph National Monument ($1 per vehicle weekdays; $2 weekends), search for ancient symbols pecked into the dark basalt by Native Americans centuries ago, and marvel at their meaning (http://www.nps.gov/petr/index.htm). More than 24,000 of the images depicts humans, animals and symbols thought to represent nature and supernatural concepts, though their meaning is a mystery to us.
Hot Tip for Moms and Dads
Besides visiting attractions in a limited radius, the best way to vacation on a budget is to be resourceful. Search the internet for special admissions pricing to area attractions. Companies like Target have special family programs such as the one they offer in partnership with Baltimore's Port Discovery (for $2 on the 3rd Friday of the month from 4-7pm). Baltimore’s National Aquarium also offers discounts and promotions on its website, like the “Fridays After Five” promotion that runs from September through March (all basic aquarium admission tickets are only $8 for entry 5pm or later on Fridays).