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9 Affordable Back-to-School Weekend Vacation Ideas
Travel-savvy parents share top fall escapes for enticing deals, few crowds and pleasant temperatures.
Make the most of your autumn days with a memorable family getaway.
With the start of the academic year fast approaching or already beginning, now is the time to plot an easy weekend escape with the gang, before the kids are tied up with demanding school schedules and extracurricular activities. Whether you want to explore America's prized national parks, embark on a history-driven trip to enjoy enrichment outside the classroom or skip town for an urban escape, there are plenty of places to pique all interests. Even better, autumn promises dwindling crowds and attractive seasonal deals, including reduced hotel, flight and attraction rates. Read on to discover top back-to-school getaway ideas to fuel your inspiration.
While San Diego offers year-round appeal for budget-minded families, thanks to consistently warm, dry weather and cost-effective attractions, fall is the perfect time to clinch a bargain, says Karen Cicero, a contributing nutrition and travel editor for Parents Magazine. Throughout October, the city offers its Kids Free San Diego promotion, granting entry to more than 100 attractions, including the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and SeaWorld San Diego. Typically visitors ages 3 to 11 can enjoy free access to city attractions when accompanied by a full-paying adult, though rules vary by attraction, so consult the San Diego Tourism Authority website. What's more, with the promotion, you can also enjoy savings at select restaurants and hotels, Cicero adds.
If you're raising history- and "Hamilton"-loving kids, Williamsburg offers an idyllic fall escape to "bring what your kids are learning about to life," Cicero says. With plenty of reenactments in Colonial Williamsburg, along with impressive museums like the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, Williamsburg offers immersive and enriching experiences. "Hamilton" enthusiasts can enjoy a recreation of the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, before dabbling in recreational pursuits like a ropes course at Go Ape Freedom Park, she adds. Best of all, the area is easily accessible by car from most East Coast cities, and finding budget-friendly accommodations is a breeze. Kayak.com currently lists three-star hotels for under $100 a night for four from Sept. 15-17.
Park City, Utah
By September, crowds have dissipated in Park City, ushering in the pleasant and inexpensive shoulder season, explains family travel expert Amy Tara Koch. She points to the Grand Summit Hotel, located in Canyons Village, as an ideal lodging choice for families. Apart from reduced post-summer lodging rates (goSeek.com currently lists three-star hotels offering nightly rates under $100 in September), you can also enjoy recreational pursuits beyond the resort, such as rafting, kayaking and canoeing, she adds. What's more, because of the area's high elevation, you can catch dazzling fall foliage displays in mid-September she adds. Google Flights currently lists round-trip routes for under $230 from Chicago airports and around $150 from Los Angeles International Airport in September.
Glamping close to a national park.
If top national parks such as Zion National Park or Glacier National Park are high on your list but you don't want to spring for a high-end glamping experience, Koch advises booking more cost-effective lodging with company Under Canvas. The rustic tents are less expensive and less crowded than other accommodations nearby, she explains. A "Safari Tent" outside of Glacier National Park, for example, includes a private bathroom, four twin beds, a wood-burning stove and linens and towels starting at $199 per night from Sept. 15-17. Even better, prior to your trip, the Under Canvas staff can coordinate your itinerary and arrange a few must-do expeditions with local outfitters.
The Windy City charms families year-round with its world-class museums, zoo and architecture. However, if you want mild weather conditions and discounted hotel rooms and flight tickets, autumn is an ideal time to visit. For a quintessential Chicago experience, Koch recommends splurging on tickets to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. Other must-do experiences include strolling along the lakefront, checking out The Bean at Millennium Park and taking an architecture cruise down the Chicago River. If you have time to spare, make your way to the Shedd Aquarium, which houses more than 32,000 animals. As for accommodations, goSeek.com shows nightly rates for four guests for under $200 from Sept. 22-24. What's more, Google Flights lists round-trip routes from New York City airports for under $150 in September.
Charleston, South Carolina
For a blend of history, recreation and top-notch Southern dining, set your sights on Charleston, Koch says. In autumn, you can embrace Charleston's storied monuments, antebellum homes, cobblestone walks and low-country cuisine without contending with the sweltering heat and humidity of the summer season. After enjoying a history lesson at the Nathaniel Russell House, you and your crew can enjoy swimming and surfing at Folly Beach and indulge in excellent Southern fare that's top-rated and less expensive than many urban destinations, Koch adds. What's more, free family-friendly activities abound, from Charleston City Market to the Battery. Google Flights currently lists round-trip flights from airports near the District of Columbia for under $150 in September.
St. Petersburg, Florida
For a laid-back beach break with some cultural and educational activities, consider retreating to kid-friendly St. Pete's, Cicero says. If your youngsters are fans of the 2011 film "Dolphin Tale," make your way to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to meet Winter and spot other creatures, including stingrays and sea turtles. While hurricane season – from June to November – can be a deterrent for visiting in fall, this period also offers a variety of lively festivals and seasonal events, including the Clearwater Jazz Holiday and the Clearwater Chalk Art Festival in October. If you're traveling with a budding art enthusiast, don't miss the Salvador Dalí Museum. As for lodging, consider the budget-friendly Postcard Inn on the Beach, which offers rates for two adults and two kids for under $170 per night from Sept. 8-11.
Incorporate enrichment and recreation on a jaunt to Indianapolis, where you and the gang can explore a sprawling zoo, check out the world's largest children's museum and zip through the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Hall of Fame Museum, Cicero says. In Indianapolis, you'll find activities catering to all interests and age groups, from sports-obsessed teens to art-adoring youngsters. If you and the crew love baseball, catch a game at Victory Field before exploring interactive exhibits on display at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis or enjoying some downtime strolling along the Indiana Central Canal. Best of all for cost-conscious families: Google Flights shows round-trip routes to Indianapolis from New York City and Chicago airports for under $200 in September.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
For fresh, crisp air and beautiful autumn hues, Cicero suggests planning a fall family road trip to Shenandoah National Park. You and the kids can enjoy hiking and biking on the Appalachian Trail, along with prime leaf-peeping opportunities as you cruise along the picturesque 105-mile Skyline Drive. For more active pursuits, you can enjoy horseback riding and fishing before heading to kid-friendly campgrounds or making your way to Charlottesville, Virginia, about 50 miles from Skyline Drive's Swift Run Gap entrance, or to the District of Columbia, approximately 70 miles from the park's Front Royal entrance. You can bask in plenty of fall foliage and family bonding on an easy and affordable drive, Cicero adds.
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