American Nomad Blog
About this blog
American Nomad covers the best of U.S. travel—from vacation deals to festivals, weekend getaways, travel tips, and more. A seasoned traveler and Moon author, Laura is the perfect guide to help discover new gems when traveling domestically.
- A Southern Girl's Wintertime Adventure in Yellowstone
- One Novelist's Odyssey Across America
- Gearing up for a Family Camping Trip
- Mint Juleps and More at Oak Alley Plantation
- Avoiding Identity Theft While on Vacation
- Money-Saving Travel Tips from Nomadic Matt
- Fashion, Fun, and Convenience for the Modern Traveler
- In Search of Irish Museums Across America
- The Inspiring Journey of a Solo Kayaker
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 2
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 1
- Experiencing Yosemite with YExplore
- Two Travel Contests Worth Mentioning
- A Word About the TSA's No-No List
- A Reader's Advice About Airport Security
America's Top Bargain Destinations for Summer Travel, Part 1
Earlier today, I told you that I'll be participating in a satellite radio tour this Wednesday morning to discuss America's top 15 budget-friendly destinations for summertime travel. Well, if you're curious about seeing more of this incredible country, and hoping to save a few bucks along the way, consider planning a trip to one of these amazing destinations. Here are the first five of my top picks:
The Florida Keys: Stretching from Key Largo to the Dry Tortugas, the 220-mile-long Florida Keys archipelago offers a cornucopia of budget-friendly distractions, especially those of the outdoor variety. While researching my latest travel guide, Moon Florida Keys, I discovered that, despite the high costs of many hotels and restaurants down here, you'll definitely find some terrific deals. For one thing, the hot summer months technically constitute the off-season, which means many hotels offer discounted rates – such as the Eden House (1015 Fleming St., Key West, 305/296-6868 or 800/533-5397), where you can find a cozy, private room for $125 per night in September.
Of course, southern Florida's state park campgrounds provide even more affordable accommodations for those with tents or RVs (usually under $40 per night for full-hookup sites), not to mention inexpensive activities, such as kayak rentals ($12-17) at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (102601 Overseas Hwy., Key Largo, 305/451-1202 or 305/451-6300, 8 a.m.-sunset daily, $8 vehicles, $4 motorcycles, $2 pedestrians, bicyclists, and extra passengers). Other bargain diversions in the Keys include feeding wild tarpon ($3) at Robbie's of Islamorada (77522 Overseas Hwy., 305/664-8070 or 877/664-8498) and renting bicycles ($12 daily, $60 weekly) from The Bike Shop of Key West (1110 Truman Ave., 305/294-1073, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.). For more information about the Florida Keys, consult the Monroe County Tourist Development Council (1201 White St., Ste. 102, Key West, 305/296-1552 or 800/352-5397) or Jason Ferguson's Moon Florida.
New Orleans, Louisiana: If you've read this blog before, then chances are you already know that I'm from New Orleans – and that I'm a huge fan of this incredible city. What you might not know, however, is that, while New Orleans caters to lots of tourists and therefore has plenty of pricey hotels and restaurants, you'll also find an assortment of affordable options – if you know where to look. In the French Quarter, for instance, you can get reasonably priced muffulettas and jambalaya at Café Maspero (601 Decatur St., 504/523-6250, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat., $3-13), next-to-nothing beignets at Cafe Du Monde (800 Decatur St., 504/525-4544, 24 hrs. daily, $2-4), and inexpensive raw oysters at the Oceana Grill (739 Rue Conti, 504/525-6002, 8 a.m.-1 a.m. Mon.-Sat., $6-26). You can also enjoy free music throughout the Quarter and the nearby Faubourg Marigny. In addition, simply strolling through the Quarter, a National Historic District, constitutes a free architectural tour. If you're looking for a family-friendly option, consider purchasing the Audubon Experience Package (504/581-4629 or 800/774-7394, $35 adults, $20 children 2-12 and seniors 65 and over), which will save adults $21 on admission to the Audubon Zoo (6500 Magazine St., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sun.), Audubon Aquarium of the Americas (1 Canal St., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sun.), Audubon Insectarium (423 Canal St., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sun.), and Entergy IMAX Theatre (1 Canal St., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sun.).
Beyond the Big Easy, you'll find other affordable attractions in southern Louisiana, including a visit to Avery Island (337/365-8173, $1 admission), where TABASCO Pepper Sauce is manufactured. Here, you can visit the on-site country store, take a free tour of the factory (9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily), enjoy free samples and tastings, and explore the year-round Jungle Gardens (Hwy. 329, 337/369-6243, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, $8 adults, $5 children under 13). For more information about New Orleans and the surrounding region, consult the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau (2020 St. Charles Ave., 800/672-6124) or Andrew Collins' Moon New Orleans.
Hot Springs, Arkansas: The main attraction in historic Hot Springs is, of course, Hot Springs National Park (369 Central Ave., 501/620-6715, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily), for which there's no entrance fee. Camping is also inexpensive here ($10 for primitive sites, $24 for full-hookup sites). Naturally, hiking, picnicking, scenic driving, and touring historic bathhouses are all free, and for $55, you can even experience a thermal mineral bath, whirlpool, and Swedish massage at the Buckstaff Bath House (509 Central Ave., 501/623-2308, hours vary seasonally). Of course, this entire town, once the boyhood home to President Bill Clinton, is worth exploring, especially if you appreciate 19th-century and early 20th-century architecture. If you're looking for a romantic getaway, consider a three-night couples-only spa package ($600) at The Gables Inn Bed and Breakfast (318 Quapaw Ave., 800/625-7576), which includes accommodations, breakfast, a 20-minute couples mineral bath, a 50-minute side-by-side massage, and a $40 gift certificate to a local restaurant. To make your money stretch even farther, consider McClard's Bar-B-Q Restaurant (505 Albert Pike, 501/623-9665 or 866/622-5273, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tues.-Sat., $3-12), which offers inexpensive barbecue plates, sandwiches, and tamales.
For a relatively close day trip, head to Crater of Diamonds State Park (209 State Park Rd., 870/285-3113, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily, shorter winter hours, $7 adults, $4 children 6-12), which lies about 90 minutes away in Murfreesboro and offers an ideal diversion for couples and families alike. Here, you can learn about diamond-hunting in the Diamond Discovery Center and search for diamonds in the adjacent field, the world's only diamond mine that's open to the public. For more information about the Hot Springs area, consult the Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau (134 Convention Blvd., 501/321-2835 or 800/772-2489).
Austin, Texas: In spite of high summertime temperatures and humidity, Austin is a terrific town for outdoor enthusiasts, who appreciate free diversions like the 10-mile Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail. In addition, it's free to visit the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge (Congress Ave. and Cesar Chavez St.), where you can watch North America's largest urban bat colony (more than 1.5 million, insect-eating bats) take to the skies around dusk, especially from April to October. Fans of cultural attractions won't be disappointed either. In Austin, the “live music capital of the world,” it's free to visit the Texas Music Museum (1009 E. 11th St., 512/472-8891, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.), where you can learn about the state's musical legends, from blues artists to Willie Nelson. Other free attractions include the Texas State Capitol (112 E. 11th St., 512/305-8400, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat., noon-5 p.m. Sun.) and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum (2313 Red River St., 512/721-0200, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily).
You can save even more money by staying at the Austin Motel (1220 S. Congress Ave., 512/441-1157, $90), by dining on cheap barbecue at Rudy's “Country Store” and Bar-B-Q (2451 S. Capital of Texas Hwy., 512/329-5554, 6 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 7 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sun., $4-7), and by using public transportation (512/474-1200), like the MetroBus ($2 day pass) and MetroRail ($6 day pass), whenever possible. For more information about Austin, consult the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau (301 Congress Ave., Ste. 200, 800/926-2282 or 866/462-8784) or Justin Marler's Moon Austin, San Antonio & the Hill Country.
South Padre Island, Texas: Most people consider South Padre Island (SPI) a Spring Break destination, but this windy barrier island is much more than that. Situated at the southern tip of the Lone Star State, SPI provides a budget-friendly getaway for beach and nature lovers alike. Here, you'll encounter miles and miles of beaches, ideal (and free!) for those who love to swim, comb for seashells and sea beans, play with kites, watch birds and other wildlife, and get away from everything and everyone else, especially on the northern end of the island. For more outdoor fun, the Island Equestrian Center (956/761-4677, $45 hourly) offers a chance to ride horses on the beach, while Colley's Fins to Feathers (956/299-0629, $22.50 per 90 min.) affords an intimate glance at wild birds and dolphins in the surrounding waters.
South Padre also features fairly inexpensive food and lodging, from cheap fried seafood at Daddy's Seafood & Cajun Kitchen (3409 Padre Blvd., 956/761-1975, $9-12) to affordable rooms at Motel 6 (4013 Padre Blvd., 956/761-7911, $90). Getting around South Padre is pretty budget-friendly, too, whether you choose to walk, bike, or drive. For more information about South Padre Island, consult the South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau (7355 Padre Blvd., 800/767-2373) or Andy Rhodes' Moon Texas.
I hope that these suggestions will help as you make your travel plans, and of course, feel free to leave any suggestions of your own in the comments section below. In the meantime, keep an eye out for my next two posts, which will uncover the rest of my top U.S. bargain destinations.
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.
Photo of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park © 2010 Daniel Martone / Text © 2010 Laura Martone