Best "Free" Family Vacations

family playing with bubbles

At a time when many families are tightening their belts and trimming back their budgets, vacations may have gotten pushed off the top of the agenda. But if you decide to plan a vacation, and you’re looking to get a lot of bang for your buck, you’ve got plenty of choices. In fact, several of the country’s top destinations have plenty to do for free. Below are just a few ideas to get you started on low- or no-cost attractions to keep the kids busy all summer long. Now all you have to do is get there.

Washington D.C.

There’s probably no other city in the world that has quite as many high-quality, kid-friendly, free things to do as Washington D.C. All you have to do is take a stroll down the Mall (the pedestrian-only green space in the heart of the capital) to see some of the world’s greatest museums for free. You’ll find everything from the National Air and Space Museum, to the National Gallery of Art, to the American History Museum, to the Natural History Museum – and more – for free. They are all under the umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution. While you’re at it, don’t forget to stop by the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Capitol building, and even the White House (it’s best if you can arrange your visit through your congressional representative ahead of time). And when you need a break from all of the politics and history, head further uptown to the National Zoo, which is, of course, free.

mom and child at museum

New York City

Sure, you can spend mega-bucks to see New York, but there’s also plenty to do for free. Take Central Park, for example – there’s 843 acres of beautiful open space to enjoy all summer long. (Don’t forget to check the summer calendar for free concerts and events.) It’s free to get into the New York Public Library, where you can admire the astounding architecture and browse the collections and exhibits. If you want a “you can say you’ve been there” kind of experience, check out the sights at Rockefeller Center or Times Square. Even better, take a ride (for free!) on the Staten Island Ferry, from which you’ll be able to see all sorts of sights around the harbor, including the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

Las Vegas

Bringing kids to Las Vegas? Why not? There’s plenty to see and do aside from the casinos. And the main drag down the center of town, known as the Strip, is such a spectacle it’s enough to keep the kids fascinated for hours. You can check out the fountain shows at Caesars and the Bellagio, the lion habitat at MGM Grand, the pirate battle at Treasure Island, the volcano at the Mirage, the wildlife habitat at the Flamingo, or the Grand Canal at the Venetian – just to name a few. For even more ideas, check out the free attractions page at Bonus travel tip: Plan to stay Sunday night to Thursday night to get the best hotel deals. Just make sure you don’t go and gamble away all the money you save.

sharks in aquarium

Los Angeles

If it’s Hollywood-style glitz and glamour you’re looking for, you’re sure to find it in Los Angeles – and you don’t have to pay movie-star prices. You can take a stroll down the Hollywood Walk of Fame or cruise through Beverly Hills without paying a dime. Other unique (and free) attractions include the Venice Beach boardwalk, the Santa Monica pier, the Getty Center and Getty Villa museums, the La Brea Tar Pits, and the California Science Center. For a slice of old-time Los Angeles history (with lively Mexican-style music, food, and shopping), visit historic Olvera Street.

San Francisco

Here’s another city that offers plenty to do and see for free. For starters, you can’t go wrong walking, biking, or even looking at the amazing Golden Gate Bridge. Or you can take in a multitude of sights at Fisherman’s Wharf – from the vibrant street performers to the lounging sea lions. Other colorful sights include Lombard Street (the “world’s crookedest street”), Chinatown, the cable cars, and the view from Telegraph Hill.

If you’re not going to make it to one of these big cities this summer, there’s still plenty to do for free wherever you may travel. Consider hiking or camping at national and state parks; most have low- or no-cost entry and parking. Find out which museums have “free days” during the summer, and/or look for free concerts to entertain the family. Wherever you go, or even if you stay home, visit the local farmers’ market for great food and a sense of community. Or turn the tables completely and set up a lemonade stand so your kids can make some money – and save up for the next vacation.

Also see's Art News Blog: How to Bring Kids to a Museum Without Losing Your Mind