Cheap Vacation Alternatives to Popular Places

Kiplinger

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There's no place in the world like New York. Or Chicago. Or Miami. Or Hawaii. But if you're on a tight travel budget, you can find equally great destinations that offer similar experiences. Often, the trick is to "go smaller," says Tim Leffel, author of The World's Cheapest Destinations. "Big cities just naturally cost more, but you're usually visiting a small part of it anyway. So zero in on what really interests you, and you can almost always find a good alternative with lower costs."

We took care of that hard work for you. We selected nine of the most popular -- and priciest -- travel destinations in the country. And, focusing on their most tourist-attractive characteristics, we found similar but more affordable alternatives based on cost data from travel sites Kayak and Orbitz, as well as the opinions of travel pros.

Philadelphia instead of New York

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Trade the Statue of Liberty for the Liberty Bell, Central Park for Fairmount Park, and pizza for cheesesteak, and you'll find an equally enticing city center in Philly.

"Philadelphia has a good restaurant scene and good theaters," says Leffel. This summer, catch Wicked at the Academy of Music or Grease at the Walnut Street Theatre. As for preshow dining options, while the Big Apple might have four times as many restaurants, according to Zagat.com, Philly's food actually scored better on the latest Zagat survey (23.05 out of 30, versus NYC's 21.84). Art lovers won't miss the Met thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rodin Museum and renowned Barnes Foundation, home to 69 Cézannes. We'll leave comparing the two cities' pro sports teams to their respective rabid fans.

How You'll Save on Your Vacation

Lodging is cheaper in the City of Brotherly Love. According to Kayak.com, the average hotel room costs $178 a night, compared with $265 in New York City.

Admission to the Philadelphia Museum of Art is "pay what you wish" the first Sunday of the month and every Wednesday after 5 p.m.; entry to the Rodin Museum is always pay what you wish. There's a complimentary shuttle between the two museums. A $59 CityPASS saves 44% on tickets to five popular tourist spots, including The Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Zoo. It's free to reenact Sylvester Stallone's iconic run up the "Rocky" steps or to play a round of disc golf (bring your own Frisbee) at the Sedgley Woods course in sprawling Fairmount Park.

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Williamsburg instead of Boston

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Boston doesn't have a monopoly on the American Revolution. History buffs can live it up at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, where actors go totally meta for their performances and become 18th-century townsfolk, including loyalists, patriots and slaves. As you explore the city, you can chat with them and ask about their lives, trades and time. And you'll witness the drama unfold as colonists' dissension divides the community.

You can also visit nearby Jamestown, home to America's first permanent English settlement, and Yorktown, where Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington. The free Historic Triangle Shuttle runs between the sites in-season. Or stay completely in modern times and enjoy the Busch Gardens and Water Country USA theme parks.

How You'll Save on Your Vacation

Cut your hotel costs in half by heading south. The average hotel rate is $266 a night in Boston, compared with $136 a night in Williamsburg, according to Kayak.

For the full Colonial Williamsburg show, including access to all buildings, museums and tours, you'll need to pay. A three-day ticket for an adult costs $46 online ($50 in person). But here's a frugal secret: There's no charge to roam the grounds and watch many of the outdoor activities and performances. Other free activities: Ride the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry across the James River and get a nice view of the shoreline, and enjoy Summer Breeze concerts on most Wednesdays at 7 p.m. at Merchants Square, a shopping area that also hosts a weekly farmers market.

Cedar Point instead of Disney World

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It's true, the fantastic experience that is Orlando's Disney World cannot be replicated, not even by Disney itself (sorry, Disneyland). But you can find plenty of theme-park amusements -- with smaller crowds, better prices and fewer princesses -- elsewhere around the country.

Robb Henshaw, of travel site GetGoing.com, recommends Cedar Point, "a massive theme park that's big for ride enthusiasts." Located on Lake Erie in Sandusky, Ohio, Cedar Point has been named the world's best amusement park for the past 15 years in a row by Amusement Today, an industry magazine. It features more than 150 rides, shows and attractions, including Charlie Brown's Funtime Frolics show and the GateKeeper, a new wing roller coaster that Cedar Point claims breaks seven world records. In July, the average high temperature in Sandusky is 82, ten degrees cooler than in Orlando.

How You'll Save on Your Vacation

For two-day tickets to Disney World (good for admission to one of the following four parks per day: the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios or Animal Kingdom), a family of two adults and two children between ages 3 and 9 would pay a whopping $758 online. And that price doesn't even include access to a water park. At Cedar Point, four regular two-day tickets, including water park admission, cost just $338 online. You can also opt for a $62 combo ticket that includes single-day entry to Cedar Point plus a pass to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, located about 70 miles away. Disney just raised its price for one-day entry to the Magic Kingdom to $95, a 6.7% increase.

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Oregon Wine Country instead of Napa Valley

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Napa's not the only game in town anymore for oenophiles. "There's great wine country all over the place now," says Jane Wooldridge, co-author of The 100 Best Affordable Vacations to Enrich Your Life. She recommends Oregon, starting south of Portland and going all the way down to Medford. "Oregon has lots of wine country, some really inexpensive lodging, and it's not overrun."

Medford and the Rogue Valley are home to more than 60 wineries, far fewer than Napa's 400 but more than enough to fill a vacation. Local foods are also sure to satisfy the epicurean traveler. Harry & David, of gift-basket fame, is rooted in Medford alongside a host of chocolatiers, cheesemakers and organic farmers. A tour of the Harry & David factory costs $5 and ends with free chocolate. About 30 minutes south in Ashland, theater lovers should catch one of the Tony-award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival's many productions, ranging from King Lear to non-Shakespearean plays such as My Fair Lady.

How You'll Save on Your Vacation

One in four wineries in Oregon doesn't charge a fee to try its wines, according to Wine Business Monthly, while in Napa only 7% give out free samples. Even when there is a charge, a wine tasting at an Oregon vineyard averages just $8, compared with $20 in Napa.

Savings can also be found when it comes to sleeping off the effects of a day on the Oregon wine trail. According to TripAdvisor, Medford's top-rated B&B is The White House Bed and Breakfast, with nightly rates ranging from $135 to $155. At the Inn on Randolph, Napa's highest-ranked B&B on TripAdvisor, the nightly summer rate is $265 to $425.

Milwaukee instead of Chicago

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Not to be outdone by its neighbor to the south, Milwaukee boasts lake views, pro sports (the NBA's Bucks and MLB's Brewers), iconic beers (Pabst anyone?) and all manner of meats in tube form. "It's another Midwestern city where you can get some of the Chicago vibe," says Wooldridge. "But it's also a great town that has a distinctive flavor unto itself."

Milwaukeeans love festivals, highlighted by Summerfest, the season's biggest music event. Headliners include New Kids on the Block, Pitbull, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Tim McGraw. Before (or after) a show, cool off with a dip in Lake Michigan. North Beach in nearby Racine is considered one of the best beaches in the Midwest.

How You'll Save on Your Vacation

General admission tickets to Summerfest are just $17, or $10 to get in Tuesday through Friday before 4 p.m. Those tickets are good to watch a mix of artists, ranging from Billy Idol and Rick Springfield to 311 and Talib Kweli. You'll have to buy a separate ticket to see headliners at the Marcus Amphitheater. But even these shows are reasonably priced. Tickets for New Kids on the Block range from $46 to $87 on Ticketmaster. Later in July, at Allstate Arena near Chicago, comparable tickets to see the '90s boy band cost $80 to $102.

Other frugal things you can enjoy in Milwaukee include the MillerCoors brewery tour, which comes with three free beers; strolling the two-mile-long Riverwalk; and checking out the Milwaukee Art Museum ($15 for adults; free on the first Thursday of every month). You can rest for less as well. According to Kayak, nightly hotel rates average $200 in Milwaukee, versus $229 in Chicago.

Puerto Rico instead of Hawaii

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Enjoy an exotic island vacation filled with sun, surf, unique culture and natural wonders without departing the good ol' U.S. of A. Because Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States, you can leave your passport at home, speak English without hesitation (though a little Spanish doesn't hurt) and skip the currency exchange.

History buffs can stroll the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan and tour El Morro, a massive Spanish fortification. Surfers head to the western side of the island for the best breaks, especially around Rincon. Nature lovers flock to El Yunque, a rare 28,000-acre subtropical rainforest complete with waterfalls, beaches and hiking trails. It's free to visit El Yunque on your own, or spring for a $5 ranger-guided tour. Another unique natural attraction is Mosquito Bay on the small island of Vieques. Take a boat or kayak out, ideally on a moonless night, to see the water glow with every touch due to the high concentration of bioluminescent microorganisms.

How You'll Save on Your Vacation

Staying in San Juan is budget-friendly. According to Kayak, the average hotel room in Honolulu goes for $279 a night; in Puerto Rico's capital, it's $199.

In fact, prices everywhere in the Caribbean are discounted during summer and early fall because of the threat of hurricanes. But don't let Mother Nature scare you away from fabulous deals. The heart of hurricane season is short, typically August to October. Plus, says Wooldridge, "a lot of the resorts and hotels in the area will give you a kind of hurricane guarantee, so if a place gets nailed or there's a warning, you get a refund."

Kansas City instead of New Orleans

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Home to the legendary Charlie "Yardbird" Parker and the historic 18th & Vine jazz district, music enthusiasts will find plenty of toe-tapping entertainment in Kansas City. The American Jazz Museum has interactive exhibits, memorabilia displays and, of course, live musical performances. Built into the museum, the Blue Room resembles the famous 1930s jazz club of the same name and hosts live shows. For hardcore jazz fans, the Mutual Musicians Foundation holds late-night (midnight to 6 a.m.) jam sessions on Fridays and Saturdays.

If listening to all that jazz works up your appetite, you're in luck. While you won't find Creole or Cajun cuisine on many menus, there's no shortage of Kansas City-style barbeque smothered in the city's signature sweet tomato-based sauce. Popular purveyors include Arthur Bryant's, Fiorella's, Jack Stack Barbecue and Oklahoma Joe's.

How You'll Save on Your Vacation

Tickets to the American Jazz Museum cost $10 for adults (or you can get a combo ticket that includes access to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum for $15). But you can get into the museum's Horace M. Peterson III Visitor Center and Changing Gallery and view their exhibits free. The Blue Room hosts free jazz performances on Mondays and Thursdays, and Friday and Saturday shows usually cost just $10. As for jazz festivals, you'll definitely spend less in Kansas City. Single-day tickets to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, a.k.a. Jazz Fest, will cost you $65 at the gate ($50 in advance online) and "Big Chief" VIP tickets sell for as much as $1,275. Tickets to the 18th & Vine Jazz and Blues Festival in October, a.k.a. Rhythm and Ribs, are going for just $13.50 on Ticketmaster. Even better, the Jazz in the Woods music festival in June is free.

Need a hotel? Lodging runs cheaper in Kansas City, where the average summertime room rate is just $137 a night -- $90 lower than in New Orleans, according to Kayak.

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Portland, Ore., instead of San Francisco

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Its own bay bringing in its own fog is just one of the many reasons Portland provides a similar environment for creative types, who have built up a unique music, food and art scene. "They have fantastic beer, great coffee, food and culture, and all the other things you'd go to San Francisco for -- and it is much more reasonably priced," says Leffel.

The neighborhood choices are as eclectic as they are in the California city. In Northwest Portland, nicknamed Nob Hill after the area in San Francisco, check out Victorian-style homes, unique shops and a variety of cafes and restaurants. Downtown offers even more food and shopping choices, as well as a number of art galleries, museums and theaters. And in the Hawthorne and Belmont districts you'll find a regular cluster of food carts and trucks, the Helium Comedy Club and Mount Tabor Park atop a dormant volcano.

How You'll Save on Your Vacation

The average hotel rate in San Francisco is $216 a night; in Portland, it's $162. Plus, you can enjoy all of your shopping sans sales tax.

Free events are everywhere. Hawthorne holds a street festival in August with live music and family-friendly activities. You can sample an earful of local bands at the annual weekend-long PDX Pop Now! music festival in July for no charge. Many downtown art galleries stay open late -- and serve complimentary wine -- on the first Thursday of every month. Or catch a free tour and tasting at many of Portland's breweries, including Widmer Brothers and Fulton.

Tampa instead of Miami

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More casual than the international jetsetter vibe pulsing through Miami, Tampa still gives you a taste of foreign cultures, as well as white-sand beaches and an active enough nightlife. Ybor City, Tampa's Latin American district, was born a factory town where immigrants from Cuba, Spain and Sicily came to roll cigars. Today, that heritage spices up the neighborhood's shops, art, music and cuisine.

Other attractive Florida destinations that are more affordable than Miami: St. Petersburg and Delray Beach. Leffel, who lives in Tampa, suggests St. Petersburg for its "lively downtown, clubs and bars." And Wooldridge, from Miami, recommends Delray Beach for its "thriving life with lots of restaurants and great street scene and beach."

How You'll Save on Your Vacation

Tampa tops Orbitz.com's list of popular destinations, in terms of affordability. The average vacation package, including airfare and a five-night hotel stay, costs $887 a person for a trip to Tampa -- $447 less than a Miami package.

Bumming on the beach and soaking up the sun is always an enjoyable, wallet-friendly way to spend your vacation days. Or check out the Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center between November 1 and April 15 to learn about the local wildlife free. To brush up on Tampa's history, visit the Ybor City Museum State Park ($4 per person; kids under 5 free). At night, you can stay in historic Ybor for the club scene. With five floors of music and dancing, Club Prana lets you pay the $10 cover online and skip the line. In Miami, cover charges are likely to be double that or more.

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