PHILADELPHIA: Because its reputation as a family-friendly city is well deserved.
The Audit: 3 nights + a "penny" tour + kid-friendly attractions + meals + transportation = $895 per family*
Shelter: Base your brood at the centrally located, 48-room, art deco–style Alexander Inn. Ask for one of the half-dozen Double Your Pleasure rooms, each of which has a pair of double beds, a seating area, and bay windows. These rooms start at $169 per night in July and include breakfasts.
Fun Right Off: The inn is a short walk from the free attractions of Independence National Historical Park, where actors in period costume often enlist kids in the army, hand them wooden muskets, and march them around (daily; visit the Independence Visitor Center for times). Next, hoof it over to The Franklin Institute, a science museum with a walk-through model of a human heart and other exhibits. One of Galileo's telescopes is on display through September 7 (adults $14.25, kids 4–11 $11.50).
Freebie: Back at Independence Mall, buzz through the United States Mint at Philadelphia, one of only two facilities that produce circulating coins. (The other is in Denver.) On your free, self-guided tour, strut along a glassed-in catwalk overlooking the production floor, where 4.8 billion coins were minted last year. (Your tax money at work!) Kids receive Lincoln blanks, shiny pieces of metal that would have otherwise become pennies (open weekdays).
Get There: Megabus links Philadelphia to New York City, with an average fare of $10 each way. The subway ride from the bus stop to the inn costs about $2 per person. Alternatively, round-trip flights to Philadelphia in July recently started at $244 from Dallas and $299 from Seattle.
*This sample budget is based on a family of four traveling by Megabus from New York City and spending $240 on meals.
PUERTO VALLARTA: Because of its renowned sand sculptors and gorgeous scenery.
The Audit: 3 nights + a zip-line jungle tour + refreshingly cool Pacific waves + meals + transportation = $2,206 per family*
Shelter: Get some R&R at CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa, where the 404 guest rooms are newly outfitted with vibrant Mexican motifs and the expansive swimming pool looks out on Banderas Bay and the Sierra Madre. Opt for the Stay for Breakfast special, which includes full breakfast daily for two adults and two children 12 and under, starting from $169 per night through December 11.
Fun Right Off: Zip from treetop to treetop on 14 cables—including one that's about 1,300 feet long—on a canopy tour of the Los Veranos ecological preserve. The tour costs $79 for adults and $58 for children ages 6 through 12; receive a 15 percent discount if you book online.
Freebie: Troop your family over to Viejo Vallarta's Malecón seawall walkway. Known for its whimsical bronze sculptures, it's also a prime spot for scoping out local artists at work. Sand sculptors on the adjoining beach craft elaborate creatures such as lions and lizards.
Get There: Round-trip flights to Puerto Vallarta in July recently started at $298 from Chicago, $315 from Houston, and $343 from San Francisco. A taxi to and from the airport costs about $16 per family each way.
*This sample budget is based on a family of four traveling from Chicago and spending $240 on meals.
DENVER: Because of its hopping microbrewery circuit and cutting-edge art scene.
The Audit: 3 nights + beer tastings + rooftop museum café + meals + car rental + airfare = $961 per couple*
Shelter: Inside a mansion from 1889, the family-owned Castle Marne B&B has nine elegant rooms, some with claw-foot bathtubs, four-poster beds, and two-person hot tubs. Afternoon tea is served with chocolate truffles and baked goods. Chill out in the B&B's garden, inspired by the Victorian era (doubles from $115 per night). Once you're energized, hop a 10-minute cab ride downtown.
Fun Right Off: Every Friday evening in the summer, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver hosts performances by experimental musicians next to its rooftop café. Admission to the museum costs $10. Through August 30, it is exhibiting a handful of Damien Hirst's works, including an arrow-pierced, formaldehyde-preserved bullock.
Freebie: Tap into the city's thriving beer scene by touring one of its 18 microbreweries. Over on Arapahoe Street, Great Divide Brewing, producer of the much-decorated Titan IPA, has free tours Monday through Friday at 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., and every hour on the hour from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays. Brewers customize the talks to match the visitors' knowledge of craft beers, and tours last about half an hour—and include samples. A free bus down 16th Street can shuttle you from a stop near the brewery to other downtown sites.
Get There: Round-trip flights in July recently started at $140 from Atlanta and Philadelphia. Rental cars from E-Z Rent-A-Car recently started at $39 a day. The Castle Marne has free parking.
*This sample budget is based on a couple flying from Atlanta and spending $120 on meals and $40 for gas.
LAS VEGAS: Because you can enjoy the suite life without staying in a casino resort.
The Audit: 3 nights + gaming lessons + a romantic dinner + other meals + airfare = $1,124 per couple*
Shelter: A big misconception about Sin City is that its downtown hotels only draw rowdy bachelors, convention goers, and overexcited gamblers. But the year-old, glitzy Trump International Hotel Las Vegas attracts a different crowd for two reasons: It has no casino, and its studio suites appeal to romantic types, with details like marble bathrooms, high-definition TVs, and floor-to-ceiling windows. Book the Suite Escape Package for rates from $89 a night for stays through September 30, plus a $15 daily resort fee (which covers parking). The package comes with a $50 credit for a spa treatment.
Fun Right Off: Feast royally on one of the city's many prix fixe dinner specials. A typical offer: At Mandalay Bay on the south end of the Strip, Hubert Keller's Fleur de Lys has a three-course menu including entrées like Alaskan salmon and stout-braised beef short ribs, plus a bottle of house wine, for $59 per person.
Freebie: Brush up on your gaming skills by taking one of the free lessons run daily by the casinos. The Venetian, for instance, schools would-be high rollers in craps at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., in roulette at noon, and in blackjack at 12:15 p.m. (in different pits, of course).
Get There: Round-trip tickets to Las Vegas in July recently started at $272 from Chicago and $275 from Boston.
*This sample budget is based on a couple flying from Chicago, spending $268 on meals, and using a free airport shuttle instead of a rental car.
OLEMA, CALIF.: Because of the irrepressible beauty of the nearby Redwood forest and rocky shoreline.
The Audit: 3 nights + bicycling to cliffs + meals + car rental + airfare = $1,113 per couple*
Shelter: Drive an hour north of San Francisco on Highway 1 and reach tiny Olema, a jumping-off point for bird-watching or kite flying on Point Reyes National Seashore. Rest up at Bear Valley Inn, where each of the three rooms and one cottage has a name to match its themed decor. The Tides room, for example, has soothing aquamarine walls with crisp white trim. For breakfast, expect homemade yogurt and eggs from the inn's own chickens (doubles from $130 per night).
Fun Right Off: Bicycle about four miles along challenging dirt trails to the beach at Arch Rock. Then lock up your bikes and hike another mile to the gorgeous coastline. Full-day rentals, available through Point Reyes Outdoors, start at $45. Not into biking? Then drive 20 miles south on Highway 1 to Muir Woods National Monument ($5) and gawk at the towering redwoods, some of which are more than 1,000 years old here.
Freebie: Point Reyes National Seashore is free, so the hard part is choosing which of its spectacular beaches to visit. With its white-sandstone cliffs, Drakes Beach is quite popular; sandy Limantour Beach invites long walks past seals and shorebirds, and along its sand spit between the Pacific and a mix of grasslands, dunes, and mudflats.
Get There: Round-trip tickets to nearby Oakland in July recently started at $139 from Seattle, $280 from Orlando, and $316 from Minneapolis. Rental cars from Fox Rent A Car recently started at $50 a day. From the Oakland airport, Olema is 50 miles; gas for the trip might set you back about $25.
*This sample budget is based on a couple flying from Seattle and spending $120 on meals, plus a rental car and estimated fuel expenses.
NASHVILLE: Because you don't have to be 19 to be into the local music scene.
The Audit: 3 nights + live bands + the American Parthenon + BBQ + other meals + car rental + airfare = $1,126 per couple*
Shelter: Base yourself at the 2-year-old Homewood Suites by Hilton Nashville-Downtown (doubles from $169 a night in July). Your extended-stay studio suite will come with a kitchen, but it's not likely you'll do much cooking in it, given the free full breakfast daily in the hotel restaurant. For other meals, walk a few blocks to the joints on Lower Broadway. At Jack's Bar-B-Que, try the Tennessee pork shoulder sandwich ($3.50).
Fun Right Off: The Parthenon is one of Nashville's strangest and most surreal must-sees. The full-scale replica of the Athens temple was built for the state's 1897 Centennial Exposition. Now it houses the city's art collection ($6).
Freebie: Your hotel is close to honky-tonk bars that showcase free live music. So many acts perform downtown that you are sure to find appealing songs. But consider branching out and listening to something unfamiliar. For instance, on Friday and Saturday nights, Robert's Western World on Broadway regularly hosts Brazilbilly, a band that plays Latin-infused country music.
Get There: Round-trip tickets to Nashville recently started at $118 from Chicago and $195 from Providence. Rental cars from Thrifty recently started at $46 per day. From Atlanta, Nashville is a four-hour drive; according to the AAA Fuel Cost Calculator, gas for the round-trip ride in a late-model sedan would set you back about $27. Self-parking at the hotel's lot is $9 per day.
*This sample budget is based on a couple flying from Chicago and spending $120 on meals and $40 for gas.
MONTREAL: Because of its old-world bistros, summer fireworks displays, and a biodiversity museum that feels like it's been airlifted from the tropics.
The Audit: 4 nights + Biodôme + fireworks + meals + cabs + airfare = $1,866 per couple*
Shelter: A 15-minute walk from the landmark Notre-Dame Basilica, Le Square Phillips Hotel & Suites has unusually spacious guest rooms, which come with kitchenettes, high-definition TVs, and free high-speed Internet. Rooms start at $130 (Can$162) per night.
Fun Right Off: Jump on the subway for a 25-minute ride to the Montreal Biodôme, presenting four re-created ecosystems with more than 230 animal species, including two-toed sloths, golden lion tamarins, and yellow-crested macaroni penguins ($13).
Freebie: Every Saturday between June 13 and August 15, colorful explosions light up Montreal's nighttime sky during the L'International des Feux Loto-Québec, an annual fireworks competition. The festival charges admission, starting at $21, to watch the show at La Ronde amusement park, but you can make like a local and score a spot on the Jacques Cartier Bridge, which closes to traffic during the events to welcome pedestrian observers.
Get There: Round-trip flights to Montreal in mid-June recently started at $525 from L.A., $592 from Chicago, and $622 from Denver. An airport taxi for two will cost about $40 each way.
*This sample budget is based on a couple flying from L.A. and spending $180 on meals and $30 on subway fare.