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Affordable Summer Road Trips: One-Tank Escapes From 9 Cities

By The Budget Travel Editors
updated September 29, 2021
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Less than two hours from major cites, these destinations are well worth the trip.

Road trip season is here, and there's no better way to kick off summer than hopping in the car and exploring destinations that are an easy, fun drive away. Here are nine destinations that will pay off big dividends on the less-than-two-hour investment—and one tank of gas—it takes to get there.

1. FROM CHICAGO: INDIANA DUNES, IN

The Indiana Dunes sit along a 15 mile stretch of Lake Michigan’s southern shore. It’s only about 35 miles down I-90 from Chicago International Airport, but you’d be forgiven if you thought you were whisked away to the Sahara. Even the pine forests around the dunes sit on sand. Then, of course, the sprawling, shimmering lake will remind you that you are absolutely not in the desert. This destination draws birders in the spring, kayakers and other water sport enthusiasts in the summer, and anglers in the fall. There’s plenty for everyone else to enjoy throughout the 15,000-acre site as well, like tranquil forests, scenic prairies and marshes, a visitor center with a bookstore and junior ranger guides for kids, and 50 miles of trails—many of them quite rugged. And no need to rush back to Chicago at the end of the day. The surrounding area has eateries ranging from a sushi stop to laid-back pubs to a steakhouse, not to mention restaurants focused on seasonal farm-to-table menus.

2. FROM BOSTON: CONCORD, NH

About 75 miles north of Boston, a straight shot up I-93, New Hampshire’s state capital offers more than just a hearty helping of outdoor options, like the wooded hiking trails at Audubon McLane Center, and New England history (see: the Pierce Manse, a museum in what was once the home of Franklin Pierce, the 14th president, and the majestic gold-domed state house, which was built in 1819). Fueled in part by urban types relocating here in search of a slower-paced life, a burgeoning dining scene has been taking shape alongside the longstanding institutions. Newell Post, for instance, is a popular breakfast/lunch stop that's been serving familiar dishes with a regional accent since it opened in 2012, and Revival, a locally minded eatery that opened in 2017, has been drawing crowds with its updates on classic New England fare. Concord also has a bigger music scene than most towns its size, with cafes and small venues hosting local indie performances while the Capitol Center for the Arts sees bigger acts.

3. FROM NEW YORK CITY: TARRYTOWN, NY

For most travelers, New York City is the final destination, not a pass-through point, but whether you’re visiting the east coast or have lived in one of the five boroughs your whole life, it’s worth packing your bags for a trip to Tarrytown. This veritable country escape is a 30-minute drive from Midtown, just off the New York State Thruway (I-87) at the eastern landing of the Tappan Zee Bridge, or a 38-minute ride on MTA’s Metro-North Railroad, which leaves frequently from Grand Central. Quaint but lively, Tarrytown is a throwback to village life. There are pretty green spaces, a charming Main Street, and picturesque brick buildings that play host to restaurants, ice cream shops, antique stores, and cute boutiques, not to mention the grand, historic Tarrytown Music Hall where you can catch a broad range of local and national acts. If history piques your interest, take note that the town was a thruway on the Underground Railway, a hometown of Washington Irving, and a retreat for the Rockefellers, who built a family estate here in 1913. It’s a terrific place to catch your breath after a few days in the city.

4. FROM TORONTO: PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY

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Prince Edward County is to Toronto what the Hudson Valley is to New York City, which is to say a super-hip urban escape with a growing number of gorgeous boutique hotels and dynamite creative restaurants, food trucks, and farmers’ markets. That should come as no surprise, given the regions abundant organic farms. With its rural landscape and natural attraction, PEC, about two and a half hours from both Ottawa and Toronto, is a refuge for creative types who expanded the area’s artistic footprint with their shops and galleries. And about those natural attractions: Sandbanks, one of the largest beaches in Ontario, offers swimming, fishing, hiking, sailing, and camping, while the pilgrimage-worth Lake on the Mountain, a provincial park (the Canadian equivalent of a state park), delivers a mind-bending sight, with the freshwater lake stretching out onto a cliff over a bay. And what’s more, it’s a terrific wine region, and the sheer number of vineyards make it a destination in its own right.

5. FROM SEATTLE: VASHON ISLAND, WA

When you hear “American island escape,” it’s easy to think of Hawaii or North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The Pacific Northwest, though, is dotted with enchanting little islands—many of which are easy to get to and easy to fall for. The 37-square-miles Vashon Island, the largest in the Puget Sound, is about a 90-minute ferry ride from Fauntleroy Terminal in West Seattle, and the destination (population 10,000) is nothing short of a rural old-world paradise. Thanks to its backwoods roads, stretches of farmland, and protected waters of Quartermaster Harbor, the island is best explored by bike or kayak, both of which you can rent. Many of the small towns along the highway can be loosely described as artist colonies with a hippie vibe. Galleries, cafes, and an array of restaurants proliferate, plus there are seasonal performances, like outdoor concerts and Shakespeare in the Park, and the Vashon Center for the Arts (vashoncenterforthearts.org), a regal performance space and gallery that came with a $20 million price tag when it opened in 2016. Today it’s home to the Vashon Opera, a decade-old company, and host to a variety of local and national acts. With that many options, you’ll likely need more than a weekend.

6. FROM AUSTIN: GEORGETOWN, TX

A mere 30 miles north of Austin, Georgetown was once a sleepy bedroom community, but lately it's come into its own, largely because real estate prices and lack of availability have pushed artists, musicians, and other creative types out of what some refer to as the music capital of the world. In the past few years, Georgetown has emerged as a portrait of modern America against a historic backdrop. It was once a stronghold of Western life along the Chisholm Trail, and the town square, a lively gathering place, is also a historic site to behold, with gorgeously preserved Victorian-era buildings. Dining options range from high-end bistros to cheery, creative pizza shops, like 600 Degrees Pizzeria. But what really makes this small town a culinary destination is its wineries, including the Georgetown Winery right in the middle of the town square. For those looking to do extensive vineyard visits, take note: The town is 90 minutes from Hill Country, a thriving wine region that's quite vast, as to be expected in Texas.

7. FROM DENVER: CHEYENNE, WY

When it comes to short trips from Denver, we’re casting our vote for crossing state lines and checking out Cheyenne, despite Colorado's many adorable mountain towns. The Wyoming state capital is about 100 miles from Denver International Airport, and to make things easy, there’s a shuttle from the terminal to downtown Cheyenne (greenrideco.com). The city's biggest claim to fame is the annual Cheyenne Frontier Days, a festive pageant-like salute to rodeo and all things Western, but there are plenty of ways to celebrate America's vintage Western spirit here year-round. For starters: check out the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum, the Cowgirl Museum of the West, and more. It's an easy city to explore on foot: The Victorian-style downtown includes a delightful mix of country-chic outfitters, hip boutiques, bookstores, and vintage shops, plus a variety of restaurants, many of which offer noteworthy craft beer selections.

8. FROM LOS ANGELES: PASADENA, CA

Los Angeles may have the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, but its neighbor to the east has some sparkle of its own. A little more than ten miles from downtown L.A. via CA-110, Pasadena boasts world-class arts institutions, an array of delicious places to eat and drink, and a picturesque, walkable old-town area, all against a backdrop that looks like something out of a film set—and that’s because it might very well be one. Pasadena is an unsung hero of the movie-making scene, and it’s such a staple that there’s an entire walking tour devoted to filming locations around town. But it’s not all stardust and sequins. Stroll along Old Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard, where you’ll find big-brand chains and indie boutiques alike; pop into the Norton Simon Museum (nortonsimon.org), where classic works by Picasso and Degas complement modern pieces like massive murals by California native Sam Francis; book a table at one of the city’s 500 restaurants (think green juice and avocado toast at Sage Vegan Bistro and blockbuster northern Italian fare at Union Restaurant); and catch a show or a game at the Rose Bowl before you head back to La-La Land.

9. FROM NASHVILLE: FRANKLIN, TN

A 20-mile shot down I-65 from Nashville, Franklin (population 75,000) has serious music-world credentials—enough to hold its own against Music City. This powerhouse town has country and western in its blood: Stars like Wynonna Judd have been known to pop in for the famous open-mic night at Puckett’s Grocery, and country royalty like Alan Jackson and Keith Urban have owned property in the area. With a beautiful 16-block stretch of historically preserved buildings—an array of shops, galleries, and homes—plus a storybook-worthy Main Street, downtown Franklin is Americana incarnate. Main Street is anchored by the landmark Franklin Theatre, a performance and movie venue that's been lovingly restored to its original 1937 glory. Further afield, the quaint hamlet of Leiper’s Fork is a hip one-stop shop for anyone seeking old-school Southern soul. You’ll find it here in antique shops and galleries, eateries dishing out classic regional fare, distilleries producing small-batch whiskies, and local institutions like Finds in the Fork, a paradise for vinyl collectors. Weather permitting, settle in for an alfresco flick at the Leipers Fork Lawnchair Theater. It’s country living at its finest.

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Road Trips

Ultimate Arkansas Road Trip

Road trip season is on its way, and we can’t think of a better way to enjoy the open road than to head to Arkansas, within driving distance from much of America’s heartland and boasting endless opportunities to savor American history, culture, food, and natural wonders. Here, some of the highlights of the ultimate road trip from the capital, Little Rock, to the wild beauty of the Ozark Mountains. Culture & Food in Little Rock Little Rock is one of America’s affordable gems, a bustling metropolis packed with natural beauty, culture, and great food. Hit the River Market District to sample classic southern comfort food, distinctive regional fare, and imaginative culinary fusion from local chefs—and you can get to the River Market District via METRO Streetcar. History buffs will want to spend some time getting to know the Clinton Presidential Center & Park, beautifully designed with an eye toward limiting environmental impact. Many visitors to Little Rock are surprised to find nature at every turn, and the Central Arkansas Nature Center and Clinton Presidential Park Wetlands allow for wildlife viewing and quiet moments right in the middle of town. Every well-traveled kid should see the Museum of Discovery with its hands-on learning activities for all ages. The Delights of Eureka Springs Visitors to Arkansas will savor a stop in Eureka Springs, a town truly like no other. Here, classic Victorian homes are situated along winding mountainside streets; downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places and boasts award-winning restaurants and exceptional shopping featuring unique, local items at boutiques, art galleries and studios, and craft shops. (Public art is also on display all around town, spotlighting the community’s commitment to creativity.) But Eureka Springs’s charms don’t end in town—situated in the heart of the Ozarks, there are ample opportunities for fishing, hiking, mountain biking, and much more. And those looking for a relaxing spa experience will find a number of local hotels that offer access to soothing springs. History & Art in Bentonville Here in the foothills of the Ozarks, the town of Bentonville may be best known as the headquarters of Walmart (you can even visit the original Walmart 5&10 from 1950), but the relatively small community packs much more into a tidy package. Don’t miss the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, covering five centuries of American art from colonial days to the present. Art fans will want to continue exploring Bentonville at 21c Museum and Hotel, which combines more than 12,000 square feet of art galleries with an adjacent 100+ room boutique hotel. Kids of all ages will relish an afternoon at Scott Family Amazeum, where you’ll never hear the words “don’t touch”—it’s all about playing and learning. And you mustn’t depart Bentonville without immersing yourself in one of the south’s most significant collections of Native American artifacts at the Museum of Native American History. Folk Music & Crafts in the Ozarks We love that music can be heard just about everywhere you go in Mountain View. Here, locals join visiting musicians to entertain crowds—and one another—with traditional mountain music in the town square during the warm months (which, here in Mountain View, go from mid-April through late November). Founded in the 1870s, Mountain View has become a major center of traditional Ozark culture and music. The epicenter of folk music and crafts here is the Ozark Folk Center, where you’ll experience demonstrations of a range of crafts such as pottery-making and blacksmithing, not to mention traditional music—you can get lessons on a classic mountain instrument such as the autoharp or dulcimer, and even learn to dance a jig. Easy Outdoor Adventures in St. Francis National Forest Quick: Where’s the only National Forest that includes Mississippi River shoreline? It’s Arkansas’s own St. Francis National Forest, on the east central region of the state. Covering more than 20,000 acres, the hardwood forest is a mecca for wildlife observers. Here, the woods are teeming with turkey, rabbit, whitetail deer, and a plethora of waterfowl. Abundant game fishing includes striped and largemouth bass and, of course, catfish. St. Francis National Forest is a place to enjoy low-impact, low-stress outdoor adventures. Bear Creek Lake offers opportunities for swimming, boating, and camping. More adventurous visitors may enjoy four-season pursuits in the St. Francis and Ozark National Forests, where cycling, canoeing, horseback riding, and even ATV rides are popular. The Ozark and St. Francis National Forests offer such an abundance of natural beauty, in fact, that they are crossed by six U.S. Scenic Byways. Don’t Miss These Natural Wonders There’s a reason that Arkansas is nicknamed The Natural State. Here, an array of parks, forests, mountains, and more attract road trippers from across the U.S. Some don’t-miss natural highlights include lakes and rivers situated in more than 20 state parks. As mentioned above, the Ozark and St. Francis National Forests boast a number of lakes just waiting for vacationers. Natural springs abound in Hot Springs, Eureka Springs, and other “hotspots.” And be sure to have your camera or smartphone at the ready for the Instagrammable mountain ranges, waterfalls, natural bridges, flowers, and wildlife you’ll encounter along the route of your ultimate road trip! To learn more and plan your road trip, visit arkansas.com.

Road TripsTravel Tips

Summer Road Trip Forecast & Tips

If you’re planning to take a family vacation in 2019, you’re in good company: A recent AAA survey predicts that nearly 100 million Americans (that’s about 4 in 10 adults) are planning to do the same. With that data in mind, AAA shared some stats, know-how, and trip inspiration that every Budget Traveler should know. By the Numbers According to AAA’s survey, two-thirds of family travelers will take a summer getaway, with more than half of them planning to make that getaway a road trip. One factor that’s inspiring travelers to plan road trips and scenic drives is the lower cost of gas, down about one quarter compared with last year. Gas prices are expected to rise, but remain lower this summer than last. AAA reports that a third of Americans surveyed said they would add another road trip to their summer plans if gas prices stay down, Planning Your Route “To make the most of their vacations, AAA recommends families plan and research as far ahead as possible to avoid missing out on popular activities and fun,” says Stacey Barber, executive director, AAA Travel Information & Content. Budget Travel has been covering great American road trips for more than 20 years, and offers a wealth of itineraries and advice. It turns out, AAA’s top routes for summer travel (according to AAA member road trip routing data) align very much with some of Budget Travel’s all-time favorite U.S. road trips, including the National Parks of the Southwest, the Pacific Coast Highway, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the mountains of New England. READ: 5 Perfect U.S. Road Trips Tips for a Successful Family Road Trip We also echo AAA’s common-sense road trip tips, which you can start implementing as early as, well, right now, to ensure a smooth summer excursion: Pack smart. Bring books, games, and music, information on your destination, and healthy snack. Stay safe. Stop every 100 miles, or every two hours, to help stay alert. Make sure all passengers are safely wearing seatbelts or sitting in child safety seats. Be patient. Be prepared to hit traffic, and reduce your chance of delays by hitting the road earlier or later than most drivers, especially on holiday weekends. Map out your route. Sure, GPS is awesome, but it’s always best to map out your route in advance, including reliable lodging, restaurants, and gas stations, especially if you’re traveling a relatively remote area where you may lose cellular service for a time. Get your car ready. Have your car inspected and tuned up, carry a flashlight, extra batteries, flares or reflective triangle, jumper cables, a first-aid kit, and plenty of water.

Road Trips

Travel News: Rent an RV From $10/Day, Travel the World for Free, and Were You Exposed to Radiation at the Grand Canyon?

From a very cool way to save big money on your next RV adventure to some tips for traipsing around the world for free (yes, free), plus a heads-up about years of uranium exposure at the Grand Canyon, this week’s travel news is all about getting you the inside scoop to make you a smarter globetrotter. Rent an RV From $10/Day We’ve been getting to know RVShare, the first and largest peer-to-peer RV rental marketplace (translation: it’s like Airbnb for RV rentals), and we want to put it on the radar of Budget Travelers as they plan their 2019 adventures. If you’re looking to explore, say, the national parks of the American west this summer but don’t especially feel the need to own an RV year-round, RVShare offers rentals from as low as $10/day. If you already happen to own an RV but don’t use it on a regular basis (and 93 percent of RV owners use their vehicles for only about five weeks each year), RVShare offers the opportunity to make some money along with the more than 60,000 other RV owners who currently participate. RVShare also offers one-way rentals starting this spring, and has just launched the Historic Route 66 Road Trip Sweepstakes, which will deliver a 10-day RV trip from Glen Ellyn, Illinois, to Las Vegas. Visit RVShare.com to learn more. Travel the World for Free The word free always gets our attention, and when our friends at the financial comparison site MyBankTracker.com compiled a list of options for seeing the world for nothing, it caught our eye. Some hacks you should consider: Swap houses with someone in your vacation destination. Volunteer for a worthwhile cause via Idealist or Workaway, or volunteer on a farm via World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms in exchange for food, lodging, and training. SIgn up for a cultural exchange program like GlobalFreeloaders or BeWelcome. Apply for scholarships or fellowships.Crowd-fund a travel project you feel passionate about via platforms such as Indiegogo. Offer freelance work or barter in exchange for accommodations.And MyBankTracker.com suggests opening an online banking account before you travel abroad to enjoy lower fees or no fees at all when you use partner ATMs for cash.Were You Exposed to Radiation at the Grand Canyon? Well, not all travel news is good news. CNN has reported that uranium stored at Grand Canyon National Park’s museum caused elevated levels of radiation exposure for visitors and employees for more than 18 years, according to Grand Canyon’s safety, health, and wellness manager. Elston Stephenson told CNN that he began asking questions last year and in early February he emailed Grand Canyon park staff warning that workers and visitors who were in the park’s Museum Collections Building between the year 2000 and June 18, 2018, were exposed to uranium according to the definition of exposure used by OSHA. The good news is the exposure levels were not high enough to be considered dangerous, just high enough to warrant a heads-up.

Road Trips

3 Great Places to Take a Maple Syrup Road Trip

Ready for a unique spring road trip? Explore the short—but sweet—maple sugar season in the great north. Maple sugar season is short because there are just a few weeks each spring when sugar maple farmers—known as "sugarmakers"—get just the right weather (mid-20s at night, mid-to-high 40s and sunny during the day) for their maple trees to start producing the sweet sap that goes into maple syrup, maple sugar, and other products. Sugarmakers typically celebrate syrup season in mid-to-late March with tours of tapped trees and "sugarhouses" where maple sap is turned into syrup. Maple sugar season is sweet because, well, you will not believe the taste and aroma of pure maple syrup, sugar, and candies. Whether you're looking for a fun family outing or a romantic snugglefest, there's nothing quite like visiting a forest full of tapped trees and stopping by the "sugarhouse" to see the sap boiled and processed into syrup and sugar the way it's been done for centuries. (To produce one gallon of maple syrup, sugarmakers must boil down about 40 gallons of sap.) You might even get a sleigh ride or steam train ride around the farm, and, of course samples of syrups and candies. Some of the best places for a maple syrup road trip are: 1. VERMONT Enjoy fresh maple syrup in the region that Grandma Moses immortalized in her paintings—taking a tour of a sugar maple farm may make you feel like you've stepped inside one of her classic rural scenes. Stay at the historic 1857 Eddington House Inn (eddingtonhouseinn.com) in North Bennington, where the super-helpful staff can direct you to the best farmstands and "sugarmakers." While you're in the Bennington area, don't miss the magnificent collection of Grandma Moses paintings at the Bennington Museum, and the Robert Frost House, devoted to that great American poet's inspiring words. For a look at a local sugarmaker in action, contact Dutton's Farm Stand (duttonberryfarm.com), in nearby Manchester. 2. MONTREAL The Quebec province of Canada is where 80 percent of the world's maple syrup is produced. An hour's drive outside Montreal you'll find a wonderland of "sugar shacks," each offering tours of tapped trees and sugar-making activities. Families with kids will especially love the shacks that include a steam train or pony ride. Stay at Le Square Phillips Hotel & Suites (squarephillips.com), a 15-minute walk from the landmark Notre-Dame Basilica, with spacious guest rooms with kitchenettes from well under $200/night. To see a Canadian sugarmaker at work—and to take a steam train ride around the farm, visit Cabane a Sucre Bouvrette (bouvrette.ca), about an hour's drive outside Montreal. 3. WISCONSIN Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Big Woods" are a maple wonderland! Make downtown Milwaukee your home base for this trip, at the lovely art-deco style Ambassador Hotel from well under $200/night (ambassadormilwaukee.com) and explore hight art at the Milwaukee Art Museum (stunning Picassos and Kandinskys, among other classical and modern works) and beer & pretzels at a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game. Head out into the country for tours of sugarmakers and farmstands during their busy April season. For tours and samples, contact Inthewoods Sugar Bush (inthewoodssugarbush.com), about an hour and 20 minutes' drive north of Milwaukee.