The shadows are growing longer and now is the time to book your autumn escape. From New England leaf-peeping to big American cities, amazing national parks, European capitals, and Caribbean dreams, we've rounded up a big, beautiful batch of getaways. Your only challenge? Which fall vacation to take.
If you don't want to have to decide between great museums and relaxing mountain hikes, book a week in western Massachusetts, where you can revel in both. Explore one of the U.S.'s largest collections of modern art at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams; see the comprehensive collection at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown; enjoy the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, and step back into 19th-century New England by crossing the border into Bennington, Vt., for the Grandma Moses collection at the Bennington Museum and Grandma Moses Schoolhouse. Stay: Holiday Inn Berkshires is in North Adams, Mass., centrally located for dividing your day among art, theater, and nature; there's an on-site restaurant and indoor pool (40 Main St., North Adams, Mass., holidayinn.com, from $119).
NEW YORK CITY
Sure, the city that never sleeps is known for some astronomical prices ($1,000 baseball tickets, $100 hamburgers, anyone?), but this capital of art, music, design, fashion, and finance also offers more freebies (and near-freebies) than any other major city in America. A must-see for families year-round is the American Museum of Natural History, with its awe-inspiring life-size blue whale model, dinosaur fossils on the top floor (or "in the attic," as the staff likes to say), and interactive Discovery Room. In summer, walk the High Line, an elevated park created out of an abandoned stretch of railroad track that offers kids programs with storytelling and sculpture-making. NYC's parks offer free movies and concerts, and a tasty snack is always a block away—nab a classic twisty pretzel from a hot dog stand. Stay: The Jane, in Manhattan's West Village, once housed the survivors of the Titanic. You'll feel (almost) as lucky with this nicely appointed hotel's bargain rates. (thejanenyc.com, from $125)
At the Iberostar Costa Dorada, "all-inclusive" means you may not have to reach for your purse the entire stay! And unlike some resorts, this place pours top-shelf cocktails for no extra charge!Hang a do-not-disturb sign on the door of your thatched-roof lodgings! Or indulge in cuisine that includes Brazilian, Mexican, and international menus. Lounge on the beach or beside the massive pool, or get adventurous with kayaking or diving lessons in a tropical paradise. Stay: The Iberostar Costa Dorada, just 10 minutes from Puerto Plata, completely renovated its 500+ rooms in 2011; all-inclusive lodging, three a la carte restaurants, and top-shelf drinks from $75 per person per night based on double occupancy (iberostar.com).
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
America's most popular national park, a major theme park, and miles of trails and streams for under $100 per night? Yep. Head to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for fishing, hiking, and scenic drives like the six-mile Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and don't forget to spend at least one day at 150-acre Dollywood for authentic Tennessee music, food, and, of course, thrill rides such as the Wild Eagle and Mystery Mine. Stay: The Park Vista—a DoubleTree by Hilton Gatlinburg features two restaurants, an indoor pool, and mountain views (705 Cherokee Orchard Road, Gatlinburg, Tenn., doubletree3.hilton.com, from $89).
Affordable, friendly, and second-to-none in big-city culture and natural beauty. Start your Ireland adventure in Dublin to see beautiful Trinity College, where you can ogle the illuminated manuscript known as the Book of Kells, drink in St. Stephen's Green and Phoenix Park (which has a zoo), and then Riverdance on over to the Guinness Storehouse, which is basically Disneyland for grownups, to drink in—literally—another side of Dublin. Historic Temple Bar is another great place to tip a pint. And since one in nine American is of Irish descent, including President Obama, some like to do a little genealogy research here to see where their family came from. Then get out into the countryside. It's a great place for driving, and you shouldn't miss Connemara, Galway, and other beautiful spots. Stay: Dublin boasts some of the most affordable hotels in Europe, and we like the Harrington Hotel (harringtonhall.com, from $91). And for a great package deal to Ireland, visit aerlingusvacationstore.com.
The Arizona desert sun, spas, and golf courses are warm and inviting in fall, but the crowds stay away. Scottsdale draws visitors for all of the above, and more, but it gets busy and pricey during the winter, when westerners flee the snow to take to the gold courses and watch exhibition Major League Baseball. Stay: Book a room at the lovely Wingate by Wyndham, Scottsdale (wingatehotels.com, for around $143, which is $120 less than what it will cost in January).
Step back in time in an 18th century fishing village. Enjoy the friendly locals, freshest seafood EVER, and a European feel right here in North America!Old Town Lunenburg is a lovely 18th-century century heritage site in Nova Scotia. Stroll past brightly colored wood-framed houses painstakingly preserved by Lunenberg's citizens. Buy a $10 ticket to the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic and its wharves to behold floating replicas of famous trawlers and schooners. Grab an amazing bowl of chowder and traditional Lunenburg fish cakes at local favorite, The Knot Pub. Stay: Quaint and cozy, the Smugglers Cove Inn is right by the docks (smugglerscoveinn.ca, from $99).
Look up, down, or side-to-side in SF and you'll be greeted with gorgeous waterfronts (the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay), unforgettable architecture (like the multicolored Victorian "Painted Ladies"), and roller-coaster hills that only make the visit for charming, especially for the little ones. Hop on one of the city's classic cable cars for some fun ups and downs on SF's famous hills; you can explore vibrant, unique neighborhoods like Chinatown with a one-day pass ($15). Head to popular Pier 39 on San Francisco Bay to ogle the big, adorable sea lions and to grab a taste of a signature Northern Cal fave: clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl. Stroll through Golden Gate Park for its knockout botanical gardens, free concerts, and hands-on activities. Stay: Hotel Del Sol is a family-friendly hotel with vibrant design and a great location in the Marina/Cow Hollow area. Perks include afternoon cookies and milk, heated pool, and free breakfast (jdvhotels.com, from $120 per night).
Party central for kids and grownups—and all for the same reason! It's just a high-energy city that looks like a fairytale thanks to its imaginative architecture. Visit the Sagrada Familia Cathedral designed by Gaudi and La Rambla, a major avenue where you'll get a taste of Barcelona's exuberant culture and shopping. Barcelona is also home to tapas, which basically means your dinner is made up of endless appetizers. What's not to love? Stay: Chic & Basic Ramblas, which looks way cooler than its name (chicandbasic.com/en, from $141). Or, for a great package deal to Barcelona, visit friendlyplanet.com.
If you're thinking that Las Vegas is just for bachelor parties, girl getaways, and high rollers, you're in for a pleasant surprise. The city's major hotels and venues are wooing families with kids with low prices and tons of fun. Viva Vision Light Show at the Fremont Street Experience is a lively music and light show on a projection screen the length of five football fields suspended 90-feet above you. Circus Circus offers free acts like jugglers, trapeze artists, and acrobats all day long.
Yes, you CAN afford the city of canals! Visit the must-see Piazza San Marco and Basilica (a tourist trap that's totally worth the trip), take an iconic gondola ride, and then veer from the ancient to the modern at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection with its Picassos and Pollocks, but take it from me, don't miss the chance to just wander, and even get lost on the winding streets. You're never far from a familiar landmark to lead you back to your hotel. We love Al Ponte Mocenigo (alpontemocenigo.com, from $115). For great package deals to Venice and other Italian cities, visit greatvaluevacations.com.
We love the Bahamas for being consistently enchanting and affordable—and you don't have to stay at cushy Atlantis to enjoy this island paradise's charms. Just one example of a late-fall Caribbean bargain (post-hurricane season but pre-holidays) is the Melia Nassau Beach Resort (melia.com, about $144, compared with $315 in January.
This is a gorgeous, warm American beach that's a road trip away for most East Coasters.Relax! Miles of warm sand and gentle surf are perfect for families or girlfriend getaways. Nightlife includes oceanfront seafood buffets, local micro-brews, and boardwalk rides (like the Twist 'n Shout roller coaster) that turn grownups into kids. Stay: Westgate Myrtle Beach Oceanfront Resort includes beach access, a heated pool, and a kids-eat-free policy (westgatedestinations.com, from $80).
A super-stylish new Norwegian Cruise Line mega-ship is hitting knockout destinations like St. Maarten and St. Thomas—and you can totally afford it.The brand-new mega ship Norwegian Getaway (featuring chic Miami-themed food, entertainment, and decor!) departs from Miami and leaves plenty of time for you to explore the beaches, open-air markets, and shops of St. Maarten, St. Thomas, and Nassau. Bottom line: This seven-day cruise starts at $449 (ncl.com, that's less than $65 per night!).
Orlando is designed around family-friendly vacations, with theme parks, themed restaurants, and activities everywhere you look. All those theme park experiences come with a price tag, of course, but there are many ways to book smart. Right now, for instance, there are special deals like hotel tie-ins to get you into the new Harry Potter-themed Diagon Alley at Universal (see our hotel pick below), and a stay at a Disney-branded resort can land you discounted admission, re-admission, transportation, and other perks. Following the major theme parks on Facebook and Twitter can give you the fast track to flash promotions and other savings. Stay: The Hilton Orlando is offering special deals timed to the opening of Diagon Alley at Universal Studios now through December 18. You can get four nights at the hotel, two three-day Park-to-Park tickets for Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure (to experience both Harry Potter sections), early admission to the parks, and more (hilton.com, four nights from $102 per night).
Be the first to brag that you've been to Romania. This Eastern European country is definitely ready to be discovered by travelers. The city of Bucharest has a gorgeous Palace of Parliament and a National History Museum that is surprisingly full of Roman artifacts—and explains the importance of the Roman Empire to Romania's history. When you get out of the city and into the Carpathian Mountains, you will see some truly spooky sites, including Dracula's Castle. The connection to the fictional vampire is slim, but Romania is where myths such as vampires and werewolves first took hold. You can even book a Transylvania Tour just in time for Halloween! Stay: In Bucharest, we like the Radisson Blu Bucharest (radissonblu.com/hotel-bucharest, from $131).
MAMMOTH CAVE NATIONAL PARK
If natural history with an air of mystery is your thing, Mammoth Cave National Park, in Kentucky, may be your perfect summer vacation. The world's longest cave system, these limestone caverns can be navigated with the help of park rangers, and programs range from the tried-and-true, one-of-a-kind major paths (ideal for all ages and interest levels) to muddier, darker options that the more adventurous among you will revel in. This time of year, lodging near the park tends to fill up, but you can still find affordable options a short drive away. Stay: Super 8 Munford is about a half-hour drive from Mammoth Cave National Park, with other notable caves in the vicinity as well; it offers a complimentary SuperStart breakfast, free Wi-Fi, and kids under 17 stay for free (super8.com, from $49).
Istanbul is the world's no. 1 destination, according to research from TripAdvisor. The only city that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia, is a great coming together of eastern and western cultures, food, and music. Visit the Hagia Sophia (a cathedral turned into a mosque) and some of the world's best Greek and Roman ruins. But get out of town too, to see the incredible jagged mountains of Cappadocia. Stay: In Istanbul, stay at Ascot Hotel (ascot.com.tr, from $118).
Chicago is a world-class city in the heart of the Midwest, with great public transportation, unparalleled museums, theater, music, and food. The Lincoln Park Zoo is open 365 days a year. Ogle the sweet views of the Chicago skyline (with some of the most beautiful skycrapers in America). Drop by the Navy Pier (one of Budget Travel's 20 Most Awesome Boardwalks in America) for a ride on the immense Ferris wheel on the banks of Lake Michigan. And don't forget to grab some deep-dish pizza: Two Chicago favorites are Lou Malnati's and Gino's East. Stay: The Hilton Chicago (hilton.com, from $109).
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK
Who's up for jaw-dropping scenery, warm western hospitality, and the closest thing to a safari experience that the lower 48 can offer? Best known for the Old Faithful geyser, which won't disappoint with its spectacular display, Yellowstone is also home to 1,000 miles of hiking trails, 67 species of mammals (including bears, moose, and, thanks to a successful reintroduction in 1995, more than 300 wolves), and ranger programs such as walks, hikes, and campfire programs that can help you get the most out of this crown jewel of the national park system. Stay: Yellowstone National Park Lodges offers a number of incredible fall packages to the park, including lodging, food, and tours, at a variety of price points (yellowstonenationalparklodges.com).