PHOTOS: Big Cities, Small Budgets!

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You may leave your heart in San Francisco, but you don't have to leave junior's college fund there. Affordable delights like a drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, a cable car ride, or a stroll in Golden Gate Park, are picture perfect.

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San Francisco offers beautiful sights everywhere you look, including the iconic "Painted Ladies"—colorful Victorian-style homes on Alamo Square.

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Hotel Del Sol is a family-friendly hotel with vibrant design and a great location in San Francisco's Marina/Cow Hollow area. Perks include afternoon cookies and milk, heated pool, and free breakfast. (jdvhotels.com, from $120 per night)

Courtesy Hotel Del Sol

Sure, New York City 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.

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A peaceful stroll through Central Park, including a visit to beautiful Bow Bridge or a free concert or play, is a must when visiting NYC.

Courtesy I Love NY

New York's State Island Ferry provides a scenic, refreshing ride from lower Manhattan to Staten Island. And the price is right—it's free!

Courtesy I Love NY

Whether you just pass by on the free Staten Island Ferry or spend an afternoon exploring Liberty Island, the Statue of Liberty is near the top of any list of NYC must-sees.

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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 summer rates. (thejanenyc.com, from $105 this summer)

Courtesy Jane Hotel

Orlando is theme-park heaven, and Universal Studios is one of the area's gems!

Courtesy Universal Studios Orlando

You can find good deals in Orlando in September, when school's back in session. Psst! We won't tell if you give your little ones a few days off to shake hands with Mickey and Minnie!

Courtesy Floridays Resort Orlando

SeaWorld Orlando's thrilling killer whale shows may or may not suit your taste in entertainment, but the park offers a wide variety of water rides and educational programs as well.

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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)

Courtesy of Hilton Orlando

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.

Courtesy Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Bureau

Viva Vision Light Show at Las Vegas's 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.

While the best prices are usually found off the Vegas Strip, Circus Circus is an affordable family-friendly hotel on the strip, and it includes a five-acre indoor theme park, The Adventuredome, which even includes a roller coaster! (circuscircus.com, from $39 per night if you book now)

Chicago is a world-class city in the heart of the Midwest, with great public transportation, unparalleled museums, theater, music, and food.

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Drop by Chicago's 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 local favorites are Lou Malnati's and Gino's East.

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The Warwick Allerton Hotel offers pure luxury on Chicago's Magnificent Mile (warwickhotels.com, Expedia offers deals from $99 per night)

Courtesy Warwick Allerton

Chicago's Warwick Allerton hotel is the very definition of swank that won't break the bank!

Courtesy Warwick Allerton

Think a big city vacation is off limits on a family budget? Think again. We gave ourselves a challenge: A world-class family vacation in one of America’s most popular cities for less than $125/night. Here, how to get “luxe for less” in San Francisco, New York City, Orlando, Las Vegas, and Chicago!

SAN FRANCISCO

Why we love it:

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.

Affordable family fun:

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 Francico 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 activites.

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Best time for bargains:

SF's off-season is November through May.

"Luxe for less" hotel:

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)

See Budget Travel Contributing Editor Darley Newman share "Big Cities on a Small Budget" on the Today Show!

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NEW YORK CITY

Why we love it:

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.

Affordable family fun:

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 in summer, and a tasty snack is always a block away—nab a classic twisty pretzel from a hot dog stand.

Best time for bargains:

Right after New Year's, when rates are slashed at hotels and you can get two-for-one theater tickets during Broadway Week and free ice skating in Bryant Park.

"Luxe for less" hotel:

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 summer rates. (thejanenyc.com, from $105 this summer)

SEE THE CITIES!

ORLANDO

Why we love it:

Orlando is designed around family-friendly vacations, with theme parks, themed restaurants, and activities everywhere you look.

Affordable family fun:

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.

Best time for bargains:

September is quiet(er) in Orlando. When school is back in session, you can find elbow room and savings around town. We won't tell if you give your kids a few extra days off to shake hands with Mickey!

"Luxe for less" hotel:

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)

LAS VEGAS

Why we love it:

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.

Affordable family 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.

Best time for bargains:

Las Vegas is busy year-round, but also offers low prices year-round! The lowest prices are around Christmas and Easter week.

"Luxe for less" hotel:

While the best prices are usually found off the Strip, Circus Circus is an affordable family-friendly option on the strip, and it includes a five-acre indoor theme park, The Adventuredome, which even includes a roller coaster! (circuscircus.com, from $39 per night if you book now)

SEE THE CITIES!

CHICAGO

Why we love it:

Chicago is a world-class city in the heart of the Midwest, with great public transportation, unparalleled museums, theater, music, and food.

Affordable family fun:

The Lincoln Park Zoo is open 365 days a year. Ogle the jaw-dropping views of the Chicago skyline (with some of the most beautiful skycrapers in America). Drop by the Navy Pier (one of Budget Travel'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.

Best time of year:

Crowds are spare and hotel rates are reasonable during spring and fall (before the legendary winter winds start blowing).

"Luxe for less" hotel:

The Warwick Allerton Hotel offers pure luxury on the Magnificent Mile (warwickhotels.com, Expedia offers deals from $99 per night)

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