The USA isn’t known for being a cheap country to visit. Some of its most popular destinations, like New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are some of the most expensive cities in the world (NYC takes the top spot!). And with a rising dollar and falling pound, it may seem like an American escape is off the cards if you’re on a budget. But luckily, this isn’t the case.
There are many US destinations perfect for thrifty travellers, from bustling cities with fascinating history and culture to gorgeous landscapes where you can relax among nature.
Whether you’re looking for free museums, mouthwatering yet affordable food, a soul-stirring music scene, or wild beauty on your doorstep, here are eight of the cheapest places to visit in America.
1. Albuquerque, New Mexico
If you’re a fan of Mexican food and dazzling desert landscapes, then Albuquerque might be the US destination for you.
It may be the largest city in New Mexico, but a sense of wilderness still pervades this quirky city – from the howls of coyotes after dark to the rosy-hued Sandia Mountains at sunset.
Not only is Albuquerque one of the most affordable places in America, it also has something for everyone.
If you’re into art and history, there are plenty of excellent galleries and museums to explore, many of which are free to enter. You might also want to time your trip for the first Friday of the month – that way you can take advantage of the ABQ Artwalk’s free art shows and concerts.
Or, if old-school Americana culture is more up your street, you’ll love the colourful diners and neon signs that line the iconic Route 66. Route 66 passes through the city, as well as the Old Town, which is a great place to enjoy a leisurely stroll. There are also hiking and mountain-biking trails in the mountains and high desert just outside the city if you’d like to get active.
Foodies will be in their element in Albuquerque too. The city’s known for its breakfast burritos and red chile enchiladas – and the Brewery District is packed with cool bars and breweries where you can sample local beer. Food and drink here, just like accommodation, is much more reasonably priced than elsewhere in the US, so you can get much more bang for your buck!
2. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
If you’re interested in visiting Northeastern USA, it goes without saying that you should give New York a miss if you’re on a budget. However, its neighbour, Philadelphia, is less than two hours away, and offers all the glamour, charm, and culture of a big city, without the eye-watering price tags.
Boasting a rich history, cool attractions, and a unique food and drink scene, Philly, as it’s known to locals, is a great destination for people looking to soak up lots of culture without spending a fortune. Affordable daily transport passes make it easy for you to get around the city, as you can hop on and off any bus, trolley, subway, or train.
Plus, many of Philly’s most famous attractions don’t cost a penny. Visiting Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, is free – and you get a free guided tour thrown in too.
Fans of the Rocky films will want to visit the Rocky Statue and run up the Rocky Steps, both of which are free – as is public art, like the iconic LOVE sculpture.
Eating out here is vastly cheaper than in NYC, and many restaurants run BYOB schemes, which keeps costs even lower. The city’s most famous culinary export is the Philly cheesesteak, a sandwich made from sliced beefsteak and melted cheese, and this inexpensive meal will fill you up for hours. Plus, things like brewery tours or tickets to sports games don’t cost too much here, either.
3. Savannah, Georgia
Beautiful, charming, and historic, the coastal city of Savannah, Georgia, is one of the most affordable hotspots in America – especially if you’re looking to experience some Southern hospitality.
Home to elegant townhouses, moss-covered trees, grand antebellum mansions, and plenty of pretty green spaces, Savannah is a gorgeous city that’s much cheaper than it looks.
As the oldest city in the state, there’s plenty of history and culture here. Plus, some of the town’s most popular sightseeing spots in Savannah are free – from stunning Forsyth Park, with its famous fountain, to lively River Street, which is perfect for a waterside stroll. Wormsloe Historic Site also doesn’t cost, and you can take a free walking tour of the city too (just don’t forget to tip!).
Food is generally good value too, so you can enjoy sampling plenty of classic Southern dishes, soul food, and fresh, battered, or fried seafood. And if you fancy something sweet and fresh, Georgia’s famous peaches will hit the spot! If you’re feeling lethargic after all that food, you can use the dot shuttle bus to get home – which is totally free!
If you want to spend time in nature, you can head to Tybee Island, a barrier island just 20 minutes outside the city, where you can soak up some sun on the white sand beaches. Hiking at McQueen’s Island Trail is another free activity that provides you with sensational views, and the pristine tidal freshwater marshes offer plenty of affordable adventures too.
4. Memphis, Tennessee
If you’re a lover of blues music, rock and roll, or Elvis Presley, there’s a good chance you’ve always wanted to visit Memphis.
Tennessee’s second largest city has been drawing music-lovers for decades. But in recent years it’s been reenergised, with abandoned neighbourhoods replaced with lively bars, microbreweries, and restaurants.
Luckily, it’s still an affordable city, and if you want to listen to world-class music for free, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Many bars and clubs are free to enter, and you’ll be able to sit back and enjoy soulful live music without charge. While most of the bars along famous Beale Street have a cover charge, it’s absolutely worth it when you factor in the calibre of the acts.
In summer, there are plenty of free concerts at Overton Park Shell, the famous amphitheatre where young Elvis Presley first performed in 1954 – although real fans of ‘The King’ might want to fork out to visit Graceland. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music costs only $13, and will take you on an absorbing journey through the history of soul.
If you fancy a stroll in the sun, why not walk along the Mississippi River, or visit Mud Island River Park? To enjoy gorgeous city views, head to the free observation deck at the top of The Memphis Pyramid.
Food is also good value here, and if you love a barbecue you’ll be especially happy, as the city is known for its inexpensive smoky pulled pork and dry-rubbed ribs.
5. San Antonio, Texas
Located in south-central Texas, San Antonio isn’t only the oldest city in the state, it’s also the most exciting, characterful, and colourful.
Merging American history with Mexican culture, boasting a cosmopolitan mix of people, ands a vibrant yet affordable arts and food scene, it’s no surprise that San Antonio is one of the fastest-growing cities in the US.
History-enthusiasts will definitely want to visit the beautiful Alamo Mission, which is where the Battle of Alamo was fought in 1836. The US is home to seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the Alamo is one of them – and luckily for travellers on a budget, it’s totally free to tour this historical site and its grounds, which remains the beating heart of this charming Texan city.
The pedestrianised River Walk, another one of the most popular attractions in the city, is also free. This gorgeous maze of waterside paths tucked below street level is the perfect place for a gentle stroll. Lined with charming patio restaurants, buzzing bars, and unique shops, the River Walk is an impressive 15 miles – so you might want to set aside a couple of days to explore it!
If you want to enjoy the outdoors, you can explore the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, visit the Natural Bridge Caverns, or have a picnic at Brackenridge Park.
If you’re a fan of Mexican food, you’ll be pleased to know that San Antonio is home to arguably the best Mexican cuisine in the US – from tamales to tacos to margaritas – and it’s very reasonably priced too!
6. Salt Lake City, Utah
Salt Lake City might be well-known for being the headquarters of the Mormon Church, but you don’t need to have any religious affiliations to want to visit this unique place.
The cityscape is especially impressive, with towering buildings sitting beneath powder blue skies, set against a dreamy backdrop of jagged, snow-capped mountains.
Unsurprisingly, considering its natural surroundings, Salt Lake City is a great jumping off point for anyone wanting to explore the great outdoors. It’s within easy reach of Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon National Parks, so using it as your base allows you to experience the incredible beauty of this part of the world for much less.
There are lots of free parks, museums, and churches dotted throughout the city, and whatever your feelings are on Mormonism, the Historic Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City is free to explore and well worth a visit. The beautiful gardens are ideal for relaxing, the architecture is impressive, and there are free tours if you want to learn more about the history.
In spite of the city’s religious reputation, less than half the population are church members, and a liberal spirit pervades the city, where there are more yoga studios and coffeehouses than you can count.
The plethora of international dining options are far cheaper than you’d expect, and with the hiking and skiing trails of the Wasatch Mountains on your doorstep, you’ll be kept busy.
7. Tucson, Arizona
If you’re looking for a diverse break where there’s as many opportunities to feast upon tasty local fare as to enjoy scenic hikes and visit museums, you may want to head to Tucson, Arizona.
Located to the north of the US-Mexico border, this laidback city is a melting pot of Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo traditions.
Set in a flat valley bordered by rugged mountains and swathes of giant cacti, Tucson (pronounced ‘too-sawn’) is just as popular for its natural landscape as it is for its urban attractions. You can hike through the stunning Saguaro National Park, explore the dramatic Santa Catalina Mountains, and visit the world-class Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Downtown, you can walk the Turquoise Trail – the free walking tour of the city which takes you past 23 historical landmarks, from the Pima County Courthouse to the old Railroad Depot. Tucson’s Museum of Art is free on the first Thursday of the month, but wandering through the distinct neighbourhoods gives you just as good a feel for the community and history of this city.
And then there’s the food! Just an hour’s drive from the Mexican border, there are more well-priced traditional Sonoran-style Mexican restaurants than you can shake a stick at, serving everything from tortas and tacos to chimichangas. Be sure to try the Sonoran hotdog: a bacon-wrapped frankfurter topped with pinto beans, onions, and jalapeño sauce!
8. Louisville, Kentucky
Kentucky’s largest city, Louisville (‘Loo-a-vul’ to locals!), is perhaps most famous for being the home of the Kentucky Derby, as well as the birthplace of Muhammad Ali.
But this buzzing city has plenty more going for it – especially if you’re a whiskey enthusiast! Located on the Ohio River, along the Indiana border, this historic city is handsome, cool, and very affordable.
Bourbon is Kentucky’s lifeblood, and if you love this golden liquor you’ll get more bang for your buck in Louisville than anywhere else. At Jim Beam American Stillhouse you can learn about the making and history of one of Kentucky’s most iconic drinks – and tours and activities are totally free. Tours at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience are great value, and include displays, guides, and samples.
Beyond bourbon, wandering around Old Louisville, with its network of grand Victorian mansions, is a fun and leisurely activity that doesn’t cost a cent. If you’re keen to get more steps in, walking across the illuminated Big Four Bridge is a popular activity, and offers you excellent views of the Ohio River below. Art lovers will definitely want to check out the free gallery at 21c Museum Hotel.
If you want to get active, head to the 554-acre E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park, where you can swim in the public swimming pool, or hike along nature trails. The Louisville Nature Center is also free, and gives you access to Beargrass Creek State Nature Preserve.
Plus, Kentucky’s most iconic culinary creations, the Hot Brown sandwich and the old fashioned cocktail, are very reasonably priced!
The USA isn’t usually considered to be a very affordable destination, but it’s important to note that this country is incredibly diverse – and that applies to how much it all costs.
While the bright lights of New York City or Los Angeles aren’t a smart option for anyone on a budget, there are plenty of other destinations that are much easier on your wallet. And because many of these places aren’t nearly as popular with tourists, you get to experience a much more authentic slice of American life.
If you’re into dazzling desert-landscapes and Mexican-inspired food, then Albuquerque, Tucson, and San Antonio are all excellent choices. If you’d like to experience traditional Southern hospitality, then Savannah might be the place for you – and if you’re into soul music and rock and roll, Memphis is a no brainer.
Nature lovers, skiers, and outdoor enthusiasts will be spoiled for choice in Salt Lake City, while whiskey aficionados will have fun sipping their way through Louisville. And if you’re looking to head to the North East, give expensive cities like NYC, Boston, and DC a miss, and head to Philly, where your money goes significantly further!