1. Lake Tahoe, California
Lake Tahoe is famous for its skiing, hiking, beaches, golf, shopping, dining and nightlife.
A road that loops the lake gives easy access to spectacular parks, including Emerald Bay State Park and Sand Harbor State Park (with entry fees between $5 and $10 per car).
Kings Beach State Recreation Area is perfect for swimming, boating and tanning — and is free.
Skiers and snowboarders should head to local favorite Homewood Mountain Resort in the spring to avoid crowds and save on lift tickets.
Advance online prices are considerably lower than the cost of skiing elsewhere in the area. You can get a lift ticket for as little as $49, compared to $84 at Alpine Meadows nearby.
Travel & lodging
Lake Tahoe is close to Reno-Tahoe International Airport, which has its own Airfare Deals newsletter promising flights as cheap as $59 from San Diego or $99 to New York City.
Many resort towns around the lake offer reasonably priced lodging. Truckee is a mid-range budget-friendly home base with hotels ranging from $110 and up per night, while Airbnb options cost $77 and up.
The Tahoe North Shore Lodge in Carnelian Bay has rooms from $73 a night, while the charming Stevenson's Holliday Inn ("Holliday" is NOT a typo, btw) in Kings Beach has rooms from $63.
If you don't have a car, the Tahoe Area Regional Transit (TART) runs buses to the ski resorts, and tickets start at $1.75. During peak ski season from December to early March, free ski shuttles operate all around the lake.
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2. Puerto Morelos, Mexico
Skip the crowds in Cancun and head 20 minutes south to Puerto Morelos for a relaxed vibe, great food and beaches at a fraction of the cost.
Local dive shops offer snorkeling tours at protected reefs, but these cost $35 to $120. Instead, check out the sea life for free from the shore in front of the Ojo de Agua restaurant. Rent snorkeling gear or bring your own goggles to use in the clear shallow waters.
For cheaper options than the tourist traps at Puerto Morelos Dock, take a walk or short taxi ride up Calle Jose Maria Morelos to the city.
Here, you’ll find delicious Mexican burritos; fresh and cheap tacos; and large wood-oven baked pizzas for just 160 pesos — $8.50 US.
For a great cultural day trip, take a taxi to the south end of Cancun’s hotel zone. Enjoy the free public beaches and check out the Museo Maya de Cancun's Mayan artifacts. Entry is just $4.
Travel & lodging
Get the best prices and avoid hurricane season by visiting Puerto Morelos from May to mid-July. You can find round-trip flights from Chicago for $200, from New York and Houston for $230, and from Salt Lake City for $412 and up.
While a barebones hotel room goes for $89 or higher in Cancun, you can get an entire condo on the beach for the same price from Velas Condos in Puerto Morelos.
A room at the cute Posada Amor Hotel Boutique goes for just $25 a night, or you might settle in at the standard Grand Hotel Gota de Sal with its private beach for $51 a night.
Be sure to take along the right credit card. Use a rewards credit card for your expenses, and you'll have more to show for your vacation than souvenir T-shirts.
More: 10 tips to keep your summer vacation on a budget
3. Lisbon, Portugal
With its perfect weather, Portugal is a great budget destination year-round. Lisbon’s hilly streets and beautiful facades are living history, and the city’s museums are wonderful, too.
The Museu do Oriente focuses on the Portuguese empire’s reach into Asia, and admission is free every Friday evening. The Museu Coleção Berardo is always free to enter and houses some of the biggest names in modern art.
Delve into 2,500 years of Lisbon’s past at the Núcleo Arqueológico museum, where you can get a free guided tour of the fascinating ancient burial sites, Roman artifacts and the wood structures that keep the city from sinking.
For a taste of local culture, check out the lively Feira da Ladra market or one of the city's many public parks, such as Jardim do Principe Real. Don’t forget to climb up to some of Lisbon’s lookouts (miradouros), where you’ll get the best views of the city.
Travel & lodging
For a top-notch experience and low prices, avoid visiting in mid- to late August when much of Lisbon is closed, and look for deals on a flight aggregator site like Kayak.
If you search for flights from Chicago in mid-March, the cheapest option might be around $600. However, by making a stop in Manchester, England, and flying Ryanair from there to Lisbon, you'll save over $100. Gotta love budget European airlines!
Lisbon is packed with hostels of various privacy levels and prices. You can get a private room with shared bath for $30 a night — but regular hotel rooms can be found for not much more.
For example, a room at the two-star Pensão Beira Minho can cost as little as $38 a night, and the hotel is within walking distance of the city's best nightlife.
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4. Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Straddling part of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, Shenandoah National Park is home to waterfalls, native wildlife and spectacular trails for adventurers of all ages and abilities.
Entry to the park costs $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle and $15 per person, and these fees are good for seven days.
In the park, enjoy solo hiking — or basket weaving, horseback riding, stargazing and fire-cooked s’mores programs run by park staff. If you’re hankering for a day trip outside the park, take a short drive through the valley's historic cities and towns.
Check out the regionally famous (and free!) farmers markets in Salem and Dayton, or the Holy Cross Abbey near Berryville, where monks sell their own fruitcake, honey and chocolate truffles.
Travel & lodging
Located close to the East Coast’s major cities, Shenandoah National Park is less than a two-hour drive from Washington, D.C., and is four hours from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia or Raleigh, North Carolina.
For spectacular views, take your car along Skyline Drive, the 105-mile mountain road over the crests of the Blue Ridge.
Within the park, a campsite will cost you $20 per night at the popular Big Meadows Campground or $15 a night at the other campgrounds.
The park also has its own lodge, where two-person rooms start at $107 a night, as well as four-person private cabins, which run for $158. More rustic cabins kept up by volunteers are available to rent in advance for as little as $70 a night.
More: Find a travel rewards credit card and start earning miles today
5. Barcelona, Spain
With a little planning, Barcelona can be a fantastic budget destination.
The best and cheapest way to enjoy the city is on foot, so strap on a comfy pair and explore. Visit the 13th century Cathedral of Barcelona and stay a while at the splendid Plaça Reial square in the Gothic Quarter.
Nearby is the hip El Born neighborhood, where drinks, snacks and high-end flavors are served day and night.
Take a break at the famous Parc de la Ciutadella, the Plaça de l'Ictineo by the yacht dock, or on Barceloneta beach — all within walking distance from the main Ramblas strip.
No trip to Barcelona is complete without seeing the architectural work of its famous son, Antoni Gaudi. For the budget-friendly Gaudi experience, visit Park Guell (about $9.75 U.S.), which showcases his quirky design aesthetic and offers great views.
Travel & lodging
Tourist season means huge crowds and high prices in Barcelona, so it’s best to avoid visiting between the end of April and mid-September. The weather is temperate all year and you’ll get plenty of sun at midday.
Round-trip flights can be booked for as low as $420 from New York and starting at $387 from Boston. Barcelona's airport is connected to the city center by the Aerobus, which costs less than $7 each way.
The city has cheap central lodging, such as a room for two with a private bath at Hostalet de Barcelona for $51 a night. That’s just $357 for seven nights. Smaller rooms, hostels and Airbnb cost even less.
To do Barcelona on a budget and come in at $1,000 a person, always eat like a local. Enjoy a pastry and coffee for breakfast, a three-course menu del dia costing about $13.50 for lunch, and a fresh tapas dinner. Wash dinner down with a cheap local beer.
6. Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina and Tennessee
The scenic Great Smokies are an amazing destination for camping, hiking, horseback riding, zip-lining and nature photography — and entry to the park is completely free.
Within the park, Cades Cove and Roaring Fork have historic homesteads that have been preserved, and you can explore the mountains’ geology on the Alum Cave Trail.
In nearby Gatlinburg, take a free tour of the Ole Smoky Moonshine Holler distillery or the Sugarlands Distilling Company, and get $5 samples of the good stuff. The Smoky Mountain Winery offers free tastings of its award-winning wines.
Gatlinburg's one-of-a-kind Alpine Slide runs 1,800 feet down Mount Harrison, offering unparalleled mountain views for $7 per person.
An all-day ticket to the Gatlinburg Space Needle costs $12.95 for adults or $9.95 for seniors and military members — and there’s no better way to watch the sunset against the mountains than from the top of the needle.
Travel & lodging
Residents of neighboring states can drive the scenic route to the Great Smoky Mountains, and parking is free. The park is about four hours from Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; or Nashville, Tennessee.
If you’re coming farther, round-trip air fare might set you back $300 from Boston; $165 from Florida; or $305 from Houston.
Camping on site costs just $14 to $23 per night — or you can rent cute rooms in Gatlinburg or secluded cabins right in the mountains. Check out Cabins of the Smoky Mountains, where a one-bedroom with hot tub goes for as little as $85 a night.
The biggest crowds and the highest prices in the Smokies are found between June 15 and August 15, and during the entire month of October.
7. Marrakesh, Morrocco
Magical Marrakesh is a treat for the senses. Djemaa El Fna, the city’s main square, buzzes with life as monkeys, musicians, snake charmers and local vendors congregate all day.
Every night, street performers and acrobats put on a show for passers-by. You can spend hours perusing everything for sale in the alleys north of the plaza.
Marrakesh is jam-packed with free things to see and do. Menara Gardens is one of the prettiest places in the city, while the historic Agdal Gardens in the Royal Palace are usually free to the public on Fridays and Saturdays.
The beautifully preserved Bahai Palace, ancient El Badii Palace and Saadian Tombs are just 10 dirham ($1) to enter and are all right in the middle of the city.
For an artsy break, take a half-hour walk or a 20 to 40 dirham ($2-$4) taxi ride to the Gueliz neighborhood and enjoy the local artists' free galleries.
Travel & lodging
The most expensive part of visiting Marrakesh is the air fare. Round trips cost about $415 from Boston or $575 from Chicago.
Perfectly nice hotel rooms in the city center cost just $13 to $20 a night.
Local food is delicious and well-priced as long as you stay away from tourist traps. A traditional breakfast is usually a cup of tea and sfinge (donut), which costs about 5 to 10 dirham (50 cents to $1).
At top-rated restaurants like Chez Yassine, you can get a full plate of beef and vegetable tajine for 70 dirham ($7.30) or a chicken shawarma platter for 45 dirham ($4.70).
With prices like these, you can easily spend under $20 on food per day or under $140 in total over the course of a week.
8. Panama City, Panama
For sun and a unique cultural experience, Panama City is the perfect budget vacation. Much of its beauty is available for free just by taking to the streets on foot.
Walk along the bayside Cinta Costera to admire the city skyline and check out the nearby fish market and Casco Viejo, the city’s must-visit historic quarter. Its many bars, plazas, shops, live music venues and nightlife will keep you coming back.
Casco Viejo also is home to magnificent churches, and it’s the heart of the local art community. Enjoy the free galleries and public events here, or head to the Museum of Contemporary Art, costing a pay-what-you-wish entrance fee.
For great views of the city, walk to the top of the hill between Amador Causeway and Albrook Terminal. Or pay $4 to enter the magnificent Parque Metropolitano, a protected jungle in the city.
For a great day trip, go to the Amador Causeway by the Panama Canal and rent bikes for about $10. Finally, make sure to visit the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute where you'll pay up to $7 to explore Panama’s amazing biodiversity.
Travel & lodging
Visit Panama in January or February when you can get a round-trip flight for between $300 and $550 from nearly anywhere in the U.S.
Panama City is very walkable, and its well-connected network of buses and subways will cost you a one-time fee of $2 for a rechargeable card and just 35 cents per ride after that.
Stay in the center of the city at the Gatto Blanco Party Hotel for $75 and up a night. Near the Cinta Costura and Casco Viejo, check out hotel deals near La Exposición, such as the Euro Hotel ($50 a night) and the Hotel Centroamericano ($25 to $60 per night).
Want to save up for a vacay costing way more than a grand? Set a goal and calculate how long it will take you to reach it.
Canada's hippest city absolutely buzzes with history, art, music, street fairs, and an epic local food and brewery scene.
Much of the Montreal’s culture is free to access, so you can spend your money on the good stuff -- like smoked meat sandwiches from Schwartz’s Deli and a lunchtime visit to the Jean-Talon Market, and on nights out enjoying the city’s hopping bar and club scene.
Discover the breathtaking Notre-Dame Basilica, which is always free to enter to pray or meditate, but a tour will cost you $8. Montreal’s Musée des Beaux Arts is $15 for those 31 and older, but always free for younger visitors and for people with reduced mobility.
Take time to visit Mount Royal Park with its beautiful cemetery; St Joseph’s Oratory basilica and public performances; a nighttime self-guided Old Montreal walking tour; and the Lachine Canal National Historic Site — all free of charge.
In the summer, the city hosts dozens of festivals, including a jazz festival, beer festival, gourmet food truck festival, cultural festivals, a circus fest and Comiccon.
Travel & lodging
Round trip flights to Montreal go for $200 from Boston and New York, about $325 from Chicago and $475 from Kansas City, Missouri.
Driving is a budget-friendly option for visitors from the eastern U.S., if not the fastest route. The trip is about 10 hours from Washington, D.C., six hours from New York and five hours from Boston.
Centrally located hotels include Hotel Bon Accueil, with rooms starting at $54 a night; Le Simone Bed & Breakfast, with rooms from $63, including breakfast; and Hotel Le Roberval, where a studio is $63 a night.
On Airbnb, you may find studio apartments for as little as $35 a night if booked in advance.
10. A Caribbean cruise
Budget-friendly Caribbean cruises are such a great deal that you can take your whole family along. Regular travelers rave that they’re cheaper than staying at home!
Your cruise includes food, entertainment, and almost everything besides gratuities — so make the most of the ship’s pools, hot tubs and sports pavilions, spas and bars. Note that alcoholic drinks aren’t always included in economy packages.
You’ll have day stops at Central American and Caribbean ports to explore and taste the local culture, snorkel, hang glide and shop.
Cruises on Carnival Cruise Line leave from Texas or Florida. Carnival offers regional deals and discounts for seniors over 55, military personnel, airline employees and returning guests.
Travel & lodging
You can find seven-night cruises starting at $400 per person boarding in Miami, Tampa and Port Canaveral in Florida, and in Houston and Galveston in Texas.
When budgeting your trip, make sure to add the cost of air fare and day excursions.
Round-trip flights to Fort Lauderdale, Florida — close to Miami and a major cruise port itself — start around $185 from New York, $275 from Denver and $195 from Chicago. Tickets to Houston may cost $285 from New York, and around $200 from Denver or Chicago.
Day excursions cost $35 and up per person aboard Carnival cruises.
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