When you're looking to save money on vacation, the first thing to consider is the travel distance. Flying can be a bank-breaker from the start so maybe think about carpooling or maybe even taking an Amtrak train. So, keeping that in mind, let's get down to the fun part and list out some exciting, interesting, scenic, and all-around awesome destinations for a senior trip on a budget.
New York City
While the Big Apple is one of the most expensive cities in the country, visitors can get around the pricey museum admissions by sticking to sightseeing and free attractions. Central Park is one of the most popular free destinations for its gorgeous scenery, wide-open spaces, and a plethora of hidden attractions deep within the greenery. For sightseeing, hit the observation deck at the Empire State Building, tour Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick's Cathedral, Federal Hall, and walk through Times Square. Remember, it's always free to walk through and look around but there are plenty of opportunities to spend your vacation money in the various markets, shopping areas, or even the famous Garment District.
Our nation's beloved capital is one of the most extensively free cities to visit for the abundance of national monuments, landmarks, and Smithsonian museums - which are always free! Start with the National Mall and see Capitol Hill, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial in a row. From there, stop in at the National Air and Space Museum, the National Zoo, and the Natural History Museum for sure. The other dozen or so Smithsonians are also amazing attractions that span the whole gamut of topics from science to culture to art and more.
Boston is another city, like NYC, that can be considerably pricey. However, most people come to Boston for the history anyway and most of those landmarks are free, lucky you. So, start your visit along the Freedom Trail leading through the city's most famous historical landmarks like the Old State House and Faneuil Hall and Marketplace which, by the way, is a fantastic shopping and entertainment district nowadays. Also, climb aboard the USS Constitution, tour the Museum of African American History, the Boston Fire Museum, and the Arnold Arboretum - all free of charge. The Museum of Fine Arts Boston regularly requires a pricey admission but it is free to students ages 7-17 on weekdays after 3 pm.
This incredible city is almost more desirable for budget trips than even Washington, D.C. for the abundance and quality of free attractions. The St. Louis Zoo was recently voted by Zagat as the #1 Zoo in America and is one of the only major zoos do not require admission. The St. Louis Art Museum, the Missouri History Museum, and the St. Louis Science Center are all, likewise, free and amazingly interactive, comprehensive and all-around fun attractions. While in St. Louis, you can also stop by and see the Gateway Arch, take a complimentary tour of the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, look through Union Station, see the beautiful and magnificent architecture of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, or tour Grant's Farm - free except for parking.
Again, this city can be fairly pricey but for those in the know, it's highly manageable. Save your money for a select few attractions or for the famous New Orleans food and stick to attending free festivals and concerts which pop up around the city all year long. Visit Musical Legends Park to hear free concerts by amazing performers, sight-see along Bourbon and Royal Streets, and tour the impressive and iconic St. Louis Cathedral. Mardi Gras is also free to attend in February but if you can't make that, Frenchman Street is the center of nightlife in the city and many music clubs have no cover charge.
Las Vegas is surprisingly affordable, down to the price of hotel rooms. There is also an incredible number of free attractions from the Ethel M. Chocolate Factory self-guided tours, touring old Vegas at the Freemont Street Experience which includes the Neon Museum, and the Bellagio's Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Many of the giant hotels offer free nightly shows like the Volcano at the Mirage, the Bellagio Fountains, and more. See the flamingos at the Flamingo hotel, the aquarium at the Silverton, or travel just outside of town to see the Hoover Dam. To save money, don't eat on the Strip where prices are raised considerably, though there are a few affordable options.
Many of SF's most popular landmarks are free of charge or require only nominal entrance fees. The Golden Gate Bridge, for example, is free to traverse, to admire, and to explore as is the Golden Gate Park, an excellent and free natural attraction with several artistic and historical additions. Walkthrough Fisherman's Wharf and see the sea lions at Pier 39 and also stop by the free San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. The "Crookedest Street," Lombard Street, is a popular photo-opportunity while the Yerba Buena Gardens are a beautiful and relaxing addition to any itinerary.
Virginia is the birthplace of 8 U.S. presidents, three of whom lived in or near Charlottesville. This historic city offers small-town charm with loads of history and culture. Be sure to visit Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and Mulberry Row were his slaves resided. Also visit Ash Lawn-Highland, home of James Monroe, and the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace. Some of the destinations may not be free but they are a small price to pay for such extraordinary experiences. You can also window shop at the Historic Downtown Mall, tour the Civil War Museum, and visit the historical War Fields or learn how lavender is grown at the White Oak Lavender Farm.
Extra: All of the U.S.'s beautiful National Parks are free including the geothermal and wildlife wonderland of Yellowstone, the extravagant mountains and waterfalls of Yosemite, and the blue rolling hills of the Great Smoky Mountains. All are within driving distance of an exciting American city to make your trip extra fun.