Five classic, affordable U.S. vacations

The U.S. is a hodge-podge of different regions, each with a unique personality. Thus, even in difficult economic times like these, when Europe and far-flung destinations seem impossible to afford, you can still find a world-class destination in your own backyard. Here are my top picks for places that I consider to be the classic stops you won't find anywhere else in the world. Plus, you won't have to spend a fortune to experience them in style.

Disney World

Disney World is known as the happiest place on earth, and children all over the world rejoice in its existence. Parents, on the other hand, might not feel so elated when it comes to paying for the tickets, rooms, and traveling expenses. Here's how to feel the joy without paying a hefty price.

Start by deciding whether you want to stay in one of the resorts or find lodging off-site. There are many perks to staying at Disney, such as early entrance into the parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Disney's Animal Kingdom), free parking and transport, and close proximity to all things Disney. The drawback, however, is the price tag compared to hotels farther away from the parks. This is where a vacation package may be the answer. The Disney Resorts offer a slew of options for finding a package that best suits your needs. Plus, it takes some of the leg work out of having to purchase tickets and rooms separately. However, always price everything individually before booking to make sure you're getting the best deal.

Once you have a place to stay and your tickets in hand, you can create a plan of attack to make the most of your time and money at the parks. Since the four parks cover an area that's close to the size of San Francisco, you'll need to map out what you'll want to see and do. My Disney Vacation is an excellent tool that will help you create an itinerary and customize your own full-color map that will be delivered to your door for free. This will make it easy to use your time to the fullest, without getting overwhelmed by all the rides, attractions, restaurants, and stores.

When planning, start with each individual park and highlight what you most want to see. For instance, decide if you'd rather ride Splash Mountain or visit the Haunted Mansion in the Magic Kingdom. You'll also want to decide if you want to visit all four parks, or just spend your time in one. A one-day ticket to one park is about $45 cheaper than a park-hopper one-day pass. Head over to for up-to-the-minute details on the latest Disney deals and discounts.

Sample tripA resort package for two that includes six-days' lodging at Disney's Pop Century Resort, seven-day Magic Your Way base tickets, and extra perks ran about $1,025 at the time of this article. Since this deal doesn't include airfare, two round-trip tickets from New York City to Orlando in August for mid-week travel cost $452. The basic total cost for this trip is $738.50, including most taxes, per person.

Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park

The natural beauty of the Southwest is defined by the dramatic chasm of the Grand Canyon, the russet sandstone arches of Zion National Park, and the mystical hoodoos of Bryce Canyon. These national parks boast some of the greatest scenic views in the U.S., and are located within easy driving distance of one another.

There are a variety of ways to visit all three parks, including taking a caravan, bike, or group tour. However, one of the best ways to see it all is from behind the wheel of your own vehicle. Brian Fisher of Boston, who visited all three parks two years ago, says, "Going at my own pace allowed me the time to truly absorb my surroundings ... I could get out and take a picture whenever I wanted. And, trust me, there are so many astounding things to photograph, you'll want to stop at every turn."

The Grand Circle Road Trip is a great jumping off point when planning your vacation, as it covers all of the major stops and offers a variety of itinerary suggestions. Depending on how much you're willing to spend on plane tickets, you can either begin your journey in Las Vegas or St. George, Utah. Allow about one week's worth of time to see all three parks, as you'll cover nearly 1,000 miles.

Each park charges a fee to enter. You can pay at the individual park, which typically runs about $25 per vehicle. An annual pass goes for $80 and will grant you access to all the parks in the country for free.

Your first stop will be Zion National Park, where you'll encounter towering red cliffs jutting up from the road below. Many outdoor enthusiasts come to this park to hike its trails, including Weeping Rock, Emerald Pools, and the ever-so-popular Angels Landing. Be sure to make time to see the Kolob Arch, the world's largest natural arch, which spans 310 feet.

Bryce Canyon is up next with horseshoe-shaped amphitheatres and red rock spires. "During sunrise, the hoodoos turn a range of brilliant reds, pinks, and oranges reflecting from the morning sky. It's definitely worth getting up early for," says Fisher. Take the park shuttle during the summer months to avoid heavy traffic.

Finally, make your way to the Grand Canyon. The South Rim may see more visitors, but the North Rim (open mid-May to mid-October) is easier to reach by car on a trip that includes Bryce and Zion. It also offers the same awe-inspiring vistas as its more crowded counterpart.

Sample tripWhen I looked for sample flights, the best price I was able to find was $251 for two round-trip tickets from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for mid-week travel in August. Renting a car in Vegas for one week costs $284, and gas runs about $170, with fuel prices at $4.10 and traveling 1,000 miles in a car that gets 24 miles to the gallon. Seven-nights of camping costs about $105. The basic trip total costs $405, including most taxes, per person for a week.

Las Vegas

The glitz and glamour of Las Vegas has attracted visitors since the early 1930s when gambling was legalized in Nevada. In just 77 years, the city has risen from humble beginnings to become an all-American mecca of adult entertainment.

Las Vegas Boulevard, or the Strip, is the only place in the world where you can see a volcano erupt, watch scantily clad pirates duel, admire choreographed fountains, and gawk as a roller coaster sends screaming visitors soaring into the sky. And that's just what you'll find while wandering outside.

With 17 of the 20 largest hotels in the U.S. located in Las Vegas, it's not surprising that most things there are larger than life. And it's not just the casinos, either. You can see a Broadway production, browse through an art museum, lounge by the pool, eat at a five-star restaurant, and shop at boutiques all within the same day. You can also visit Paris, New York City, Venice, Italy, Egypt, and Rome without ever stepping foot outside of the city.

There are truly a million and one ways to spend your time here. For those on a budget, the best place to start is where to stay. "If you really want to save money, don't stay on the strip," says Jonnie Stone of Richmond, Virginia, who recently visited Vegas with three friends. Many of the hotels located in the Fremont Street Experience offer valuable savings over the theme casinos downtown.

It's easy to get from one place to another with the Citizens Area Transit's (CAT) deuce bus, which costs $2 per ride or $5 for an all-day pass. There are so many free attractions in and around nearly every casino that you don't have to spend a dime for entertainment. However, if you'd like to see a show, Vegas offers a wide variety of nightly performances to suit any fancy.

Sample tripA standard double room at the Four Queens in the Fremont area costs $353 for a seven-night stay. At press time, typical round-trip flights from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in August for mid-week travel were going for $251. The basic total for this trip would run about $302, including most taxes, per person.

California's coastal highway

The 122-mile stretch of coastal highway south of San Francisco captivates visitors with its pastoral meadows, fog-shrouded cliffs, and numerous vineyards. Popular stops include San Luis Obispo, where you can dine at an outdoor eatery, window shop at one of the boutiques, or stroll along the San Luis Creek walkways; Hearst Castle high atop Enchanted Hill, which you can tour for $20; Half Moon Bay with its historical main street and coastal village charm; and Santa Monica's three-and-a-half miles of beach.

This two-lane highway hugs the shoreline and forces you to slow down. Andrew Wagner of Boston, who made the trip by car last year, says, "If you're faint of heart, I'd suggest driving it south to north. We did it north to south, which means you're in the outside lane—and in some places, especially north of San Francisco, there literally may be nothing between the edge of the asphalt and a sheer drop, no shoulder, no guardrail."

When planning your trip, you'll have to take the rising cost of gas into consideration. If renting a car, try to get one that does well on gas mileage. You can budget the cost of gas through MapQuest. To save money, you can camp for a minimal fee in one of the many campgrounds located along the shore. Plus, many bed and breakfasts will help cut costs by offering a full meal in the morning. When it comes to activities, you don't have to spend a lot to get a lot. You can picnic on the beach, hike along the shore, or sample wines at a local vineyard for next to nothing.

There are also plenty of scenic sites along the drive, and Wagner says, "Just make sure you stop. Even if you just pull off the road to get out and compare the mountains to your left and the infinite ocean to your right, it will be a very powerful experience."

Sample tripI was able to find two tickets from Seattle to San Francisco with the return from Los Angeles, flying mid-week during August, for $352. Renting a subcompact car for seven days will cost about $640. Gas will run about $23 for the 122 miles, with prices at $4.50 and driving a car that gets 24 miles per gallon. However, be aware that most of the drive is slow, so prices are typically going to be higher. You can spend as little as $130 for the week by camping in state parks. Total basic cost for the trip will run about $572.50, including most taxes, per person.

The Outer Banks

With more than 130 miles of white sandy beaches, North Carolina's Outer Banks is the ideal place to enjoy the lazy days of summer. This chain of barrier islands, however, offers more than just fun in the sun. "You can spend the first part of the day learning about shipwrecks and American Naval officers, and the second part riding the waves at the beach," says Leah Wesemann, who recently took a trip to the Outer Banks with her family. "It has something for all ages."

Many noteworthy events have taken place along these shores, including the Wright Brothers' famous first flight in Kitty Hawk, and the disappearance of the first English settlers, known as the Lost Colony. Plus, the area is dotted with some of the more famous lighthouses in the country, many of which you can climb to the top.

To experience all the islands have to offer, you'll want to start by renting a cottage or a beach house in Nags Head. For longer stays, vacation rentals tend to be a more affordable option. Wesemann, who rented a house on the beach, advises, "Do your research to find [a rental] that has everything you'll need. There are certain houses that cater to families with small children and some that have amenities that would be more enjoyable for a group of young friends. There are a wide variety of homes and a lot to choose from, so be picky ... but don't wait too long to book, because your favorite place might be taken." To find a vacation rental that's right for you, start by searching a website like Outer Banks North Carolina Sun Realty. Rates depend on the time of year, amount of people, and proximity to the beach. Another option for the budget-minded is camping at a National Park Service campground, which start at $20 per day for a spot.

Once you have your home base, you can spend the rest of your time exploring the Outer Banks. Start with a visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial to see where air travel began. Admission costs $4 per person. After that, you can watch as The Lost Colony comes to life in a play about the mystery surrounding the first settlers. Tickets cost $16 per person.

The five lighthouses of the Outer Banks deserve special attention. To see them all, start 15 miles north of the town of Duck in Corolla, where you'll find the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. From there, travel south to Manteo for the newest lighthouse, the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse. Continue south until you reach Cape Hattaras National Seashore, where you'll find the Bodie Island Lighthouse. Follow Highway 12 even further south into the seashore, and you'll see the island's most recognizable lighthouse, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. From there, you can take a free 40-minute ferry ride to reach Ocracoke Island, and the final stop, Ocracoke Lighthouse.

Sample tripSample flights at press time ran for $469 for two round-trip tickets from New York City to Norfolk, Virginia, flying mid-week during August. Renting a subcompact car costs about $334 for one week. A one-bedroom vacation rental runs about $1,000 for a seven night stay. The basic trip for one week will cost $901.50, including most taxes, per person.

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