Looking to take the Great American Vacation this year? Hoping to spend a little less than you might if you ventured overseas or to an obvious — and overpriced — domestic hot spot such as New York City, Honolulu or Las Vegas?
AARP, the advocacy group for older Americans, has done the due diligence for intrepid and frugal travelers — no matter their age — and compiled a list of nine lesser-known, yet compelling and more affordable vacation destinations across the country.
AARP says this "welcoming riverside city" is tops with older vacationers and foodies. The latter descend on this town of 70,000 each October for its Fall for Greenville food festival. The revitalized downtown area is distinguished by some 70 public art installations, free access to the Greenville County Museum of Art and wheelchair-accessible trolleys, and an array of international dining options.
Closest major airport: Greenville-Spartanburg International (GSP)
Tourism website: www.visitgreenvillesc.com
Lewis and Clark may have ended their travels in this northern Oregon river port; however, you should seriously consider starting yours here. In addition to the Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks commemorating that early 19th century expedition, you'll find elegant mansions — many now B&Bs — in Queen Anne and Victorian style "spilling down hillsides," says AARP, "toward no-sales-tax boutiques." High-seas-related highlights include Bowpicker Fish & Chips, a food stand housed in an old fishing boat, and the Columbia River Maritime Museum, harboring vintage vessels.
Closest major airport: Portland International (PDX), Portland, Oregon
Tourism website: www.travelastoria.com
Miami, schmiami. Try Pensacola for a change. Situated on the far west of the Florida Panhandle — a stone's throw from Mobile, Alabama, in a region nicknamed "Floribama" — this Gulf Coast city boasts white-sand beaches, fishing and birding galore, and what AARP terms "a nicely restored downtown" where you'll want to "wander the outdoor Palafox Market for food, music and crafts on Saturday mornings." AARP Pensacola pointer for foodies? Peg Leg Pete's, for 75-cent raw oyster specials.
Closest major airport: Pensacola International (PNS)
Tourism website: www.visitpensacola.com
This lakeside destination has drawn wealthy clientele from Chicago and Milwaukee for generations but that doesn't mean it's out of reach for regular folks. AARP recommends a stroll past the magnificent mansions lining more than 20 miles of Geneva Lake Shore Path, cruising the scenic lake itself and dining in Lake Geneva's many "budget-friendly diners and pubs," including Egg Harbor Cafe. Top entertainment tip: A Vegas-quality show from illusionist Tristan Crist, at less than $50 per person.
Closest major airport: Mitchell International (MKE), Milwaukee
Tourism website: www.visitlakegeneva.com
AARP says nightly hotel rates in Wyoming's "cowboy-loving capital" are usually well under $100. Combine that with free activities such as narrated carriage rides through historic downtown and pancake breakfasts at the summertime Frontier Days festival and you're good to go on an exciting and inexpensive Western getaway. Looking for an "Only in Cheyenne" experience? AARP recommends hand-feeding roaming buffalo at the Terry Bison Ranch or pulling your own draft at the Accomplice Beer Company, housed in the restored Cheyenne Depot train station.
Closest airports: Cheyenne Regional (CYS) or Denver International (DEN)
Tourism website: www.cheyenne.org
Hot Springs' most famous draw — its mineral waters — are free for the taking, at community spigots dotting this charming resort city. AARP recommends "taking the waters" as generations of visitors have done at thermal baths lining Bathhouse Row. (A hot dip at Quapaw Baths & Spa costs just $20.) In addition to all those hot springs, the city is also noted for old-time underworld connections, having drawn the likes of the infamous Al Capone and Lucky Luciano back in the day. Sip a cocktail at former gangster fave The Ohio Club or tour The Gangster Museum of America.
Closest major airport: Clinton National (LIT), Little Rock, Arkansas
Tourism website: www.hotsprings.org
Set midway between Roanoke and Charlottesville, Virginia, scenic Lexington "delights visitors with cool shops and boutiques, a walkable downtown ... restaurants that use locally sourced ingredients, and a wealth of Southern history," says AARP. Trawl the Virginia Military Institute Museum and its 15,000 artifacts, browse the 100-plus vendors at The Antique Mall and then chow down at Blue Sky Bakery. And when you're ready to move on, head out on the nearby world-famous Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs for 469 picturesque miles through Virginia and North Carolina.
Closest airport: Roanoke Regional (ROA), Roanoke, Virginia, or Lynchburg Regional (LYH), Lynchburg, Virginia
Tourism website: https://lexingtonvirginia.com
Traverse City is an up-and-coming wine destination, AARP reports, so oenophiles who want to beat the crowds should make a beeline to this Lake Michigan vacation spot. For now, lodging can still be had for under $80 a night — but that may not last long. The so-called Traverse Wine Coast is increasingly drawing drinkers, who head to 2 Lads Winery for $7 wine-tasting flights and to Grand Traverse Distillery for the harder stuff. Visitors love local summertime events, too: This year's National Cherry Festival takes place June 29 to July 6, and the Traverse City Film Festival will draw movie buffs July 30 to Aug. 4.
Closest airports: Cherry Capital (TVC), Traverse City, or Gerald R. Ford International (GRR), Grand Rapids, Michigan
Tourism website: www.traversecity.com
Up, up and away! Albuquerque is famed, and rightly so, for its annual International Balloon Fiesta each October. And New Mexico's largest city, home to nearly 560,000 people, offers affordable fun throughout the year. AARP recommends exploring the historic heart of Albuquerque's Old Town, where you can browse shops selling Native American pottery and jewelry, lunch or dine on budget-conscious Mexican dishes or enjoy open-air mariachi band performances. Tourist board Visit Albuquerque provides an online listing of affordable activity options, from $4 museum visits to $8 performance tickets, as well as hotel discount hints. If you've rented a car, the charming and history-rich state capital Santa Fe is just an hour north by freeway.
Closest major airport: Albuquerque International Sunport (ABQ)
Tourism website: www.visitalbuquerque.org