Want to skip the hassle and cost of a vacation that involves a plane ride and find a destination closer to home this summer? Here are five budget-friendly destinations that offer all the recreational activities, sun and fun your family craves, but are only a car ride away.
Tri-Cities instead of California wine country
Why go: If you are craving the guaranteed sun, wine tasting and outdoor activities of California wine country, the Tri-Cities is your budget-friendly getaway. The Tri-Cities consists of the cities of Kennewick, Pasco and Richland in Eastern Washington, about a three-and-a-half hour drive from Seattle.
The Columbia River Exhibition of History, Science and Technology (CREHST) in downtown Richland offers fun, hands-on exhibits for kids. The Playground of Dreams and adjacent Aquatic Splash Park in Columbia Park in Kennewick are always kid-pleasing favorites. Get a taste of the journey of Lewis and Clark by visiting Pasco’s Sacajawea State Park and its Interpretive Center.
If you're planning a kid-free getaway to the Tri-Cities, try a winery tour. In Richland, J. Bookwalter Winery and Bistro and Barnard Griffin Winery (which welcomes kids, too, as long as you are with them) are within walking distance of each other. Or visit vineyards by horseback, with the help of Red Mountain Trails, which offers several trail rides and tours, including a sunset vineyard tour.
Where to stay: The Red Lion Hanford House in downtown Richland offers “park-once-and-walk-everywhere” convenience, an outdoor pool and beautiful river views with rates starting at $110. The Hampton Inn Richland has an indoor pool and is adjacent to a park and the river trail; rates start at $140. For an inexpensive couples getaway, consider the riverfront Clover Island Inn in Kennewick, which includes an outdoor pool and bikes for borrowing. Rates start at $84 for two adults.
Wenatchee instead of Leavenworth
Why go: Love the Bavarian vibe and cute shops of Leavenworth but not the summer rates and crowds? Hop over to nearby Wenatchee, less than 20 miles away and an easy drive to Leavenworth, but with better hotel rates and an abundance of outdoor and kid-pleasing activities.
What to do: Outdoor activities include biking, hiking and rides on a miniature train Saturdays during the summer at Wenatchee’s Riverfront Park. Visit the Rocky Reach Dam and Museum, or the history exhibits of the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center in town. Take a hike on a kid-friendly trail at nearby Columbia Breaks Fire Interpretive Center, and inspect three retired fire lookout towers.
The new Pybus Public Market offers a large year-round farmers market. You can rent bikes there from Arlberg Sports and enjoy a ride on the Apple Capital Loop that runs on both sides of the Columbia River. Take a break from all that outdoor fun and have a seat at the counter at the old-fashioned Owl Soda Fountain in downtown Wenatchee.
Where to stay: The Marriott SpringHill Suites is ideal for families with its larger rooms, indoor pool and complimentary breakfast; rates start at $150 per night. The downtown Coast Wenatchee has connected indoor and outdoor pools and welcomes pets, with rates starting at $130 per night. The Red Lion Hotel Wenatchee is also located downtown and has a heated outdoor pool; rates start at $150 per night.
Cannon Beach, Oregon, instead of Hawaii
Why go: It might not have all the heat and sun of Hawaii, but you’ll save big on airfare while enjoying a long, white soft sand beach adjacent to a charming town filled with great shopping and dining options. Cannon Beach is located on the northern Oregon coast, about a four-hour car drive from Seattle.
What to do: Cannon Beach is known for its abundance of artists, so when you aren’t building sandcastles, flying a kite, learning to surf or lounging on the beach, you can shop the town’s many galleries and cute shops, including Cannon Beach Books, which has a large selection of great kid books and art supplies, several ice cream shops, kite stores like Once Upon a Breeze and Geppetto's Toy Shoppe.
Where to stay: Cannon Beach Vacation Rentals offers a range of houses with rates starting under $200 a night, including some “pet-friendly” units.
If your kids love to swim, check out Tolovana Inn and the Surfsand Resort. Both have indoor pools and are right on the beach. In summer, you’ll pay around $200 a night for a small suite in either location. Harrison Street Inn, located across the street from the beach, is a more budget-friendly option, offering clean, charming small suites with a full kitchen starting at $120 a night.
Falcon Cove or Seaside, Oregon, instead of Cannon Beach
Why go: Located north and south of Cannon Beach, respectively, Seaside and Falcon Cove offer less expensive lodging, just a few minutes away.
Falcon Cove, a short drive from (also wonderful) Manzanita, is a closely guarded secret among those who have discovered it. Located at the base of Oswald West State Park's beautiful forest along a secluded beach that draws many surfers, Falcon Cove is perfect for families who crave privacy and don’t mind driving to Cannon Beach or Manzanita for supplies or to dine out.
Seaside is located a few minutes north of Cannon Beach and is a great choice for families with teenagers, with hotels located in town and on the beach so teens have a “base camp” with opportunities for independent fun.
What to do: Falcon Cove is the ultimate beach for relaxation. At low tide the beach’s soft sand offers perfect sand castle construction material and at high tide the unique round rocks of the beach bang together in the waves.
Seaside is the “Jersey Shore of Oregon.” Spend an afternoon at Funland Seaside Arcade or rent a family-size bike at Italian surrey pedal bike rentals. Head to Seaside Cinema movie theater or dine at Sam’s Seaside Café, which features tasty food for kids and a selection of good beers and food for the adults. You’ll also find teen-pleasing food options such as Angelina’s Pizzeria and deli sandwiches from Tsunami Sandwich Company.
Where to stay: Find vacation houses for rent on Falcon Cove on its Vacation Rental by Owner page. Our family loves VRBO house number 153456, whose owner welcomes our dog, provides a fire pit with wood and even metal prongs for our hotdog and s’more feasts and shares her great collection of DVDs with guests. Houses rent for as little as $150 a night in the summer to $425 a night for a luxurious house that sleeps up to ten people.
In Seaside, options include the Holiday Inn Express, located an easy walking distance to the beach, with an indoor pool and complimentary breakfast for $150 a night, and the beachside Shilo Inn Suites Hotel, which welcomes dogs and has an indoor pool, for $250 a night.
Olympia and Great Wolf Lodge instead of Disneyland
Why go: For a lot less then you’d spend on a trip to Disneyland, Great Wolf is a nearby "theme park experience” that includes visits with cuddly characters and thrilling rides down slippery slopes. And compared to Disneyland, it's relatively affordable, especially if you can take advantage of a group discount or a Groupon deal. And add in a trip to Olympia for even more fun.
What to do: Activities at Great Wolf Lodge's vast water park take care of themselves: Teens love the two giant water slides and toddlers and babies get their own dedicated water play area. You can even body surf in the park’s wave pool. Kids can also play the onsite “MagiQuest“ magical adventures using the wands sold in the gift shops, and enjoy daily story times, visits with resort characters, the Northern Lights arcade and Scoops kid spa.
Combine a Great Wolf Lodge stay with a day or two in Olympia. Check out the spectacular new waterfront location of the Hands On Children’s Museum, which stays open on Thursday nights during the summer until 8 p.m. The nearby Farmers Market, open Thursday through Sunday during the summer, offers great kid-pleasing treats and meal options and daily live entertainment.
Where to stay: If you stay at Great Wolf Lodge, your room rate includes access to the water park, which you may also visit until it closes at 9 p.m. the day of your departure. The rates are steep — around $300 a night for a family suite for four on a weekend during the summer — but you can sometimes snap up deals for an overnight stay on Groupon or by coming with a group, such as the Girl Scouts.
You can also save money by dining occasionally at less expensive dining options just a quick car ride away from the resort. Tip: Plan ahead and bring clothes your kids can change into in the park’s locker rooms after their last swim.
If you decide to extend your stay in Olympia, the waterfront Phoenix Inn Suites is located downtown, has an indoor pool and is just four blocks from the new location of the Hands On Children’s Museum, with rates starting at $170 a night. Ask about the family package, which includes a complimentary family pass to Hands On when you book a double queen or family suite.
Kathleen F. Miller is a Sammamish-based freelance writer and mother of two.
Photo credits: Cannon Beach Bonfire, courtesy Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce; Wenatchee train, David J. Miller; Falcon Cove courtesy of Nancy Chase; photo at Great Wolf Lodge courtesy of Great Wolf Lodge.