11 Affordable Family Destinations in North America That Make You Feel Like You're in Europe
Taking a family vacation to Europe can be phenomenally rewarding—and phenomenally expensive. When you consider the costs of flights (almost always two or more to get there), hotels, and the Euro exchange rate? It can feel like the entire continent is inaccessible for most families.
However, there is a hack: There are quite a few cities and other destinations within good ol' North America that remind us uncannily you of our child-free days backpacking through foreign lands.
Ahead, 11 destinations in the United States, Canada, and Mexico that will transport your family to "Europe"—for a fraction of the cost.
Mexico City Instead of Madrid
Madrid is one of the more affordable European cities; however, flying a family of four will be costly. In Mexico City, on the other hand, you can feel like you're in Spain while a lot closer to home—since the North American city center boasts similar baroque architecture to what can be seen all over Europe. This is no surprise, considering that Spain occupied Mexico for almost 300 years.
The city is rich with museums: modern art, history, and even children's museums, such as Papalote Museo del Niño. Admission to the latter only costs around $10 ($199 pesos). The city's most famous museum, of course, is the Frida Kahlo Museum, and a family of four can visit for under $20 U.S. dollars. If you'd like to stretch your money even further, choosing one museum and then exploring the various city parks and playgrounds also makes for a great time. You'll be pleasantly surprised to see how Mexican cities incorporate their art scene into their children's spaces.
Once your children have navigated all the sights, here are three words to revive them: churros con chocolate. The Spanish staple is less than $5 and is sure to please your little chocoholics. The city also offers authentic versions of kids' favorite Mexican foods, including tacos, quesadillas, and tamales. A typical meal for two could run you less than $10 U.S. Find info about food pricing here.
Outside of the city center, your children may also enjoy the Xochimilco Canal. This is known for its fun and colorful gondolas, which often feature cruising artists and mariachi bands. You can also take your kids to Salitre Pier and rent a boat for less than $20.
Quebec City Instead of Paris
The Canadian province of Quebec is French- as well as English-speaking, and the overall vibe is perfect for Francophiles of all ages. No matter what you take from this old city, you're guaranteed to forget that you're in North America. While Canada has a reputation for being trop chér, the U.S. dollar will take you pretty far with the conversion rates. That makes the museum and meal prices seem a lot more reasonable. For 2021, the U.S. dollar has been worth about 25 cents more than the Canadian dollar.
A flight from New York to Paris (or other French cities) could be at least five hours, but depending on your stateside location, your family could be in Quebec in under two. Even driving may take less time than a flight with a layover. On average, that French flight could cost each member of your family $600; a flight to Quebec City could be half that, and in the winter months, that price drops another 23%.
Quebec offers a wealth of outdoor activities at any time of year, many of which are reasonably priced. There are hiking trails leading to Montmorency Falls, which is gorgeous when frozen over in the winter; little ones will enjoy a visit before lacing up their skates for the trails. That's right: Cross-country ice skating trails abound, with little maple snack shacks along the way. Yes, these are very Canadian, but the French language and Christmas markets will transport you back to Europe.
Northern California Wine Country Instead of Tuscany
Why schlep to Europe (and shell out for two to three flights, including transatlantic) when some of the best wines in the world are right outside San Francisco? Plus, Tuscany's wineries receive an estimated four to six million visitors per year, so if you're looking to do wine country with kids, heading to NorCal instead (particularly in the slower winter season) will work wonders for both your wallet and your peace of mind when it comes to crowds—it is still a pandemic, let's not forget!
Stay at The Lodge at Sonoma, voted one of the best kid-friendly hotels in the county, or save big by heading up to Healdsburg instead; less crowded (and more affordable) than Napa and Sonoma, you can score great hotel deals here and hit up some of the favorite local kid-friendly wineries, from Acorn to Bacchus Landing.
Sawtooth Mountain Range, Idaho Instead of the Dolomites, Italy
Idaho isn't at the top of many people's bucket lists, but for those in the surrounding states, a road trip through the mountains can take your family through the lush landscape of northern Italy. A flight from Chicago to Boise could cost less than $400 per person, whereas a flight from Chicago to Venice could start at $800 round-trip per person.
The Sawtooth Mountain Range can perhaps be viewed as the Dolomites' Northwestern country cousin. Here, families can take in the great outdoors by water or on land—and if you're feeling adventurous, sleep in an RV or camp out in a tent.
Not your thing? There are still reasonably priced hotels with rooms for less than $150, such as the historic Sawtooth Hotel, with prices starting around $100 per night. Some even have hostel-style communal bathrooms, which can allow for an even cheaper nightly rate of $85.
Holland, Michigan Instead of the Netherlands
Thousands flock to the Dutch countryside for selfies in the world's most famous tulip fields. But in the U.S., budget-savvy Netherlands lovers visit the town of Holland, MI, instead, for its annual Tulip Time Festival. This is held every May, and the fields are watched over by a 250-year-old windmill. Plus, Dutch treats like stroopwafels abound.
After touring the parks and gardens, make your way to Nelis Dutch Village, an old school amusement park with wooden clogs for purchase and freshly made cheese. Right outside of the town of Holland are typical suburbs (equipped with a Costco), so finding reasonable lodging should be pretty easy. Many accomodations could run you less than $100 per night.
Flights to Amsterdam from the Midwest are at least eight hours (since many aren't direct), and they may average $700 per person. However, Holland is less than a four-hour drive from Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Indianapolis, which makes it an easy road trip for Midwestern families.
Charleston, South Carolina Instead of Whitstable, England
Did you know Charleston was originally named Charles Town, after King Charles II of England? And common roots aren't all this quaint, cobblestoned port city has in common with its (much colder) British sister, Whitstable: Both are stellar stops for some of the best, freshest oysters around. In 2022, Charleston's annual Lowcountry Oyster Festival kicks off in February. But don't worry; even then it still won't be as cold—or half as expensive—as if you'd flown to London and taken the train to Whitstable.
Kids aren't oyster fans? No surprise there. Luckily, Charleston keeps littles plenty busy with affordable carriage rides around town ($18 for kids and under-threes ride free), a renowned Children's Museum ($1 entry for families with WIC, EBT, or SNAP card), the South Carolina Aquarium, and hotels with special family activity packages, such as Hotel Bennett (don't miss the afternoon tea). Take that, coastal England!
Miami Beach Instead of Ibiza
Ibiza is known for its nightlife, but it also has some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe. Miami has all that and more—plus can appeal to both parents and children. That said, both cities can get expensive fast, but Miami is a much cheaper flight. Plus, assuming you'll be partying less with the little ones in tow, your money will go further. Miami's free beaches can keep children entertained for hours, and they'll still be in the presence of an Ibiza-worthy international crowd, gorgeous yachts, and delicious seafood.
It's also quite easy to fly direct to Miami from all over the country; Ibiza, on the other hand, requires a second flight from a city such as Barcelona or Madrid. The trek can easily cost over $600 per person. As for Miami? Unless you're booking at the last minute, it's quite easy to find flights from as far as Boston for under $200.
Los Angeles, California Instead of Cannes, France
Do you have a kiddo (or three) who's obsessed with the movies and would love nothing more than a vacation ogling all things glam and cinematic at the Cannes Film Festival? Luckily, you don't have to fly to France (New York to Paris flights hardly ever drop below $500—and Paris to Cannes tacks on another $200-$300, easy). After all, the U.S. is home to Hollywood!
Fares to Los Angeles are shockingly low these days (around $100 roundtrip from NYC or Chicago if you go the budget airline route) so nab them for your family and head to Hollywood for all the celeb-spotting you can handle. Catch a family film in the open air—and the drama—of the Hollywood Forever cemetery, or take a tour of Paramount Pictures Studios for a not-cheap but not-awful $60 per person. For a chic but affordable stay, post up at the kid-friendly but ever-elegant Hotel Figueroa in DTLA (from just $144 on Thanksgiving weekend) for poolside lounging and coastal cuisine that will have you convinced you're in Cannes—red carpet not required.
New Mexico Instead of Athens, Greece
Part of what attracts families to Athens is the ancient history. Sometimes, we forget that our own country is ancient, too—with a history that goes back much further than the 1600s. Native American ruins still stand in quite a few places, and especially in the Southwest. In New Mexico, your children can walk through ancient sites without the jetlag that comes with spending an entire day on various planes. There are also affordable opportunities to explore art, such as at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.
Admission to sites such as Aztec Ruins National Monument are free, and with various RV parks and campgrounds around the state, your journey can be easy on the pocket. A few other cool sites for kids include Gila Cliff Dwellings, which date back to the 1200s, and the Salinas National Monument, which dates back to the 1600s (and was built by women and children).
(Pro tip: New Mexico is also home to a major balloon festival, which could be a sound alternative for those wishing they could afford to visit Cappadocia, Turkey.)
Florida Keys Instead of the Bahamas
If your family is hankering for the balmy breezes and white-sand beaches of a Caribbean vacation, but your bank account can't swing the flights (and astronomical resort prices; after all, the Bahamas is home to Musha Cay, which at $57K per night ranks as one of the most expensive islands in the world) of the Bahamas and other Caribbean nations, look no further than Florida.
The Keys, at Florida's southernmost tip, extend 180 miles total and encompass 42 bridges. Flights to Miami, as mentioned earlier, can be super affordable—and if you fly to Key West it's even cheaper (flights from NYC start at $79!). At glam but family-friendly resort Isla Bella on Knight's Key (from just $202 per night), kids can enjoy daily activities with major island vibes, from coconut painting to crab races—all for no additional charge. Parents, meanwhile, can lounge by the resort's five swimming pools sipping a daquiri and wondering why you ever though the Bahamas was a better idea.
Vermont Instead of the Swiss Alps
Whether you're a diehard or novice skier, you probably are familiar with the picturesque sea of white powdery snow that Switzerland is known for. However, unless you're a Kennedy heir, you may have to settle for a less extravagant ski experience for your family. Switzerland, after all, is the most expensive country to live in and/or visit in the world. Stateside, Aspen or Telluride are similar experiences, but they can be quite financially draining, too. That's why we're training our eyes on the plenty of northeastern ski towns that can be just as fun for ski kids and parents alike.
In Vermont, Killington and Ludlow have amazing views and a ski culture unlike anywhere else in the U.S. A day in Killington could cost you $115 to $130 for a child's lift ticket, but the costs to eat, play, and stay are nothing compared to those in the Alps. And at the very least, Vermont has fast food restaurants aplenty, as well as Ho-Jos and Wyndhams with rooms at or under $100 per night. Because America.