Fort Morgan in Orange Beach; Courtesy of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism
All Ages

12 Best Family Vacations in the South on a Budget

See recent posts by Karon Warren

A family vacation provides not only quality time with loved ones but also a prime opportunity for creating memories that’ll last a lifetime. However, it can be difficult to find and plan a getaway that doesn’t break the bank. Throughout the South, though, there are a variety of locations that are ideal for a budget-friendly vacation for the entire family. From beaches to mountains, outdoor recreation to indoor adventures, and everything in between, you will find more than enough to entertain both kids and adults, all without requiring a hefty wallet. These are our favorite family vacations in the South on a budget.

Biloxi beach; Courtesy of Coastal Mississippi

1. Biloxi/Gulfport, MS

These neighboring cities on the Mississippi Gulf Coast offer a lot for families, starting with, of course, the beach. This free attraction offers hours of entertainment, whether bodysurfing in the waves, building sand castles or just reading a book in the shade of an umbrella. Do you have kids (and parents!) who love trains? If so, do not miss the Mississippi Coast Model Railroad Museum in Gulfport. This free museum contains multiple model train layouts, including an entire LEGO layout. Make sure you participate in the scavenger hunts so you catch every detail. Sports fans will enjoy a game with the Biloxi Shuckers, a Double-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers. You can score stadium seat tickets for $10, and the views are fantastic regardless of where you sit. Of course, there is so much more to do in this area, including hiking, shrimping tours, swamp tours, museums and more, not to mention fantastic food.

Recommended Hotel: Courtyard by Marriott – Gulfport Beachfront

Coolidge Park; Courtesy of Chattanooga CVB

2. Chattanooga, TN

This Tennessee city near the Tennessee-Georgia state line offers the best of both worlds: a bustling downtown surrounded by natural beauty. As such, families will find a wealth of activities that can be tailored to their vacation budget. For instance, downtown you’ll find the Tennessee Aquarium, filled with aquatic creatures from both rivers and the ocean. You’ll also find Coolidge Park, recommended by Kirsten Maxwell of Kids Are a Trip. The park offers a carousel, water fountains for the kids to splash in, and a pavilion for seasonal events. It’s a perfect spot for a family picnic, walk or bike ride, she says. You’ll also find kid-friendly places to eat, with favorites including Tupelo Honey and Chumpies Ice Cream. Just minutes from downtown, explore the history of Chickamauga National Military Park, or take a hike on one of the park’s many trails. In addition, two of Chattanooga’s most notable attractions reside on Lookout Mountain: Ruby Falls and Rock City.

Recommended Hotel: The Chattanoogan

Chehaw Park; Courtesy of TripAdvisor Traveler/Jerrodborder

3. Albany, GA

Beyond Atlanta’s vibrant downtown and Savannah’s charming squares, Georgia overflows with cities and towns that families will love. One such destination is Albany, located off Interstate 75 in South Georgia. Right downtown, the Flint River flows through the city, providing a perfect spot for kayaking. If you want to enjoy the water from the shore, Kimberly Stroh of The Savvy Mama Lifestyle recommends exploring the Greenways Trail System. “It offers a 3-mile river walk that is walk- and bicycle-friendly,” she says. Albany attractions include the Chehaw Wild Animal Park, the Albany Civil Rights Institute, the Flint Riverquarium and the Thronateeska Heritage Center, which includes a science museum and planetarium. When it’s time to feed the masses, check out Harvest Moon for pizza, Austin’s BBQ and Oyster Bar, and Pearly’s Famous Country Cooking.

Recommended Hotel: Merry Acres Inn

Looking Glass Falls North Carolina Blue Ridge Parkway Waterfalls near Brevard in Western NC Appalachian Mountains; Courtesy of Dave Allen Photography/Shutterstock

4. Brevard, NC

Just 45 minutes from Asheville, this small North Carolina town is big on family-friendly activities, restaurants and accommodations. Its biggest attractions are found everywhere outside, with more than 250 waterfalls located within Pisgah National Forest, Nantahala National Forest and Dupont State Forest. Hiking to some of these waterfalls not only is a great opportunity to get the kids up and moving, but you’ll also find some lovely picnic spots along the way. If you’re visiting during the summer months, check out Sliding Rock, a natural waterslide open to tourists. Admission is just $3 per person. Another outdoor activity is biking along the Parkway Loop, with a great trail from downtown to the Pisgah Visitors Center. Carl Hedinger of NC Tripping also recommends exploring downtown, which he says is a cozy place for walking with plenty of fun places to visit. He also suggests stopping by Rocky’s Grill & Soda Shop for a hot dog and old-fashioned milkshake, as well as Hawg Wild for barbecued ribs and pulled pork.

Recommended Hotel: Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Brevard

Fort Morgan in Orange Beach; Courtesy of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism

5. Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, AL

Go beyond the beach in this popular family vacation spot on the Alabama Gulf Coast, and you’ll be surprised at what you find to fill your days. Stop by the Gulf State Park Nature Center to experience a free living museum of plants and animals, and follow it up with a guided nature walk. Or challenge your family to a game of disc golf at Orange Beach Disc Golf, a free 9-hole, par-27 disc golf course. At Historic Fort Morgan, learn about the area’s military history in the onsite museum before checking out the fort itself, all for $20 for two adults and two children. Bring your bikes and hit the trails at the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, which includes 27 miles of paved trails. Of course, you can always set up a spot on the beach and enjoy the sand and surf for a while. Plus, the area is ripe with family- and budget-friendly restaurants. But be sure to save a few dollars to splurge on a you-won’t-believe-this milkshake at The Yard Milkshake Bar.

Recommended Hotel: The Lodge at Gulf State Park, A Hilton Hotel

Tourists riding the scenic gondola cable car at Ober Gatlinburg in Tennessee; Courtesy of David Carillet/Shutterstock

6. Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge/Sevierville, TN

You can’t talk family- and budget-friendly without talking about Tennessee’s Smoky Mountain trifecta. These three neighboring cities are what family vacations in the South on a budget are made of, with more than enough options to make everyone happy. For a day of hiking and picnicking, head to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Stop at the visitors center in Gatlinburg for hiking trails, maps and more. For more exotic animals, check out the Rainforest Adventures Discovery Zoo in Sevierville. From lemurs to cockatoos to a whole range of amphibians and reptiles, this indoor attraction showcases animals large and small. For those who want some thrills and chills, budget your dollars for a day out at Dollywood and Splash Country in Pigeon Forge. The first is an amusement park full of roller coasters, entertaining shows and a dedicated play area for the littlest kids in the family. The second overflows with waterslides, a wave pool, a splash pad for toddlers and much more. There are nonstop options for family dining, as well.

Recommended Hotel: Comfort Inn Apple Valley

Rainbow over Reece Orchards in Elljay; Courtesy of TripAdvisor Traveler/Laura M

7. Ellijay, GA

Known as the Apple Capital of Georgia, Elljiay is located approximately 75 miles north of Atlanta in the foothills of the North Georgia Mountains. The area is quite popular for outdoor recreation, such as hiking at Fort Mountain State Park, boating or fishing at Carter’s Lake, or tubing the Cartecay and Coosawattee rivers. Also known as the Mountain Biking Capital of Georgia, Ellijay is home to Mulberry Gap Mountain Bike Getaway, a great place to rent a cabin and take a guided mountain bike tour. Of course, you can’t visit Ellijay and not go to Expedition Bigfoot. Yes, it’s dedicated to the infamous creature, and features Bigfoot artifacts including footprint casts, recordings, and the world’s only Bigfoot research and tech vehicle. To feed the family, head to some of Ellijay’s popular local spots, such as Cantaberry Restaurant for fresh-made sandwiches, Charlie’s Italian Restaurant for pizza and pasta, and either MooBears Ice Cream & Hotdogs or Abby’s Ice Cream & Frozen Yogurt for your favorite ice cream.

Recommended Hotel: Comfort Inn & Suites, East Ellijay

Greensboro Science Center – Greensboro, NC; Courtesy of TripAdvisor Traveler/Joy S

8. Greensboro, NC

When it comes to a value-filled family vacation, Greensboro delivers so much, you may find it hard to decide what to do during your trip. For instance, the Greensboro Science Center is so much more than a science museum. Sure, it has interactive science exhibits, but it also has a prehistoric section, an aquarium and outdoor zoo, all for less than $15 per person. For a little extra, you can tackle the Skywild Ropes Course. At the free Greensboro Arboretum, you can explore 17 acres of special display gardens and 14 plant collections. For younger kids, the Greensboro Children’s Museum teaches kids about different areas of life through play. These range from working in a grocery store to running the health center to sorting mail at the post office. There’s also an incredible outdoor play plaza. Across the street, LeBauer Park & Center City Park features a playground, splash pad, ornamental gardens and more.

Recommended Hotel: Wingate by Wyndham Greensboro

Girl running into the waves; Courtesy of MBACVB

9. Myrtle Beach, SC

One of the cheapest beach destinations on the East Coast, Myrtle Beach continues to be a budget-friendly choice thanks to its large inventory of accommodations (many with onsite water parks!), attractions, activities and restaurants. Spend your days playing at the beach, challenge your family to a game of mini-golf, or catch a game with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, a Class A-Advanced affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. Of course, you also can check out live music at The Pier at Garden City Beach, take a free tour of the Horry County Museum and LW Paul Living History Museum, or set out on an easy hike at Vereen Memorial Gardens. Finding budget-friendly restaurants is easy as well, with choices like Ultimate California Pizza, Lucy Buffett’s Lulu’s and Blueberry’s Grill.

Recommended Hotel: South Bay Inn & Suites

Kids feed a giraffe at the Birmingham Zoo; Courtesy of TripAdvisor Traveler/RB3

10. Birmingham, AL

Alabama’s largest city, Birmingham is often overlooked as a family-friendly vacation destination, but this Southern city is home to numerous sites and attractions the whole family will enjoy. For instance, at Alabama Splash Adventure, families not only will enjoy a great selection of theme park and water park rides, but also free soft drinks, free parking, free Wi-Fi and free sunscreen! At the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, let the kids burn off some energy as you check out more than 30 themed gardens on nearly 70 acres. Becky Beall of The Travel Voice by Becky also recommends The Birmingham Zoo. Not only is it well-laid-out and clean, but it also offers a large variety of amazing animals, a Sea Lion Splash Show and a must-see section of elephants in the “Trails of Africa,” she says. And, at the Ruffner Mountain Nature Center, you can set out on 10 miles of hiking trails, check out the exhibits in the nature center and enjoy a meal at the covered picnic area.

Recommended Hotel: Sheraton Birmingham

Cabarrus, North Carolina, Near Concord

11. Concord, NC

If you and your family are fans of motorsports, Concord must be your next family vacation destination. Here you can tour numerous NASCAR race shops to get a behind-the-scenes look at teams preparing for race day—all for free. Combining a love of music and racing, the Curb Museum for Music & Motorsports documents owner Mike Curb’s two top passions. The owner and founder of the nation’s leading country music record label, Curb found great success through the years with numerous recording artists and songwriters. He also showcases a variety of race cars across motorsports. Best of all, it’s free for tours. Grab a brochure at the Visit Cabarrus welcome center and set out on The Dale Trail, a free tour where you can visit many stops that commemorate hometown hero Dale Earnhardt Sr. Even attending races at Charlotte Motor Speedway and zMAX Dragway can be affordable thanks to promotions like “Kids 13 & Under Get in Free.”

Recommended Hotel: Great Wolf Lodge Concord

McLarty Treasure Museum; Courtesy of TripAdvisor Traveler/Matt T

12. Vero Beach, FL

Located on Florida’s Treasure Coast, Vero Beach certainly offers a lot for families on a budget to do during their vacation. For instance, stop by The McLarty Treasure Museum to learn about sunken ships, pirate booty and more. At McKee Botanical Garden, take the kids to the children’s area, which is complete with a splash fountain, suspended bamboo bridges, and a life-sized pirate shipwreck. Get closer to nature with a sea turtle walk at Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, where you can learn more about sea turtle nesting and the odds these creatures have to fight to survive. For rainy days or to cool off from the heat, head to The Vero Beach Museum of Art, where kids can participate in hands-on activities as they explore their own artistic side.

Recommended Hotel: SpringHill Suites by Marriott Vero Beach

For nearly 20 years, Karon Warren has traveled the globe, searching for adventure, unique personalities, and a new perspective on the world around us. When she has the opportunity, Karon brings her family—husband William and children Elizabeth and David—along for the experience. You can follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and at her blog, This Girl Travels

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