As the second largest state in the U.S., both by population and land area, Texas has plenty of terrain for you to explore on your next family vacation on a budget.
One of the best parts of the Lone Star State is the diversity of terrain and budget-friendly options. Families on a budget can experience everything from the deserts of El Paso to the expansive landscape of Palo Duro Canyon, the mountains of Big Bend, rich forests of east Texas’s Piney Woods, or the lush Hill Country trails that blossom with paintbrush-worthy wildflowers every spring. Texas isn’t just for cowboys! Families will find a little bit of everything on a Texas vacation on a budget.
Whether your family loves food, outdoor activities, historical attractions, small-town or big city thrills (or a combination of the above), here are several vacation ideas that keep costs low while maximizing your Texas fun.
1. Corpus Christi
Texas families love to vacation in Corpus Christi for its mix of beautiful beaches and big-city amenities, from museums to South Texas cuisine, all at an affordable price.
Best Free (or Low Cost) Activities: The Texas Surf Museum is a small free museum with exhibits on Texas surfing through the years. Head to Mustang Island State Park ($5 entry fee) to enjoy the beautiful shoreline. Nearby Port Aransas, a small fishing beach town, is a quaint place to watch the fishing boats, walk the beach (or drive or camp on the beach!) and enjoy small-town life.
Worth the Splurge: The Texas State Aquarium ($35.95 for adults; $25.95 for children 3 to 12) is the largest in Texas, and features an outdoor splash playground, plus petting tanks, opportunities to watch shark feedings and dolphin interactions. Nearby, the USS Lexington ($16.95 for adults; $11.95 for children) allows you and your family to climb aboard and explore a World War II aircraft carrier.
Dining Notes: Since you’re in the land of fresh seafood, you might as well sample your way through a few oysters and shrimp. Water Street and Harrison’s are great choices in Corpus. Have drinks at The BUS, formerly a Greyhound bus station where you usually have your choice of food trucks. In Port Aransas, try Moby Dick’s, a kid-friendly seafood restaurant. And if you want to partake in a local tradition, get to The Gaff, where if you’re lucky, you might catch belt sander races or chicken [poop] bingo.
Where to Stay: The Omni Corpus Christi (starting at $95 per night) feels like a luxury property, with super comfortable beds, an indoor/outdoor pool area and an onsite restaurant, with great prices, particularly in the off-season.
2. Fort Worth
Fort Worth capitalizes on its “Cowboys & Culture” brand with a twice-daily cattle drive in the Stockyards District, which is a fun place to roam and shop in its own right. Also, you’ll find plenty of interesting museums on this family vacation in Texas on a budget, including the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame & Museum and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.
Best Free (or Low Cost) Activities: Get your camera ready and take in one of the daily cattle drives, at 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. every day. Explore Sundance Square and downtown on Molly the Trolley, a free vintage-style trolley that young children will love. For active families, the Trinity Trail system provides 40 miles of hike and bike trails to explore the city.
Worth the Splurge: Fort Worth Zoo ($16 for adults; $12 for ages 3 to 12) is expansive, with animal exhibits as well as an Old West-styled Texas Town. It can easily take a full day.
Dining Notes: The seafood restaurant Flying Fish has an impressive array of singing bass on the wall and a laid-back atmosphere, while Joe. T. Garcia’s is legendary for its spacious patio—ideal environs for gobbling up Tex-Mex. We love sampling the beer at Martin House Brewing Co. while our kids play on the large lawn. For dessert, treat yourself to an unusual ice cream flavor at Melt.
Where to Stay: The Sinclair ($180 and up), a newly opened hotel in downtown Fort Worth, puts you right near Sundance Square, a vibrant shopping and entertainment district. Have your kids send a postcard down the old-fashioned mail slot of this historic (yet futuristic) Art Deco building.
Explore the 20-block Downtown Arts District, George W. Bush’s Presidential Library, and the tragic and interesting history of John F. Kennedy’s final day, all in Dallas, which offers plenty of free and budget-friendly activities for families vacationing in Texas.
Best Free (or Low Cost) Activities: Dallas offers a wealth of spacious public parks. Pay a visit to Klyde Warren Park, five acres of green space situated over a major freeway, where kids can play at Children’s Park and Imagination Playground. Pay a visit to Thanks-Giving Square, where you can find the spiral-shaped Chapel of Thanksgiving. And ride the free McKinney Avenue M-Line trolley, transporting you to the Uptown and Downtown Arts districts. The Dallas Museum of Art also offers free admission.
Worth the Splurge: The Perot Museum of Nature and Science ($20 for adults; $13 for ages 2 to 17) is chock-full of curiosity-inspiring exhibits, covering everything from dinosaurs to sports and engineering.
Dining Notes: Your family can spread out and enjoy some fried chicken at Chicken Scratch. There are plentiful restaurants with kids’ play areas, including The Lot, a farm-to-table eatery, and Hat Creek, a Texas burger chain. Unleavened Fresh Kitchen (three locations) offers a kids eat free deal every day after 4 p.m.
Where to Stay: Hyatt Regency Dallas (starting at $129 per night) boasts the cool factor of being located near the base of Reunion Tower, an icon of the Dallas Skyline, which offers a deck that can give you views from nearly 500 feet up (you’ll get a discount on your ticket as a hotel guest). The hotel features two onsite restaurants—choose from wood-fired pizza at Parrino’s or Texas cuisine at Centennial.
4. DFW Suburbs
The rate at which Texas is growing is abundantly clear in the growth of the suburbs that surround the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolis: Frisco, Grapevine, Irving and Plano. Each is becoming a destination in its own right, but still maintains a small-town charm with budget-friendly options for families.
If your kids are into video games or sports, Frisco is a must-do destination. If you’d like to visit an eye-popping resort (the Gaylord Texan) or celebrate Christmas in a town that has staked its brand on celebrating the season, check out Grapevine. Irving is a great space for live music at Toyota Music Factory and taking a gondola ride through man-made canals.
Best Free (or Low Cost) Activities: Check the calendars of these cities’ convention and visitors bureaus for upcoming events going on in the plentiful public spaces—on weekends throughout the year, you’re likely to find parades, music and community fun.
Worth the Splurge: The newly opened Kidzania in Frisco ($39.95 for children 6 to 14 years old; $14.95 for 4 and 5 year olds; and $14.95 for adults and children 15 and up) is a fast-paced attraction for school-aged kids where they learn the ins and outs of various occupations by doing them, and earning play money along the way.
Dining Notes: Order up burgers, a Frito pie and a handmade shake at Big State Soda Fountain Grill in Irving; or play video games (on your choice of gaming console while you level up your meal at @nerdvana in Frisco.
Where to Stay: The Texican Court in Irving ($99 and up) is a new and elegant, yet budget-friendly take on the mid-century motor court. Here you’ll find cute retro-styled rooms with full-sized Smeg refrigerators; a spacious pool for the kids (with sunken lounge chairs in the pool for you to keep an eye on them); outdoor fire pits for roasting S’mores in the evening; and an onsite restaurant, Two Mules Cantina, which makes a cochinita pibil.
5. San Antonio
San Antonio feels like a world apart from the rest of Texas. The River Walk, famous historic structures like the Alamo and the rest of the missions, plus La Villita and El Mercado, combined with amazing food and art make it feel like a truly special Texas destination where families can vacation on a budget.
Best Free (or Low Cost) Activities: Walking the River Walk is a time-honored tradition—getting lost down the canals and side streets is a worthy pursuit any time of year. Go both during the day and at night! Be sure to visit El Mercado for some elote (street corn) and a concha (Mexican pastry). Visiting the Alamo and all of the rest of the missions are free. If your family is active, you can rent a public bicycle inexpensively and bike the 15-mile trip to all of the missions.
Worth the Splurge: Pay a visit to The Witte Museum (adults are $14; children 4 to 10 are $10), for an interactive experience with Texas history that’s interesting even if you’re not from Texas; a new dinosaur gallery is sure to capture the imagination. San Antonio is also a trove of amusement parks: SeaWorld San Antonio and Six Flags Fiesta Texas are both here. But one of our favorites is Morgan’s Wonderland—a nonprofit amusement park and water park geared toward welcoming kids of all abilities, including kids with special needs (anyone with special needs is admitted free; otherwise, adults are $17; children 3 to 17 are $11).
Dining Notes: Your kids will probably love the festive atmosphere that looks like it’s always Christmas at Mi Tierra Cafe and Panaderia; for a lovely weekend brunch, take them to the Pearl District—Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery offers a variety of Southern comfort food and seafood, and kids can shape their own pretzels with dough that gets baked whenever they’re finished playing with their food. Outside on the lawn at Pearl is a great place to let them blow off steam. If you want to grab a beer while your kids play, check out Burleson Yard Beer Garden.
Where to Stay: The dark wood beams, bright red carpeting and incense-filled air, plus lush tropical foliage outside the Hotel Havana ($111 and up) are some of your clues that this Cuban-themed retreat is an unexpected journey in itself. There’s a well-stocked (and reasonably priced) full-sized refrigerator in the guestrooms, balconies for relaxing, an onsite restaurant and rental bikes to use on your day trips.
6. Galveston Island
Galveston Island is Texas’s tropical island in the Gulf of Mexico, which feels like a quintessential vacation getaway, while also being inexpensive and a short one-hour drive from Houston.
Best Free (or Low Cost) Activities: Take a walk along the waterfront and enjoy some time on the beach. You can watch shrimpers coming and going at Pier 21 with laden nets filled with crustaceans. Stop into the Pier 21 Theater to watch a film about The Great Storm—a 1900 hurricane that was the deadliest in U.S. history ($6 for adults; $5 for kids 6 to 18). This storm is also the reason the island is rumored to be haunted—something you might wish to explore further with your kids (depending on their tolerance for spookiness). A ride on the Galveston Trolley is just $1 for adults and free for kids.
Worth the Splurge: Visit Moody Gardens ($65 for adults; $55 for kids 4 to 12 for a combo pass), a trio of pyramids that house a rainforest, an aquarium and a Discovery Museum — plus outdoor attractions like a zipline and a paddlewheel boat. You could spend an entire weekend just exploring this nonprofit attraction.
Dining Notes: The bright, cheerful Sunflower Bakery & Cafe is a great casual choice for breakfast or lunch with your family; Old Moon Deli & Pie has a selection of daily baked pies as well as sandwiches and salads.
Where to Stay: The Hotel Galvez & Spa (from $112 per night) is a beautiful, historic property dating back to 1911. There’s an outdoor heated pool with swim-up bar, an onsite spa, and a restaurant. It’s also rumored to be haunted—you can rent an EMF “ghost detector” for free upon request, and there are guided ghost tours offered regularly.
7. The Woodlands
Located 30 minutes north of Houston, The Woodlands is a master-planned community that offers some interesting options for a family getaway.
Best Free (or Low Cost) Activities: Explore Town Green Park, which includes life-sized characters from Aesop’s Fables situated around a children’s literary labyrinth. Cool off in the splash pad at Waterway Square, and go for a hike in George Mitchell Nature Preserve, a 1,200-acre natural space. Little ones will love exploring the Woodlands Children’s Museum for a $7 ticket.
Worth the Splurge: Challenge your family to a treetop adventure at the new Texas TreeVentures, an aerial course that gets you up close and personal with the trees, by climbing on and through ropes, tires, planks and more. It takes three hours to complete and costs $40 for people 13 and up; $35 for kids ages 6 to 12 (6 years is the minimum age).
Dining Notes: Let your kids play on the Creekside Village Green while you enjoy a meal at Fielding’s Local Kitchen + Bar. At Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, kids can play with pizza dough while they wait for their pies to bake.
Where to Stay: Starting at $150 a night, the Woodlands Resort offers several family activities onsite, from a water park with a 1,005-foot lazy river and two-story double water slides, kayaking, biking and a fire pit for S’mores. A monthly activity guide features daily activities like movies, Bingo and crafts.
Cynthia J. Drake is a travel writer based in Austin, Texas, where she lives with her husband and two sons. Since becoming a mom, she’s been stranded at sea with her family, gotten lost in the Rocky Mountains, dealt with more than her fair share of public vomiting, and still can’t wait for the next trip. She writes regularly for AAA magazines, Austin American-Statesman, Texas Highways and Cruise Critic. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.