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Top five inexpensive U.S. summer vacation cities

When you plan for your summer vacation, the first type of destination that may come to mind is a larger, more touristy city like New York or San Francisco. But these aren’t the only cities in the U.S. that are worth visiting. In fact, you can find great bargains and no shortage of activities across the country&#151if you know where to look.

We’ve put together a list of cities that offer inexpensive basic travel costs and affordable entertainment options.

The average city visitor in the U.S. spends about half of his or her travel budget on transportation and lodging. Obviously, the less you spend on these, the more affordable the vacation. Look to low-cost carriers like JetBlue, Southwest, and others to pave the way for inexpensive domestic flights between the cities they serve. Our list is primarily based on cost of round-trip travel, lodging, entertainment, and availability of public transportation.

Las Vegas

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Las Vegas hotels have curbed their historical practice of undercharging guests to lure more gamblers through their doors, but cheap buffets, meal deals, and free entertainment still abound for the budget traveler. Our recent survey of last-minute airfare specials and limited-time sales netted an average airfare to Sin City of just $155, bottoming out on flights from Ontario, California, at $58 round-trip. The average discounted hotel price based on sales listed on lodging.com was $62.

The biggest bargain in Las Vegas is the abundance of free entertainment and inexpensive meal options. Themed hotels in the form of pyramids, international cities, and castles make casino hopping fun on the outside, while watching high-rollers win makes for interesting entertainment inside. Other free attractions include fountain and light shows, animal parks, and museums. Free drinks and cheap buffets are a lure to get gamblers into the casino; take advantage of them to keep your expenses low.

For more information on Las Vegas read our Las Vegas hotel guide, or visit vegas.com.

New Orleans

New Orleans is another good choice for an inexpensive vacation with plenty to offer. Flights average around $150 round-trip, and the average discounted hotel price is $67. Save even more on travel by riding one of Amtrak’s three routes to New Orleans.

The inexpensive entertainment of New Orleans is found in the sights and sounds of the streets. For daytime fun, take a walking tour of the French Quarter, the Garden District, or through the city’s famed historical cemeteries. At night, take in the sounds of jazz as you stroll the energetic streets. Guided tours cost about $15, or you can guide yourself with the help of a good guidebook or information from Internet sites like neworleansonline.com. To save on food and entertainment costs, take advantage of the coupons also available on that site.

Philadelphia

The arrival of low-cost airlines Southwest and Frontier to the City of Brotherly Love has made transportation to Philadelphia the least expensive on our list. Round-trip flights start as low as $48. The inexpensive airfares to Philadelphia are somewhat offset by high hotel prices, however. Discount hotel prices average $94, and retail price for one- through three-star hotels at priceline.com averages $140. Philadelphia is also accessible via numerous Amtrak train routes.

As a former U.S. capital, Philadelphia offers a rich history that is evident on the city’s many walking tours, which will take you by the U.S. Mint, the First Bank of the U.S., and the Betsy Ross house. Independence National Historical Park is America’s most historic square mile. With about 40 buildings on 45 acres of real estate, it includes Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and a museum dedicated to teaching about the life of Benjamin Franklin.

Portland, Oregon

With its four world-class gardens and environmentally friendly public transportation system, Portland considers itself a green city. It’s also a city that saves you a lot of green. Airfare prices average $152 round-trip, and discounted hotel prices in Portland average $60. To avoid expensive lodging costs, consider booking a hotel outside the city limits of Portland, as there is an 11.5 percent tax on rooms in the city. Portland is also accessible via three different Amtrak train routes.

Voted America’s number one cycling city two years in a row by Bicycling magazine, and one of America’s best walking towns by Walking Magazine, Portland is a great city for enjoying the outdoors. Public transportation is free in the 330-block “Fareless Square” at the city’s center. While some of the gardens and tourist attractions are free, others ask for a donation or charge a minimal fee. For between $6 and $13 you can gain access the city’s zoo and most museums. For more information to plan a Portland trip, visit Portland’s official tourism website.

San Antonio

Airfare prices to San Antonio average about $151 round-trip and discount hotels average $65. This July and August the city is offering a summer special, with hotel rates starting at $49.99 for midweek stays. The offer is available starting July 16. Visit San Antonio’s Convention and Visitors Bureau for more information. Save even more on travel by riding one of Amtrak’s two routes to San Antonio.

San Antonio can be expensive if you opt for the nearby theme park entertainment like Sea World or Six Flags, however San Antonio’s CVB lists more than a dozen entertainment options priced at $5 or less for adult rates, many of which are free. These options include the Alamo, a Japanese Tea Garden, and San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.

Best of the Rest

Other cities almost made our list. Orlando was a contender based on low airfare and lodging costs, but the cost of theme park entertainment offsets the savings. Phoenix also has competitively low airfare and hotel rates, particularly now that JetBlue has begun to fly there. The Washington, D.C., area also offers many free entertainment options and has a good public transportation system, and the arrival of Independence Air is making that city more affordable as well. If you plan to visit, consider staying in nearby Baltimore, as rates there tend to be slightly less expensive.

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