From $85 to $2,000 family vacations: How much you can expect to pay at popular destinations

Eve Chen
USA TODAY
  • Even a weekend getaway can easily cost families around $1,000.
  • Some destinations that seem expensive off the bat are comparable to places like the beach.
  • The biggest expense is usually lodging, except at theme parks where admission costs even more.

The last hurrah of summer is here.

Labor Day weekend offers families one last chance to get away before the hustle and bustle of the new school year and extracurricular commitments fully sink in.

But this year, the squeeze of inflation and fear of recession may make some travelers wonder whether it's worth hitting the road or staying closer to home.

USA TODAY examined prices for five popular vacation destinations to see what a long holiday weekend away costs families. Prices, as of early August, were based on two adults and two children under age 10 from Sept. 3 through Sept. 5, unless otherwise indicated. Transportation to and from destinations was excluded as costs vary widely depending on distance and way of travel. 

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Is it expensive to visit national parks?

National parks are among the most affordable vacation destinations for families, particularly when camping is an option. With more 423 national park sites around the country, ranging from parks to seashores, there's a park site within driving distance of many cities. Here's how much it costs to visit one of America's most popular national parks, Yosemite.

► Fees: Yosemite typically charges $35 per vehicle for entry. There's also a $2 reservation fee to drive through Yosemite during peak hours of 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily through Sept. 30. 

Only 108 national park sites charge entrance fees, maxing at $35 per vehicle or $20 per person, depending on the location. Entry fees are waived for families with fourth graders through the government's Every Kid Outdoors program. Active-duty military, veterans and Gold Star families can also access national park sites for free.

There are a handful of days each year when entry fees are waived for everybody. The two remaining days this year are National Public Lands Day on Sept. 24 and Veterans Day on Nov. 11. 

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► Lodging: The cheapest way to stay in Yosemite is to camp. The cheapest camp sites, at Tamarack Flat and Yosemite Creek, cost $24 daily. There is one campground, Porcupine Flat, with a lower nightly fee, but it's closed until next year. A two-night stay at either campground costs $48. Reservations are required for all of Yosemite's campgrounds and can be made at Recreation.gov.

Families who don't want to pitch their own tents can stay in heated or unheated canvas tents in Curry Village. Two nights in an unheated canvas tent cost $296.20 total during the first weekend of November. A hotel-style room with three double beds at Curry Village that same period totals $567.93. Alternately, families willing to squeeze can book a standard room with a double bed and a single bed at Wawona Hotel for $279.16 total. There are several other lodges on park property, but none had openings on Labor Day weekend. Yosemite Hospitality manages all lodging inside the park. 

► Food: Families trying to save money can bring their own food and spend nothing on dining inside the park. There is, however, a wide selection of dining options ranging from a food court to fine dining, as well as grab-and-go meals and groceries. Families planning to buy their meals should budget at least $100 a day.

► Entertainment: Access to many activities are included with Yosemite's entry fee, including ranger-led walks and talks, hiking, bird watching and rock climbing. A free wilderness climbing permit is, however, required for overnight big wall climbs. And while there's no fee to fish in Yosemite, visitors age 16 and over need a valid California fishing license, which costs $17.54 for one day, or $27 for two days.

► Overall: The least a family of four could spend for a long weekend in Yosemite National Park is $85 if they camp and bring all their own meals from home, or $385 if they buy food in the park. Visitors can easily spend hundreds more if they choose to stay in a lodge.

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How do I plan a family beach trip?

Location plays a huge role in vacation costs for any beach from California to the Carolinas. Which beach guests visit and where they stay make all the difference. Here's a sampling of prices for Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

► Fees: Myrtle Beach offers miles of free, public beaches. Numerous beach access points are available for guests who don't stay along the shore. Metered parking costs $3 per hour or $15 for the full day, on street ends. 

► Lodging: Many travelers who visit the beach want to stay right next to it. One popular option is renting an oceanfront condo through companies like VRBO or Airbnb. Prices vary widely, but one common perk is access to kitchens or kitchenettes, which can help cut down on eating out. Travelers should be mindful of cleaning fees and other charges beyond nightly rates when booking.

Guests who prefer traditional hotels can take their pick of local and national brands. One of the more affordable oceanfront hotels among major chains is Hampton Inn & Suites Myrtle Beach, at least over Labor Day weekend. Two nights in a two-queen room with free breakfast but no view totals $723.10, with the prepaid, nonrefundable rate and Hilton Honors discount. 

Travelers who don't mind being further away can stay at hotels like Four Points by Sheraton Myrtle Beach, along the Intracoastal Waterway, where two nights in a two-queen room total $553.70 at the nonrefundable, prepaid Marriott Bonvoy member rate. The hotel is about 4½ miles away from the beach, which guests should consider if they won't have a car.

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► Food: An array of casual dining venues keeps families from relying on fast- food chains to save money, if they don't have access to a kitchen. However, it is still the beach, so families should expect to spend $125 to $150 daily on food.

► Entertainment: The beach may be free, but there are many other places to spend money, like Myrtle Beach Boardwalk. home to various Ripley's attractions, as well as SkyWheel Myrtle Beach. The cheapest Ripley's attraction, Mirror Maze, costs $9.99 per person age 3 and up. SkyWheel tickets cost $16.99 for guests age 12 and up. Kids between ages 3 and 11 are $12.99.

► Overall: A long Labor Day weekend in Myrtle Beach could cost a family of four upwards of $973.70. That's for a hotel away from the beach, meals out and daily beach parking, but no extra entertainment.

Myrtle Beach Boardwalk is an instantly recognizable landmark along the shore.

How do you travel with kids in Las Vegas?

It's easy to spend a lot of money in Las Vegas on big-name shows, five-star restaurants and  high-end shopping and gaming. Even frugal families may find a long weekend in Vegas isn't cheap.

► Fees: There's no fee to people watch or sightsee along Las Vegas Boulevard, but resorts are massive and far apart, so unless visitors plan to walk long distances in triple-digit summer heat, they should prepare to pay for transportation, whether by bus, rideshare or cab.

One of the cheapest options is a Regional Transportation Commission bus. The Deuce on the Strip route stops at most popular resorts roughly every 15 minutes, around the clock. A three-day bus pass costs $20 for most adults. Children ages 6 through 17, adults age 60 and over, veterans, people with disabilities and some others are eligible for a $10 reduced rate for the same period. Children age 5 and under are free.

The Las Vegas Monorail is another option between select resorts. A three-day monorail pass is $29 per person age 6 and up. Children 5 and under ride free with adults.

Tourists who bring their own cars should expect to pay for parking. MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment Inc., which own a big chunk of the resorts on the Strip, charge most guests $18 per day for self-parking. The first hour is free.

► Lodging: There are  a range of accommodations for every price point in Las Vegas. Family-friendly options along the Strip include Excalibur for $616.78, Luxor for $632.65 and Planet Hollywood for $762.62 total for two nights over Labor Day weekend with two queen beds. Cheaper rooms are available at other times of the year, including later that week. Travelers can also find lower rates downtown and off the Strip, but time and transportation costs should be considered when booking.

► Food: Forget about the idea of a cheap Vegas buffet. Weekday brunch at Excalibur's buffet costs $27.99 for guests age 12 and up, excluding tax and tip. Children between age 5 and 11 cost $15.99, and kids under 5 are free. On the higher end, a weekend dinner buffet at the Wynn costs $69.99 for guests age 10 and up. Children between ages 3 and 9 are half price, and kids under 3 are free.

There are cheaper fast food and quick-service options at hotels, like In-N-Out Burger in The Linq and Chipotle in Harrah's. But even two burritos, two kids meals with drinks included and two additional drinks add up to just over $42.

Some hotels also offer suites with in-room kitchens or kitchenettes, but most Vegas hotel rooms do not, so guests should plan on eating most meals out. A family of four should budget $150 to $200 a day for food, with some meals being cheaper and others more expensive. If money is no option, just about every celebrity chef imaginable has a restaurant in Vegas.

► Entertainment: The cheapest thing guests can do is spend the day at their hotel pool, assuming they're not attending a day club pool party with entry fees rivaling nightclubs. 

Families willing to spend a little can pay to play carnival-style games at the Fun Dungeon at Excalibur, Midway in Circus Circus and similar venues at other resorts.

Guests seeking bigger thrills can hit the Adventuredome at Circus Circus, where ride passes cost $60 for guests who are at least 48 inches tall and $30 for smaller, junior riders. Rides atop The Strat have varying age and height restrictions and prices depending on how many rides guests choose. Guests must be at least 54 inches tall to ride the Big Apple Roller Coaster around New York-New York, with tickets starting at $19. Tickets for the 550-foot tall High Roller observation wheel at The Linq start at $23.50 for guests age 13 and up and $8.50 for kids between ages 4 to 12.

Other attractions include Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay, with tickets starting at $29, and the Neon Museum, with tickets starting at $20 for most adults and $10 for kids ages 7 to 17. Students, seniors and military service members can get discounted museum rates of $16. Kids age 6 and under are free.

Travelers with cars can go hiking in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, which charges $15 per car for a one-day pass or go see Hoover Dam, which charges $10 to $15 for guided power plant tours.

The biggest ticket items are generally shows. For instance, tickets for Penn & Teller at the Rio start at $75. That's just a little less than the $79 starting price for O by Cirque du Soleil at the Bellagio. There are sometimes deals available, same day and otherwise. 

► Overall: If a family were to spend absolutely nothing extra on entertainment in the "Entertainment Capital of the World," it would cost around $1,126.68 for transportation, dining and midrange accommodations in Vegas for three days and two nights over Labor Day weekend.

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How much does it cost to take a family on a cruise?

The sticker shock may seem like a lot, but cruises don't cost much more than many other vacation destinations. Lodging, food and entertainment are all bundled into cruise fares. Perks like alcohol, specialty dining, Wi-Fi, spa treatments and land excursions cost extra, but aren't required and are sometimes thrown in as incentives for booking. 

Fees: Here's a sampling of fares for interior rooms on Labor Day weekend sailings from ports around the country.

A two-night voyage on the Margaritaville at Sea Paradise leaving Palm Beach, Florida, on Sept. 3 with a day at Grand Bahama Island costs $1,165.76 for two adults and two kids with the cruise line's "2 for 1" promo. 

A three-night sailing on the Carnival Radiance from Los Angeles on Sept. 2 costs $1,281.44 for four guests, with no choice in room selection. It costs $40 more to select a room. The ship spends a day at sea and a day in Ensenada, Mexico. 

A five-night sailing on Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas leaving Galveston, Texas, on Sept. 2 costs $1,287.88 for two adults and two kids with kids sailing free. The ship spends two days at sea, a day in Puerto Costa Maya, Mexico, and a day in Cozumel.

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Lodging: Interior rooms are the cheapest accommodations on any cruise ship. While many guests are willing to pay extra for a window or balcony overlooking the sea, others say they spend so little time in their rooms that they don't need the view. Prices go up depending on room size, location and amenities.

► Food: A variety of dining venues are usually included in cruise fares, ranging from walk-up snack shops to buffets and formal dining rooms. There is usually a surcharge for specialty restaurants, but depending on promotions offered at the time of booking, a number of special dining experiences may be included.

Guests should note that even when food is "free," drinks may not be. Some beverages like tap water, coffee and iced tea are complimentary at meals, but soda, alcohol and even some juices generally cost extra, unless there's a "free drink" package available.

► Entertainment: From waterslides to Broadway-style shows and on-deck activities, cruises offer plenty of ways to party as part of their fares. Guests can also feel free to explore cities on their cruise itinerary at their own pace. However, professionally guided tours or other types of shore excursions do have separate fees that range widely.

► Overall: There may be gratuities or service fees on board, but travelers who watch their spending can get a lot out of just their cruise fares, like the $1,165.76 for Margaritaville at Sea. Guests who don't pay attention to what they drink, where they eat, and what they do on and off the ship can be stunned at how expenses add up.  

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Is it cheaper to go to Disney World or Universal Orlando?

It's no secret that theme parks are expensive, with the entry prices often in triple digits, but there are ways to save.

Here are sample prices for a family with two adults and two kids at two of America's most popular theme park destinations: Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort in Florida. Kids ages 10 and up count as adults for ticketing, while children under age 3 are free. One-park-per-day tickets are used for budgeting because they're cheaper than park-hopper tickets.

► Fees: A family's park admission alone for Disney World would total $1,033.18 for two days or $1,447.76 for three days over Labor Day weekend. Two-day tickets for Universal Orlando cost about the same, $1,043.96, but three-day tickets cost notably less at $1,091.96. Both resorts offer discounts for U.S. military and retired service members.

► Lodging: Guests can sometimes save by bundling park tickets with hotel stays on property. They also get perks like early park entry. The huge selection of hotels, motels and short-term vacation rentals in the Orlando area also help families save, particularly if they have kitchens for preparing meals instead of eating out.

Two nights in a preferred room at Disney's All-Star Movies Resort plus two park days would total $1,481.44 over Labor Day weekend when less expensive standard rooms are booked up. Adding a third day in the parks would bring the total to $1,896.02, including lodging.

The starting price for Universal's Endless Summer Resorts is $91 a night, but as of Monday, none of the eight resorts on Universal Orlando property was available for a two-night stay over Labor Day weekend, which is also opening weekend of Halloween Horror Nights. But guests could book two nights at the Drury Inn, an off-property Universal partner hotel, with free breakfast and free shuttle service to the parks plus two days of park admission for $1,409.10. It would only be slightly more to get three days in the parks, at $1,460.22 total. 

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► Food: Both Disney World and Universal Orlando allow guests to bring nonalcoholic drinks and snacks into parks. Disney World also allows guests to bring in meals, but part of theme park experience for many travelers is eating park food like Dole Whip or Butterbeer. While both resorts offer kids meals and quick-service dining options in the $10 to $20 range, it's safe to budget between $150 to $200 a day for food for a family of four, even if eating breakfast at the hotel. 

► Entertainment: From rides to live performances to parades and fireworks, there's an endless array of entertainment included with the price of theme park admission. Guests can pay for perks like Disney Genie+ or Universal Express, which cut wait times in line, but they aren't absolutely necessary.

Travelers who don't want to spend the entire trip in the parks can spend one day at their hotel pool, exploring Disney Springs or Universal CityWalk, or taking in any number of other sites around Orlando. Just remember to budget for souvenirs. 

► Overall: A family of four can expect to spend upwards of $1,859.10 for a long weekend at a destination theme park like Universal Orlando or Disney World. As with all vacations, some travelers will spend much more and others will spend significantly less, but that's a fair budget to start with.  

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