We’ve all been inside a little too long. You, like my family, are probably dreaming of vacationing again – maybe with the kids, maybe with the partner, or maybe just yourself. No, I’m not judging! You deserve it!We’re trying to save cash this year so I’ve spent days going through budget destinations for my family’s post-COVID vacay. It’s hard finding somewhere that has a little of everything! But I’ve found eight awesome vacation spots in the South this summer and compiled them into one handy article. I think one of these might be right for you, too. 🙂
So let’s mosey on down to the best family summer vacation ideas (on a budget) and see which one tickles your fancy.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
The gulf coast of Alabama is stunning and Gulf Shores is one of my favorite towns! Most of the beaches here have the same quality as the more famous Florida resorts but they don’t come with the same overwhelming crowds.
This makes it an excellent budget-friendly alternative to the Sunshine State (especially if you’re from Florida, like me, and wanna get a little further away). The attractions here are low-key, but they certainly won’t break the bank. The restaurants are hearty, the hospitality is rich, and you might find it hard to leave.
Check out vacation home rentals instead of staying at the Best Western (MOM!), they’re affordable if you can book them ahead of time and they’re usually so much cozier than a hotel.
What to Do in Gulf Shores, AL:
- Uninhabited Island Hopping: In this experience, you’ll explore some of the small islands in the Gulf Coast – as well as the wildlife that lives there. You’ll be visiting them by kayak, so make sure to rest up well the night before. Two-person kayaks are available, making this an affordable option for couples and families.
- Seashell Hunting: I’ve always wondered where those pretty gift-shop seashells come from. This experience is where we can find out! I expect to find pretty-pretty shells to take home and learn something about aquatic life in the Gulf.
- Gulf Shores Public Beach: This is the most popular beach in town and a great place to spend the day without breaking the bank. Eat at Bahama Bob’s and rent out some boogie boards from the surf shops if you have kids. It can get busy, so get here in the morning to stake out your spot.
- Gulf Shores Museum: Visiting as a family? This museum is fantastic for occupying the kids for a few hours. They have a large exhibit dedicated to the Hurricane Hunters where you can learn about the volatile Gulf weather. There’s also some information about fishing in the local area.
Stylish Condo for Families in Gulf Shores: Luxury High Rise
This place is modern and cozy and the rooms have stunning views. I would live in this place! Since I can’t afford that, I’ll get the whole family to pitch in for a week rental. See if you agree!VIEW ON AIRBNB
Holiday Home with Magnificent Views in Gulf Shores: Beach Condos
With ocean views that will make your jaw drop, this condo is fantastic for families. It sleeps up to six guests. The interiors are well decorated in the classic Southern Coastal style. I’ll have a little glass of fancy with my morning eggs, please!VIEW ON VRBO
Easy-going Hotel for Budget Travellers in Gulf Shores: Holiday Inn Express
I told you not to go with the hotel option, but if you really have to, here’s a cheap one. The hotel is located a little further inland but is still well connected to the beach. It’s also one of the best-rated hotels in the area.VIEW ON BOOKING.COM
See more places to stay in Gulf Shores!
Panama City Beach, Florida
Lovingly known as the Redneck Riviera, the Emerald Coast contains a few gems – including Panama City Beach! The beach houses here are generally more upmarket than elsewhere in the area, but are still cheaper than those further south in Florida. For a great beach holiday without breaking the bank, you can’t go wrong with Panama City Beach.
The name “Emerald Coast” comes from the stunning crystal clear waters and white sandy beaches that hug the coastline. It’s considered one of the best beaches in the world, but it doesn’t get as crowded as other gulf beaches (except during Spring Break – and for the love of God, don’t go during spring break).
Awesome Activities in Panama City Beach:
- Art on the Beach: This laidback experience is for the bottled-up creatives who want to tap into their artsy side on vacation. Alongside paint, you’ll have a variety of glistening, gooey, crinkly, flashy craft supplies and creative promptings from a DIY master! This is especially good for a girl’s weekend (I won’t be there, but y’all have a blast).
- Pier Park: Pier Park is the biggest mall in Panama City. It’s got all the top brands that a mall should have, but what’s got me interested is the huge food court – I like to see my options before choosing. It’s near a few beach accesses, so you can package a lot into one day out.
- Adventures at Sea: PCB is great for watersports. Check out Adventures at Sea to see if anything interests you. The Island Tour is the most popular, but I’m voting for parasailing.
- St Andrews State Park: This is home to the largest expanse of beach. As a state park, it’s free from all the ruckus of the main city center area! There is a small entrance fee per vehicle, but it’s totally worth it for a relaxing day under the sun. There are also a few hiking trails.
Luxurious Penthouse for Couples in Panama City Beach: Long Beach Resort
This bright and breezy apartment is the perfect place to unwind. The large balcony stretches from the lounge to the bedroom, giving you a great spot to admire the sunset in the evenings and enjoy breakfast in the morning.VIEW ON VRBO
Idyllic Hotel for Families in Panama City Beach: Holiday Inn Club Vacations
Again, if you really need to do the hotel thing, PCB has a Holiday Inn too! This one’s gulf-side. There’s a large pool area with steps leading straight to the beach.VIEW ON BOOKING.COM
Soothing Condo in Panama City Beach: Beachfront Condo
This beach house screams “Vacation here!” It’s a little tight, granted; but check out that loft! And you’ll love watching the ocean through those huge lofted windows with your morning coffee. Let me know how it goes!VIEW ON AIRBNB
Ready to unwind on the shores of Panama City Beach? We have even more accommodation and activity options in our Where to Stay Guide.
Gatlinburg is the urban gateway to the Smoky Mountains. The town center boasts plenty of great restaurants, bars, museums, lookouts, boutiques, mirror mazes, taffy, fudge and most other things you can imagine! You won’t have to give up your home comforts here! Gatlinburg is my top recommendation for a mountain vacation – bring the kids to Ripley’s or leave the kids somewhere and get your man down to the distillery. If either of those options are too normal, try Ober Gatlinburg’s ice rink and alpine slide!
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an area of natural beauty that straddles the boundaries of Gatlinburg. Here, you’ll find loads of hiking for all levels and adventure activities like zip-lining.
Gatlinburg is a little pricier than other towns mentioned on this list, but the convenience makes it worth the extra spend. You can find great deals on mountain homes and cabins on platforms like VRBO and Airbnb to bring down the costs while maximizing the East Tennessee experience.
Awesome Activities in Gatlinburg:
- Moonshine and Whisky Tour: Moonshine and whisky aside, this is an excellent tour for learning the history of Gatlinburg! You’ll learn the story about moonshine making in Appalachia before going behind the scenes at one of the largest distilleries in the Smoky Mountains.
- Waterfall Hike in the Smokies: This experience takes you deep into the Smokies where you can enjoy some of the most secluded waterfalls in the country. The aim is to disconnect, so technology is discouraged.
- Smokies Photo Class: If you simply can’t pull yourself away from your technology, this is another great trip into the Smokies with a professional photographer. As well as discovering the beautiful mountain region, you’ll be taught the fundamentals of landscape photography.
- Swing Bridge Hike: Foxfire Mountain has a few of the easiest hiking trails in the region, making this a fantastic choice for families! This trail is appeals to kids and adults alike, with games throughout to keep younger guests entertained.
Stunning Mountain Cabin in Gatlinburg: Sweet Retreat
This rustic cabin has a mountain is a great place to stay in Gatlinburg. Offering atmosphere with all the comforts of home – and more! There’s an indulgent hot tub in the bedroom and an authentic fireplace in the lounge area. It might be hard to get out and explore when home base is so nice!VIEW ON AIRBNB
Adorable Little Log Cabin in Gatlinburg: Cozy Cabin
This is the perfect rural retreat close to the Smoky Mountains. Built as an authentic replica of traditional homes in the area, this property isn’t as back to basics as it seems – it comes with a luxurious jacuzzi and modern appliances.VIEW ON VRBO
Hotel With Gorgeous Views in Gatlinburg: The Park Vista DoubleTree
This is a little bit pricier, but DoubleTree Hotels are specially designed for family-friendly comfort. All the rooms at this hotel come with private balconies, giving you stunning mountain views in every direction.VIEW ON BOOKING.COM
Interested in discovering Gatlinburg? Check out our dedicated guide to the town!
It’s here where I have to give you some news – I worked at DollyWood. Yeah, that’s right, I know East Tennessee inside and out! You should definitely look into Gatlinburg and Sevierville before you decide.
Sevierville is only a short drive from Gatlinburg, but it has a completely different vibe! This is where you’ll get the rural Appalachian atmosphere you’d expect from a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s also closer to Pigeon Forge, the hub of the tourist strips. We’re talking gift shops, leather shops, candy shops, crockery shops, go-carts, zip lines, amusement parks, themed stand-alone rides, and much much more!
It is a little bit further out from the mountains, but this just means accommodation and activities are even cheaper! We love this destination; it’s the perfect base for exploring the region without breaking the bank.
Awesome Activities in Sevierville:
- Paint the Smokies: Express the stunning beauty of the Smoky Mountains. You’ll be taught by an experienced artist from the local area about how best to capture landscapes on canvas.
- Smoky Mountain Woodcarving: Painting not your thing but still want a creative outlet? This woodcarving course is designed for beginners, helping you create impressive designs in only one day. You’ll be given all the materials you need, including raw wood from the local forest. Woodcarving is a local artisan trade – there’s no better place in the East to learn the skill.
- WonderWorks: Unfortunately, we can’t control the weather, so it’s good to have a few rainy day activities ready to go to. WonderWorks is an excellent pick for families. You’ll discover a fascinating exhibition of illusions and sciencey tricks, with interactive displays to keep kids (good for ages 4-16) entertained.
- Rainforest Adventure: Discover different species of reptiles, mammals, birds, and more at this large adventure park just outside Sevierville. Another fun activity for kids, families can enjoy up close and personal interactions with creatures from around the world.
- Dollywood: In my unbiased opinion, Dollywood is The Happiest Place on Earth! Get through those gates to ride world-class rollercoasters, appreciate old-timey craftsmen at work, and say “Hi” to the Kettle Korn stand in Country Fair, which was my old workin’ place.
Check out our tips for where to stay in Sevierville.
Rural Cabin on a Budget in Sevierville: One of a Kind
Nestled in the outskirts of Sevierville, this is a great budget alternative to the cabin I suggested in Gatlinburg. It comes with stunning views of the Smoky Mountains and hot tub to help you enjoy it!VIEW ON VRBO
Reclusive Retreat in Sevierville: Secluded Cabin
This cabin is a short drive away from Sevierville. Get away from civilization while still enjoying some home comforts in this stylish cabin retreat. It can sleep up to three guests, making it a great choice for couples and small families.VIEW ON AIRBNB
Affordable Upgrade Hotel in Sevierville: Margaritaville Island Hotel
In keeping with the budget-friendly nature of Sevierville, Margaritaville is very much affordable – but has some added extras to enhance your comfort. Guests can get a private cabana, and a rooftop pool with views towards the mountains.VIEW ON BOOKING.COM
Already planning your trip to Sevierville? Have a look at our guide of the Best Places to Stay in Sevierville before picking your accommodation.
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Just north of Savannah, Georgia, Hilton Head Island has long been a popular beach resort for those from the region. Now, it is one of the best budget-friendly destinations in the South, with plenty of thrilling activities.
Hilton Head is surrounded by stunning beaches with views of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s also known as a popular golf retreat, with many of the courses only a short walk from the coast. Hilton Head Island is a laid-back destination, making it an ideal pick for couples.
Heading inland from the beach, Hilton Head Island also offers some excellent adventure activities. The area is popular with cyclists and hikers, with multiple routes available across the island. At the coast, you’ll also find some great kayaking, sailing, and dolphin-spotting activities.
I have fond memories of vacationing here with my grandparents, riding bikes and eating bubble-gum ice cream with actual gum inside!
Check out our tips for where to stay in Hilton Head island.
Awesome Activities in Hilton Head Island:
- Kayaking & Coffee: Kayaking is a great way to take in the beautiful Hilton Head Coastline – and this experience is specially designed for beginners. You’ll see local birdlife from the water, and a complimentary locally produced coffee (I assume it’s good) will be provided at the beginning.
- Disappearing Island Dolphin Adventure: Disappearing Island is only accessible at low tide, so that’s when you need to go on this adventure. If you’re lucky enough to grab a spot, you’ll probably spot dolphins as they surround the Atlantic coast. Your knowledgeable guide will also show you starfish and crustaceans. Not as interesting as dolphins, to be sure, but a nice addition.
- MayKaur Kundalini Yoga: Let your problems melt away with this mindful yoga experience on the beach! This is the perfect activity for a group trip to the island. The expert yogi will guide you through the class, all with stunning coastal views nearby.
- Jet Ski Tour: Get the adrenaline pumping with the ultimate water sport – jet skiing! This short tour will take you around the Hilton Head Island coast on a jet ski. A brief training session is included at the start to get you acquainted with the vehicle. Then, it’s off to the water to get them G’s.
Laid Back Vacation Rental for Families on Hilton Head Island: Beach Resort
This rental combines modern convenience with timeless design. It is a relaxing space that can sleep up to four guests across two bedrooms. The main boardwalk is only a two-minute walk away.VIEW ON AIRBNB
Waterfront Retreat on Hilton Head Island: Renovated Condo
For immediate beach access without breaking the bank, you can’t go wrong with this gorgeous condo! The small balcony has a dining area, and you can see the sunset from the property. The owners recommend the Tiki Hut next door for live music in the evenings.VIEW ON VRBO
Extravagant Resort on Hilton Head Island: Sonesta Resort
This four-star hotel is next level, and totally worth splashing out on a little! With multiple dining options on-site and a huge pool area, you’ll barely want to leave the resort. If you do, Shelter Cove Marina is only ten minutes away.VIEW ON BOOKING.COM
Ready to slow down and breathe on a trip to Hilton Head Island? We have some more great accommodation picks in our dedicated guide to the destination.
Orange Beach, Alabama
Orange Beach is near Gulf Shores, making it another primo destination for chilling out by the Gulf of Mexico on a budget! Where Orange Beach differs is in its smaller tourist numbers. It’s not hard to kick back and relax here. For this reason, so I reckon Orange Beach is a better option for families.
Keeping with the family-friendly nature, there are a few great waterparks and kid-friendly adventure activities around the area. Orange Beach has a more local feel, so you have the chance to enjoy the main attractions at a more authentic pace.
Awesome Activities in Orange Beach:
- Learn to Surf: Orange Beach is one of few places to surf on the gulf coast. This experience is designed to take you from zero experience to basic surfing ability in just a few hours. A board is included, and the host is a professional.
- Inshore Fishing: This is a little bit more easy-going but perfect for families that want to take a trip out to the water. If you’d rather catch your food than buy it, try out this experience!
- Coastal PhotoWalk: Here’s another for couples. You’ll be given an hour with a professional photographer for your very own photoshoot. Using the stunning beach as a backdrop, the experienced host will help you capture those magical holiday memories to keep forever. You can also bring the dog along!
- Fort Morgan: Interested in local history? This fort was built during the Second World War and played a pivotal role in the Battle of Mobile Bay! My favorite game here is counting how many times you see/hear the phrase “Damn the torpedoes!” Guided tours are offered daily, and kids can get in for only a dollar.
Relaxing Hotel for Families in Orange Beach: Hampton Inn & Suites
This oceanfront hotel comes with direct access to the beach – perfect if you’re just looking for a relaxing holiday in the South. Run by the Hilton Group, Hampton hotels offer luxury at affordable prices.VIEW ON BOOKING.COM
Stunning Condo with Sea Views in Orange Beach: Gated Resort
The interiors are a little basic, but the beach is right on your doorstep! If you want to head to the coast on a budget, this condo is perfect. There’s a small balcony, and guests have access to a shared pool and sauna.VIEW ON VRBO
Sunny Apartment for Couples in Orange Beach: Beachside Surfshack
Need a break just for the two of you? This cute apartment is perfect for a short getaway on a budget. Housed within a renovated motel, it harks back to the 50s while benefiting from updated fixtures and fittings.VIEW ON AIRBNB
Sold on Orange Beach? We have a few more accommodation picks for you to check out over here.
Known for its fine sand beaches and turquoise water, Destin is another brilliant beach destination for families looking for somewhere budget-friendly in Florida. Though a little pricier than our Alabama picks, it comes with high-quality hotels at reasonable prices.
By far, the beach is the most popular attraction – but Destin is also surrounded by fun-tastic waterparks! Plus, there are plenty of boat tours where you can try out fishing, go dolphin spotting, or simply marvel at the gorgeous waters surrounding the resort.
Awesome Activities in Destin:
- Scavenger Hunt: Scavenger hunts are great ways to discover a new destination, and this experience in Destin will take you around all the main attractions in the city. Organized by a local host, you’ll discover some hidden gems as well as the usual favorites.
- Golf: Heard of it? It’s pretty popular in Florida (shocker), so it makes sense that Destin has plenty of courses. Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort (which is also one of our accommodation picks) is the most popular, but I have a special mention for Regatta Bay.
- Big Kahuna’s Waterpark: Featuring slides, lazy rivers, and wave pools, there’s enough to keep the whole family occupied for a day or two. You’ll find me doing the parasailing!
- Deep-Sea Fishing: Fish like you’ve never fished before with these carefully organized tours off the Destin coast. You’ll have to hire a private experience, making this the ideal activity for large groups in the area.
Check out our top tips for where to stay in Destin.
Cute Condo with Nautical Charm in Destin: Harbour Home
The beachy feel of this holiday home gives guests the perfect setting to unwind. The beach is a few steps away, and there are plenty of great restaurants and bars in the neighborhood. They also welcome small pets – perfect for all you puppy parents out there.VIEW ON VRBO
Cozy Boat in Destin: The Blessed Boat
Easily the most unique accommodation in this guide, the Blessed Boat is perfect for couples and solo travelers looking to stay near Destin! It’s a short drive outside the city, but totally worth it for the secluded atmosphere. It’s already moored in a great spot, so don’t worry that you can’t take it out to sea.VIEW ON AIRBNB
Stylish Hotel in Destin: Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort
This hotel is an attraction in its own right since the most popular golf course in Destin is on-site. It has so much more to offer than golf, however, with direct beach access and a huge spa.VIEW ON BOOKING.COM
Ready to visit Destin? We’ve got a guide to the best neighborhoods in the area!
Galveston’s vibrant waterfront area has carnival rides, shops, and restaurants in abundance, making this a great destination for anyone seeking a budget-friendly vacation in the South this summer.
The town oozes charm and truly epitomizes Southern hospitality. The culinary scene is enormous in Galveston; you’ll be spoiled for choice between Southern, Mexican, and steakhouse eats.
Galveston is only a 45-minute drive from Houston, making it a great base for exploring the city on a budget. As a major Gulf Coast destination, there are also some jaw-dropping beaches nearby just waiting to be explored.
Awesome Activities in Galveston:
- Historic Ghost Tour: It’s not just the big southern cities that have paranormal happenings; Galveston also has a fascinating history with the macabre. Learn about the city’s darkest history and most infamous legends with a local tour guide in this short night tour.
- Sunset Kayak: Galveston is well placed for viewing the sunset in the evenings – and heading out by kayak is a truly unique way to take it all in. A licensed guide will keep you safe as you explore local flora and fauna on your trip. This is an excellent option for couples!
- Bar Crawl: Need to let your hair down? Galveston has a nightlife scene that could rival any of the major Texan cities. This bar crawl is hosted by a local, giving you the chance to discover some hidden gems along the way.
Timeless Cottage in Galveston: The Dupre House
This gorgeous Airbnb Plus apartment is, in a word, stunning! The stylish interior harkens back to the region’s history while providing modern comforts.VIEW ON AIRBNB
Southern Belle Beachhouse in Galveston: Little Sunshine
This house is located right on the beach, meaning you can roll straight out of bed and onto the sand. Nicknamed ‘Little Sunshine’, the interior is bright and traditional. The spacious balcony also has a cute little dining area.VIEW ON VRBO
Affordable Beachfront Hotel in Galveston: Quality Inn and Suites
Just need somewhere to lay your head? This hotel is located right on the beachfront, giving you immediate access to all the best attractions. There are also a few extras, such as complimentary breakfast and private balconies.VIEW ON BOOKING.COM
Ready to party in Galveston? Check out our neighborhood guide before booking your accommodation.
I’m excited to get out of the house again! Now that I’ve got all these written out, I’m going to try and let my family decide where to vacation this summer.
I’m trying not to play favorites, but Gulf Shores, AL is going to be the best beach destination for the summer and Gatlinburg, TN the best mountain destination.
Have you set your heart on one of these already? Or have you got another recommendation not on this list? Please let me know what you’re thinking below! If I don’t get around to visiting everywhere this summer, there’s always next summer. 😉