For MONEY’s first Best in Travel Awards, we identified the seven domestic destinations that offer the best travel experiences at the best prices in 2016. Here are the winners:
No. 7: Sante Fe, NM
Why it Won
Spend your days gallery hopping in Santa Fe and pay next to nothing in entertainment costs. Even the airfare is a bargain.
Decrease in average airfare
About Sante Fe
Santa Fe’s charms have always been funky, eclectic—and cheap. It ranks No. 4 on our list for museums, and the Santa Fe Gallery Association says there are more than 200 art galleries in town. Spend all day art hopping and you’ll never spend a dime, if you can resist buying a painting.
Even if you can’t, a Santa Fe trip will still leave you with spare cash. The average roundtrip airfare has fallen 2.5% year over year. Hotels are also generally affordable; the average cost is just $159 a night. For easy access to downtown, try the Sage Inn, an adorably kitschy, Southwest-themed spot with free breakfast and Wi-Fi (from $94).
The city also scores high on our amiability index, which looked at intangible factors, including crime rates, weather, and air quality. In fact, Santa Fe was No. 3 overall, behind two locations in Hawaii.
Two inexpensive, arty destinations that are also worth a stop: the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum ($12) and the restored Jean Cocteau Cinema, a 128-seat art-house theater. If you’re lucky, you might catch the theater’s owner, Game of Thrones mastermind and Santa Fe resident George R.R. Martin, taking tickets.
No. 6: Austin, TX
Why it Won
Some of the best things in Austin really are free. The rest is affordable for travelers too.
Rank on list in overall lowest cost of living
No. 9 (out of 100)
Austin is famous for its live music, growing foodie reputation, and offbeat personality. But what visitors don’t always appreciate is how affordable the self-proclaimed capital of “weird” can be. Austin ranks No. 9 of the 100 destinations on our list in overall lowest cost of living, which includes the price of food, restaurants, and entertainment.
One great way to take advantage of Austin is to spend time outdoors. Austin ranks No. 18 on our list for the quantity and quality of its parks.
Among the favorites: the hike-and-bike trail around downtown’s Lady Bird Lake and the nature paths, swimming holes, and rock climbing walls in the city’s 832-acre Barton Creek Greenbelt, an urban oasis.
A good home base: The Hyatt Regency, in the downtown area, features a pool and stunning views of the city and the lake. Rooms in April start at $180 a night, 27% below the average price in Austin. “Grab a cocktail and patio table at Contigo,” says Zagat Austin editor Veronica Meewes. Try the rabbit with sage dumplings ($17).
No. 5: Las Vegas, NV
Why it Won
If you’re looking for a great deal on a five-star hotel, Las Vegas is a sure bet. Head downtown and you’ll eat for less too.
Average price per night of a five-star hotel
About Las Vegas
What’s the biggest jackpot in Vegas? It could be the hotel prices. Thanks to a huge supply (almost 150,000 hotel and motel rooms) and prices kept low to lure gamblers, the average five-star room costs about $199 a night. You can even get a room overlooking the dancing fountains at the famed Bellagio for $189 a night in April.
Las Vegas is now also easier and cheaper to get to, thanks to new direct flights on Frontier, Southwest, and Virgin America.
The average roundtrip airfare has dropped to $254, a 7.1% decline over the previous year.
On the other hand, it’s easy to go for broke on dinner, as Vegas has become one of the country’s new culinary capitals. When we analyzed restaurant data from TripAdvisor, Las Vegas ranked 6th, just behind San Francisco and Houston. That said, even a top-end restaurant such as db Brasserie—home to a $139, 42-oz. prime côte de boeuf—has daily $1 oysters specials, from 5 to 6 p.m.
You’ll also save if you venture outside the casino zone. Carson Kitchen, where entrées range from $15 to $19, helped lead the revitalization of downtown and is an easy cab ride from the Strip, says Andrea Bennett of Vegas magazine.
No. 4: Fort Lauderdale, FL
Why it Won
Beautiful beaches where sunny days outnumber cloudy ones by two to one. Plus: Airfares have fallen three years in a row.
Average cost of hotel room
About Fort Lauderdale
Miami gets the jet-setters—and the sky-high prices. Fort Lauderdale gives you the same ocean beach for less. The average hotel with four stars on travel-booking site TripAdvisor will cost you $40 less in Fort Lauderdale than in Miami. Thanks to the ever-expanding Fort Lauderdale airport, the average roundtrip airfare dropped by almost $30 a ticket last year. Even Florida’s 6% sales tax is a bargain compared with most states’, and Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale, is one of the few with no local tax.
If it’s your first time in town, stroll along the beach between Sunrise Boulevard and Bahia Mar, says Erik Petersen of Fort Lauderdale Magazine. The main shopping strip, Las Olas Boulevard, is dotted with restaurants. At Mangos, the Las Olas shrimp with olives and artichokes over pasta is a specialty ($21).
After dinner, stay to dance to the music performed by local bands (no cover fee).
Fort Lauderdale hotels average $161 a night, according to Hotels.com. You can even find a waterfront bargain: Ocean-view rooms at the Sun Tower Hotel & Suites, start at $149 a night in May.
No. 3: Memphis, TN
Why it Won
With the drop in airfares, a new Graceland hotel, and all that great barbecue, you won’t be singing the blues here.
Airfare drop year over year
The time has come to take singer Marc Cohn’s musical suggestion and go walking in Memphis. The average roundtrip airfare has fallen almost $50 year over year, and a four-star hotel room costs $154 a night on average. Somewhere Elvis is smiling.
One of the best deals in town are the free outdoor performances at the Levitt Shell, built in 1936 in downtown’s Overton Park.
For an even more down-home introduction to Blues City, try the Hi-Tone Cafe, a dive bar where locals gather for live music ($10 cover for some shows) and cans of Wiseacre Brewing’s Tiny Bomb, made with local honey ($45).
Along with the music, Memphis is known for its finger-licking barbecue joints, such as Central BBQ. “The pulled-pork sandwich ($5) and mac and cheese ($3.50) are essential orders,” says Holly Whitfield of ILoveMemphisBlog.com. Elvis fans should keep tabs on the new Guest House at Graceland, located about eight miles from the city center and set to open in October. Introductory rates will start at $159 a night.
No. 2: New York, NY
Why it Won
New York has more A-list sights than any U.S. city, and the cost of hotels and flights is dropping. Go give your regards to Broadway.
Hotel prices year over year
About New York
Everyone knows that New York ain’t cheap, but it’s been getting cheaper. The Big Apple is our only location where both hotel prices (down 6.1%) and airfares (down 3.3%) fell year over year.
Credit for that goes to competition among airlines and a hotel-building boom. There were more than 100,000 rooms in 2015, up from 73,000 a decade earlier. “We’ve added the entire inventory of San Francisco,” says Fred Dixon, president and CEO of NYC & Co., the city’s tourism bureau.
Two hot neighborhoods are downtown, as in downtown Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn.
At the sleek W Hotel near the World Trade Center memorial, you can find a room for $175 a night. Over the bridge in Brooklyn, the Nu Hotel mixes old-school touches like hardwood floors with funkier nods such as in-room hammocks. Rooms start at $225, but you can find deals on Jetsetter.com for $125.
Saving money out on the town means thinking like a native. Grab a great lunch from the ethnic food carts around Rockefeller Center for less than $10. If you’re hungry for some theater, hit the discount TKTS booth in Times Square, but wait until late afternoon when the lines have thinned. And at the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it’s okay to ignore the suggested entrance fee and pay what you want.
No. 1: San Diego, CA
Why it Won
The best combination of outdoor attractions, cultural landmarks, great weather, and affordable hotels in the country.
Airfare decline year over year
About San Diego
The best weather of any big city in the country (263 sunny days a year). The best zoo in the world (sorry, Bronx). Gorgeous beaches, acclaimed theaters, and new foodie destinations all over town. All that and average four-star hotel rooms go for less than $200 a night. San Diego may be overshadowed by the City of Angels 120 miles to the north, but it’s pretty heavenly too.
And this year San Diego is shining brighter than ever. Overall, the city ranked No. 3 on our list of the best parks and outdoor venues in the country. On May 14, the San Diego Zoo celebrates its centennial with free events. The baseball All-Star Game comes to the city in July. And March saw the opening of the Liberty Public Market, a 30-stall food hall located in a renovated, ’20s-era warehouse in the Liberty Station neighborhood. Not that the city needs more food options.
With more than 9,000 bars and restaurants, San Diego ranks No. 5 on our list of top eateries (and drinkeries).
In a town known for its Mexican food, it may be surprising that San Diego’s Little Italy has also become a culinary pit stop. The Baja-inspired Bracero Cocina de Raiz makes a great carrot aguachile ($17) and offers $1 off beers during happy hour.
You won’t have trouble finding great, affordable hotels. San Diego has more top-rated hotels than Chicago, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. At the retro Pearl Hotel in Point Loma you’ll pay as little as $126 a night.
Next: Take a Tour of San Diego