Luxury for less: Visiting big cities on a small budget

Think a big city vacation is off limits on a family budget? Think again. We gave ourselves a challenge: a world-class family vacation in one of America’s most popular cities for less than $125/night. Here, how to get “luxe for less” in San Francisco, New York City and Orlando.

San Francisco

Why we love it: Look up, down, or side-to-side in SF and you'll be greeted with gorgeous waterfronts (the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay), unforgettable architecture (like the multicolored Victorian "Painted Ladies"), and roller-coaster hills that only make the visit more charming, especially for the little ones.

Affordable family fun: Hop on one of the city's classic cable cars for some fun ups and downs on SF's famous hills; you can explore vibrant, unique neighborhoods like Chinatown with a one-day pass ($15). Head to popular Pier 39 on San Francico Bay to ogle the big, adorable sea lions and to grab a taste of a signature Northern Cal fave: clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl. Stroll through Golden Gate Park for its knockout botanical gardens, free concerts and hands-on activites. 

Best time for bargains: SF's off-season is November through May. 

"Luxe for less" hotel: Hotel Del Sol is a family-friendly hotel with vibrant design and a great location in the Marina/Cow Hollow area. Perks include afternoon cookies and milk, heated pool, and free breakfast. (, from $120 per night.) 

Slideshow: See more big cities on a small budget

New York City

Why we love it: Sure, the city that never sleeps is known for some astronomical prices ($1,000 baseball tickets, $100 hamburgers, anyone?), but this capital of art, music, design, fashion, and finance also offers more freebies (and near-freebies) than any other major city in America. 

Affordable family fun: A must-see for families year-round is the American Museum of Natural History, with its awe-inspiring, life-size blue whale model, dinosaur fossils on the top floor (or "in the attic," as the staff likes to say), and interactive Discovery Room. In summer, walk the High Line, an elevated park created out of an abandoned stretch of railroad track that offers kids programs with storytelling and sculpture-making. NYC's parks offer free movies and concerts in summer, and a tasty snack is always a block away — nab a classic twisty pretzel from a hot dog stand. 

Best time for bargains: Right after New Year's, when rates are slashed at hotels and you can get two-for-one theater tickets during Broadway Week and free ice skating in Bryant Park. 

"Luxe for less" hotel: The Jane, in Manhattan's West Village, once housed the survivors of the Titanic. You'll feel (almost) as lucky with this nicely appointed hotel's bargain summer rates. (, from $105 this summer) 

Orlando, Florida

Why we love it: Orlando is designed around family-friendly vacations, with theme parks, themed restaurants, and activities everywhere you look. 

Affordable family fun: All those theme park experiences come with a price tag, of course, but there are many ways to book smart. Right now, for instance, there are special deals like hotel tie-ins to get you into the new Harry Potter-themed Diagon Alley at Universal (see our hotel pick below), and a stay at a Disney-branded resort can land you discounted admission, re-admission, transportation, and other perks. Following the major theme parks on Facebook and Twitter can give you the fast track to flash promotions and other savings. 

Best time for bargains: September is quiet(er) in Orlando. When school is back in session, you can find elbow room and savings around town. We won't tell if you give your kids a few extra days off to shake hands with Mickey! 

"Luxe for less" hotel: The Hilton Orlando is offering special deals timed to the opening of Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando Resort now through Dec. 18. You can get four nights at the hotel, two three-day park-to-park tickets for Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure (to experience both Harry Potter sections), early admission to the parks, and more. (, four nights from $102 per night) 

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