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The Best Affordable Family Vacation

Put Utah at the top of the list for your next family trip.

By Kathleen Clove
June 18, 2024

There are two things all parents want out of a family trip: It should be a good time for everyone, and it should be affordable. Unlike some other so-called family destinations, we don’t think you need to spend a year’s earnings for a few sporadic moments of fun. And you definitely shouldn’t need to take Dramamine.

Consider Utah your ticket to the best family vacation ever. No matter the age of your clan — toddlers, teens, thirtysomethings, retired-somethings — we have a suitcase full of activities for them around Salt Lake City that will fit your budget and “Let’s have a blast!” barometer. 

Cost: Free

Free activities? Yep, all these ventures won’t cost you a dime. Can’t get a better vacation deal than that.

Take a Hike

It’s just a short drive into the mountains surrounding Salt Lake City, where you’ll find miles and miles of hiking trails. In spring, the hills are alive with wildflowers, wildlife and the smell of people wearing eau’ de mosquito repellant. Come fall, radiant yellows and oranges commandeer the landscape. And in the winter, you can hike or snowshoe through powdery, white snow under bright blue skies.

Hike or bike your way to the top, where you’ll find vistas to take your breath away — and not just because you climbed 1,000 feet in elevation. Take all the pictures you want; they’re free, too. 

Utah's mountains of full of hiking trails that won't cost you a dime to climb.

Party Arty

Head to the heart of downtown for a walking art tour. Even your youngest kids will appreciate the oddity of a multicolored whale emerging from the depths of a city street. Introduce them to deeper ideas as you stroll past the larger-than-life murals on local buildings.

If your brood’s tastes are more refined, or they just prefer a good HVAC system, visit the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s free (although they wouldn’t turn down a donation).

Attend a Festival

Learn about a different culture, pick up a new skill and listen to some sweet tunes at one of the community summer or fall festivals, all within 30 minutes of Salt Lake City. Many have free (or minimal) admission. Plan to pick up some lunch or a treat while you’re there, because there will be food that smells too good to resist.

  • Oktoberfest, Snowbird
  • Urban Arts Festival, Salt Lake City
  • Living Traditions Fest, Salt Lake City
  • Avenues Street Fair, Salt Lake City
  • Greek Fest, Salt Lake City ($5 admission)

Visit the Capitol

There’s something so familiar about the Utah State Capitol building … Oh yeah, it looks just like the Washington, D.C., version. But unlike that one, your kids are welcome to do their best Rocky run up the steps. Walk around on your own, or take the free tour to learn about some important folks from state history.

It took pioneers decades to build this neo-Gothic temple.

Be Inspired

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints settled here nearly 200 years ago and quickly got to work. See the fruits of their labors with a visit to Salt Lake Temple Square, anchored by the neo-Gothic structure that took 40 years to build. Learn more about the hearty pioneers at the Church History Museum — someone hauled a piano across the Plains! And for genealogy buffs, spend some time at the Family History Center to learn who your nose came from. 

Head east on South Temple Street to see the red sandstone First Presbyterian Church. The Gothic revival building features stained glass and stunning arched doorways. Just one block farther is the Cathedral of the Madeleine, Utah’s first Catholic church. The stately building features stained-glass windows and an onyx font. It’s one of only two churches in the world to house a first-class relic of St. Mary Magdalene.

Go to Market

During the summer in downtown Salt Lake, a Farmers Market is held Saturday mornings at Pioneer Park. You can pick up a peach, a pastry and a pendant necklace in one square block. Consider it part of your meal and souvenir budget.

Relive the Olympics

In Park City, about 40 minutes west of Salt Lake, visit Utah Olympic Park to see the daunting ramps skiers and bobsledders hurtled down at breakneck speeds during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. There’s a museum with gear from the Games, as well as the ginormous buffalo head used during the opening ceremonies. It’s free to walk around the grounds; there are some paid activities there, too, including a zipline and ropes course.

Under $15

You can stretch your Utah vacation bucks further by visiting places with free (or minimal) admission. Then, you’ll only be paying for any extras.

Transportation Nation

Get an up close look at retired U.S. military aircraft at Hill Aerospace Museum, about 30 minutes north of Salt Lake. Admission is free (donations welcome). For an immersive experience, add a virtual flight on an A-10. Tickets are $15; reserve them online.

At Ogden Union Station, you get two museums for the price of one. Climb aboard out-of-commission trains, then look through a vintage car museum. Admission is $3-7; kids under 2 are free.

Starry-eyed? Let the Clark Planetarium be your guide.

Space Out

For kids and adults who love all things space, the Clark Planetarium is a must-do. See a 6-foot globe, meteorites, a moon rock and a piece of Mars. A 360-degree dome theater has light shows and “trips through space”; The IMAX theater shows space and nature documentaries. Admission to the Planetarium is free; tickets to the movies are $9-11 for ages 3 and up.

Get Salty

You’ve seen it on maps, now see it in person: the Great Salt Lake, possibly Utah’s most recognizable natural feature. Head to Antelope Island State Park (40 minutes from downtown) to see it and possibly some free-roaming wildlife: bison (buffalo to newbies), antelope, coyotes or elk. Admission is just $5 per vehicle.

Under $25

For less than 25 bucks, you can have a daylong adventure? That’s like a dollar an hour.

Be a Pioneer

When the pioneers first arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, they quickly set up homes, shops and schools (much to the kids’ chagrin). Step back in time at This Is The Place Heritage Park, where costumed guides immerse you in life 150 years ago. Tickets are $15-19; kids 2 and under are free.

Get Wild

Bring your animal lovers to the Hogle Zoo. Among the exhibits you’ll find great apes, a white rhino, polar bears, reptiles and more. Tickets are $18-22; ages 2 and under are free. If you’re visiting in November or December, go on a weekday — admission is only $5.

A white rhino is among the exotic animals you'll find at Hogle Zoo.

Get Answers

How tall was the woolly mammoth? Can the sun power a car? Visit a museum to answer all of life’s most important questions, so you don’t have to.

  • Dinosaurs, live animals, hands-on science experiments. You’ll experience them all at the Natural History Museum. Admission is $18-23; kids under 2 are free.
  • How does (blank) work? Kids — and you — can learn at the Discovery Gateway Museum. There’s a sensory room, an interactive water play exhibit and an actual Life Flight helicopter with a kid-sized emergency room replica. Tickets are $12.50-13.50; kids under 1 are free.
  • Imagine a place where your child is encouraged to touch and climb on everything. That’s the Treehouse Museum in Ogden. They can even take part in a fairy tale play onstage. Admission is $6-12. All adults must be accompanied by a child. Yeah, it’s for kids.

Under $50

One big splurge in Utah is still probably less than you’d pay in some other places. 

See a Play

Take the whole family to a Broadway show, without the New York sticker shock, at one of Utah’s live theaters. Your vacation deal includes tickets starting around $40; that’s cheap enough to take everyone out for ice cream afterward.

See a professional live theater production, without the Broadway price. Photo courtesy Pioneer Theater Company

See a Game

Basketball? Soccer? Baseball? Rugby? Hockey? You name it, we’ve got it; Utah’s roster of sports teams is long. Take your squad to a college or professional game. Pro game tickets start around $25; college ball prices start near $50.

Bare Necessities

The best family vacation includes some forethought about the necessities, no matter the ages. Because when one person isn’t well-rested, no one is. Make reservations for a hotel in the heart of the city, where you can walk or take public transportation to restaurants, shopping and sites. If you’ll be traveling outside the city proper, consider renting a vehicle.

If the words “family trip” mean outdoor adventures to you, consider staying in Park City. Local guides can take you off-roading, snowmobiling (in season) and horseback riding. When you're ready for dinner, there’s a free public transit system to take you around town.

Looking Good

What should you wear on your trip to Utah? Family vacation shirts! Order quality, affordable T-shirts for your crew to remember your adventure. And because a family that dresses together stays together — or at least they’re easier to find in a crowd. Check the weather to decide what else you should pack.

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