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Spring Break has always been a popular time for young families to take advantage of the off-time from school and hit the road for a week-long getaway. But with every other family having the same idea, it’s almost impossible to avoid the rowdy crowds, ridiculous flight fares, and overpriced accommodations. That is, until now! This TravelingMom of five shares her secrets for an action-packed, off the beaten path Spring Break in popular cities across the U.S…without breaking the bank!
Most people like to travel – but want to avoid crowds. In fact, I was asked again just today for suggestions of places for a family to travel that wouldn’t be super crowded, and are within driving distance of Cincinnati, Ohio. Fortunately, that’s sort of our M.O. when it comes to Spring Break travel! Read on for some of my favorite ideas for an off the beaten path Spring Break.
Why Visit Off the Beaten Path Spring Break Destinations?
The first reason is probably fairly obvious. If you travel to a beach or popular theme park during Spring Break, it’s going to be crowded. In some cases, if your timing is just right (or, rather, wrong…) your destination may be absurdly crowded, and make you wish you’d have gone somewhere else.
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When we talk to our friends and family with kids about Spring Break travel, they’re often surprised to hear that we’re going somewhere like St. Louis, Toronto, or Washington D.C. I totally understand; there are times that we leave our already cold and dreary home for somewhere colder. I’d question our decision making skills too, if I didn’t know how much fun it can be.
More Convenient Locations
Though we don’t really enjoy crowds, avoiding them is not actually the reason we first started to travel this way during Spring Break. In my kids’ school, Spring Break always falls the third full week of March – regardless of Easter or other holiday dates. In most years, this actually works well for avoiding crowds to begin with.
One year though, this put our Spring Break in line with what seemed like every other school in the country. More pertinent, it made my family’s travel window really narrow. We serve in leadership positions at our church, so that year we had only 5 days to travel before having to be back in town. With limited time available, we certainly didn’t want to go somewhere that was going to be pricier and more crowded, so we shifted our way of thinking.
It’s no guarantee depending on where you travel, but you may just save money traveling to less crowded family Spring Break destinations. In true supply and demand fashion, cruises, beaches and theme parks – anywhere people would like to go to escape the doldrums of winter before spring really arrives – can charge a premium when everyone wants to visit. And if you haven’t noticed, people aren’t flocking to the Midwest or the Great Plains for Spring Break.
How Do We Decide Where to Visit… and What to Do There?
When we want to take one of these trips to seemingly less popular destinations – especially when our time is limited – we begin by looking for large cities within driving distance. I’ve mentioned before that we basically hate driving anywhere if we can fly… but sometimes it just makes more sense. An unexpected benefit of starting this way is that we’ve discovered cities we almost certainly wouldn’t ever travel to on a “normal” vacation. (Don’t forget to check out these tips for road tripping with kids!)
Once we’ve chosen a destination, I begin to make a list of things to do once we’re there. A quick search on TravelingMom will give you great ideas for a number of cities, and a Google search can help fill in any gaps. Because we aren’t going somewhere like Walt Disney World with all of its themed attractions and restaurants or Hawaii with stunning beaches at every turn, we often end up finding some incredible hidden gems.
We usually choose a few large “touristy” places – museums, zoos, amusement parks, and the like – and then fill in the gaps with parks, sporting events, smaller activities, and restaurant recommendations from the locals. It’s amazing how many fun (and even free!) things are available in most major cities when you look just outside the usual tourism staples! Check out some of our articles on free things to do in a city near you.
TravelingMom Tip: If you belong to your local zoo, aquarium, or museum, be sure to ask about reciprocity. In many cases, out-of-town establishments will honor your membership with free or heavily discounted admission. Also check for a CityPASS option, which may offer significant savings on a bundle of attractions at your destination!
Our Favorite Cities to Avoid Crowds
We’ve only been traveling this way intentionally for a few Spring Breaks, but we’ve always enjoyed long weekends and visits to other cities in a similar fashion. Here are some of our favorites, all of which we’ve done with kids of various ages.
Of course, keep in mind that these cities are going to be somewhat local to me, but may be too far for consideration depending on where you live. Still, if you ever find yourself looking for a bigger trip, any of these would come highly recommended by our family!
Chicago is a bit of a stretch when it comes to “avoiding crowds” depending on where you go. That said, it’s a large enough city that there are definitely places you can visit and have a great time, without being overwhelmed by other people.
And the weather during most spring breaks — March and April — can bring not-fabulous weather in Chicago. The threat of cold, windy and rain or snow helps hold down springtime crowds in the Windy City.
Some of our favorite places to visit are the (free!) Lincoln Park Zoo, Navy Pier, Millennium Park, and Michigan Avenue shops and eateries. We have also enjoyed visits to the Chicago Nature Museum, Shedd Aquarium (see my only caveat here!), and so many other places.
We have gone to Chicago as a family dozens of times and still have so much to see and do! It’s easy to get around and always a great little getaway.
St. Louis, Missouri
My kids still talk about our trip to St. Louis, so I know we’ll be back! Hands down the coolest place we’ve ever discovered that’s “off the beaten path” is St. Louis’ City Museum. Words can’t really do this place justice, but here’s how it’s described on the museum website:
Housed in the 600,000 square-foot former International Shoe Company, the museum is an eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel made out of unique, found objects.
In this one museum we found caves (that provide a secret entrance to a 10-story slide!), a circus, the largest ball pit I’ve ever seen, a massive treehouse, a whole floor of art supplies and instructions to play and create, and so much more. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen – or even heard of – anywhere in the world.
There’s more to do in St. Louis too, like the family-friendly Anheuser-Busch brewery tour and Grant’s Farm, Forest Park and the (free!) St. Louis Zoo, and the Laumeier Sculpture Park. And of course no visit to St. Louis is complete without a visit to – and up in – the Gateway Arch!
TravelingMom Tip: The Gateway Arch is within the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which is a part of the National Parks Service. Be sure to check out Junior Ranger programs, and other fun National Parks activities!
Atlanta is a little farther drive than we usually like to make, but that hasn’t stopped us from doing so a number of times. Much like Chicago, we find ourselves there time and again with new things to do each visit.
A few things we’ve done multiple times include catching a Braves game (especially at the beautiful Sun Trust Park), visiting the Coca-Cola Museum and the Georgia Aquarium, and spending time at Zoo Atlanta – a fabulous zoo, and home to our favorite Giant Panda twins. (Want to see Pandas? Here’s another great list of places to consider for your next family trip, where you can see the beautiful creatures!)
Other Great Cities to Consider:
We’ve also had awesome visits to other cities. Depending on where you are and what you’re looking for, maybe some of these will appeal to you and your family. I’ve tried to limit the list to less crowded, family-friendly destinations.
- Asheville, North Carolina
- Baltimore, Maryland
- Chattanooga, Tennessee
- Cleveland, Ohio (and Lake Erie)
- Indianapolis, Indiana
- Fort Worth, Texas
- San Antonio, Texas
- Sleeping Bear Dunes (and Lake Michigan)