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As if the price of car rentals wasn’t already bad enough, this year is poised to make travel even more expensive. Fuel prices are rising to wallet-stinging levels. Don’t let it ruin your summer vacation: You can still travel at a reasonable price if you pick your destination strategically.
While vacations in the U.S. seem to go hand-in-hand with needing a car, that’s not true for all places. These cities have transit connections for an easy arrival plus make it easy to get around once you’re there. In other words, you can leave the car—and the gas bill—at home.
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Beacon, New York
If you know, you know: Beacon is an easy trip from New York City and you won’t need a car to enjoy it. Here, the main attraction is Dia:Beacon, a contemporary art museum with more exhibition space than MoMA and the Guggenheim combined. That alone will take a full day. After, you’ll want to stick around to sample the cafes and breweries and then work off your calories on a Hudson River paddleboard trip.
Like many towns in the Hudson Valley, Beacon is served by Metro North commuter rail with frequent trips to and from Manhattan. If you’re not coming from New York City, you can also take Amtrak to Poughkeepsie and transfer to Metro North from there.
Part of Beacon’s charm is the lack of chain hotels. However, savvy travelers can still lock in a free stay. Both the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve® can negate Airbnb reservation costs through the Pay Yourself Back program until June 30, 2022.
Estes Park, Colorado
When you think of destinations with public transit, your first instinct is probably to head to an urban locale. However, Estes Park is the complete opposite. This small tourist town makes a fun getaway for all ages, with activities like miniature golf, 4×4 tours and shopping and dining along the main drag. Hop on one of six free shuttle routes to get out of town or head up the aerial tramway for a birds-eye view.
Getting to Estes Park is easier than you think. In the summer and early fall, Bustang provides service from Denver’s Union Station, Westminster, Boulder and Lyons for only $5 each way. That’s cheap enough you should have money leftover to buy a tour of Rocky Mountain National Park one day, the star of the area.
Once you’ve arrived in Estes Park, consider a stay at the Ridgeline Hotel. The property is within walking distance of the bus stop as well as the town’s main drag. Rooms here require 20,000 Choice Privileges points per night. If you don’t have Choice points yet, you can transfer them in at a 1:1 ratio from American Express Membership Rewards.
Fort Worth, Texas
Fort Worth’s public transportation makes this city a great one for a car-free getaway. Routes like Molly the Trolley head to the entertainment district, while others including The Dash head to the cultural district and home of several area museums. Or, head a few miles north by bus to the Fort Worth Stockyards for western heritage and history.
Texas is gigantic, but now you can cover some ground in style. New luxury buses ply the interstate, connecting cities like Austin and Houston directly with Fort Worth. If getting to Dallas is easier for you, you can hop on the Trinity Railway Express from there for the final push.
Finding hotels in Fort Worth that accept points for payment isn’t hard. You’ll find options with every major change, ranging from limited-service properties like the Aloft Fort Worth Downtown to the more upscale The Sinclair, an Autograph Collection property. Both can be booked with Marriott Bonvoy points and free night certificates.
In the summertime, Milwaukee is the perfect place to be without a car. The city is compact enough you can make your way around with the Bublr bike share program and enjoy paved trails along the lakeshore. You’ll also be thrilled to learn that several craft breweries are reachable on two wheels—or even by kayak along the Milwaukee River.
Milwaukee Intermodal Station is well-located right across the river from the Harley Davidson Museum and is served by Amtrak, Megabus and several regional bus lines that travel throughout the midwest. Seasonally, you can also ferry between Milwaukee and Muskegon, Michigan.
As a major midwestern city, Milwaukee has hotels with every loyalty program you can think of. For a location that splits the difference between downtown’s sites, the historic third ward’s dining and nightlife in Walker’s Point, book the Kimpton Journeyman using IHG points. Rates vary but are often 40,000 to 55,000 points per night.
For anyone interested in American history, Montgomery is a fabulous destination that doesn’t require a car. Start your trip at The Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Within a few more blocks, you’ll also find the Rosa Parks Museum and other important civil rights sites, the First White House of the Confederacy and the Alabama State Capitol. Many of these exhibits focus on heavy topics so don’t pack your itinerary too tightly: you’ll need time to let things sink in.
Montgomery is an easy Megabus trip ride away from Atlanta or New Orleans. Like most Megabus routes, booking in advance is to your benefit: tickets start as low as $1 but are only available in small quantities.
Travelers on a budget need look no further than the Hampton Inn & Suites Montgomery-Downtown. Free breakfast and free wi-fi come standard and rooms can often be booked for 30,000 Hilton Honors points per night.
Providence, Rhode Island
From Boston, it’s 75 minutes or less by commuter rail to Providence, RI—and it’ll cost you just $12.25 one-way ($10 on weekends) to get there, no car required. This compact city in the country’s smallest state makes a great car-free getaway. Once you’ve arrived at the station, everything you need is within walking distance: exhibits at the Rhode Island School of Design, shopping at the Arcade and dozens of good eats in downtown and along the riverfront.
If you’re lucky enough to have several days to spare, from Providence you can extend your car-free getaway to Bristol and Newport, Rhode Island, both of which are accessible by seasonal ferry.
Marriott Bonvoy has several hotels in downtown Providence but the Residence Inn stands out. As a category four hotel, you can redeem free night certificates for a stay there (or redeem just 20,000 to 30,000 points per night).
San Juan Island, Washington
The town of Friday Harbor is tiny, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do. Come to enjoy the great outdoors, all of which is accessible if you’re open to renting a bike (or e-bike) or taking a shuttle. There’s something to match everyone’s energy levels, whether that’s a picnic while whale watching from shore at Lime Kiln State Park, birding around the island or an epic kayaking expedition.
Though car ferries leave from the port of Anacortes, the passenger-only San Juan Clipper departs right from Seattle and drops you in Friday Harbor three hours and 45 minutes of scenic sailing later.
There aren’t any hotels on San Juan Island that are bookable with loyalty points but there’s an easy workaround. Numerous credit cards have their own booking engines where you can pay with your card rewards, typically yielding one cent per point, such as the Citi Premier® Card. Some cards also provide annual travel reimbursements when booking through their platform, like the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Like Spanish cities—Santa Fe was settled by a conquistador—the central square is an obvious hub of activity and makes it easy to skip a car in the capital of New Mexico. Just to start, you’ll find the Palace of the Governors, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, St. Francis Cathedral and restaurants where you can debate the merits of red and green chile. One exception: you’ll need a taxi or bus for the five-mile trip to Meowwolf, a mind-boggling exhibit that’s one of a kind.
Reach Santa Fe by New Mexico Rail Runner from Albuquerque. From elsewhere in the region, arriving is slightly more difficult but still doable. Amtrak stops at nearby Lamy but if you book your reservation to Santa Fe, they’ll include a shuttle from Lamy station into Santa Fe itself.
Santa Fe has several great points hotels but be careful: several of them will require a car to get around. Instead, reserve the Hilton Santa Fe Historic Plaza. Standard rooms require 60,000 Hilton Honors points or less per night.
Our nation’s capital is a perpetual favorite choice for traveling without a car. As a bonus, the plethora of free activities makes this destination doubly budget-friendly, at least if you’re willing to plan your itinerary strategically. The monuments and Smithsonian museums are obvious winners, but the parks, street markets and ethnic eats in less-visited neighborhoods are equally worthwhile and easy on your wallet.
Buses to Washington, D.C. run the gamut from cheap Chinatown transportation to luxury vehicles. Trains are also a reasonable alternative from numerous states and even flights can be acceptably affordable given the sheer amount of competition.
Right next door to the White House, the luxurious Intercontinental The Willard will make you feel as important as a foreign dignitary or other VIP. Reward stays require a large stash of IHG Rewards points but it’s a great deal compared to the $500 to $700 price tag. Weekends tend to be cheaper than weeknights—working well for your vacation getaway.
The cost of rental cars and fuel this summer feels frustrating but there’s more than one way to take a vacation. There are dozens of locations nationwide reachable by bus, train or ferry. This year, leave the car at home and save on gas, tolls and parking, all without having to give up your getaway.