July 17, 2023 – By Elaine Glusac
As the unofficial end of summer, Labor Day warrants a salute to vacation season and all its breezy, bonding glory. Though many Americans will travel, most experts say it won’t be as crowded as peak summer holidays.
“People start getting ready for fall with their kids returning to school,” says Jeof Oyster, a travel adviser with Outward Travel in Greeley, Colorado, noting a strong reason some stay closer to home.
Still, planning your escape in advance is one of the most reliable ways to save money. Estimates on how far ahead range from a year to a month out, though most travel professionals stress that the time is now. “I’m still seeing decent availability for September, but accommodations will start filling up fast as we get closer to Labor Day,” Oyster says.
In addition to timing your reservations, consider other money-saving travel strategies. American Consumer Credit Counseling, a nonprofit organization devoted to consumer financial management, recommends driving trips as thrifty alternatives and inexpensive outdoor activities such as camping and hiking.
“Road trips are always a great way to pack a ton of value into a trip,” says Laura Motta, digital editorial director for the travel brand Lonely Planet. She also recommends state parks over national ones and lake destinations over ocean locales. “If you’re really looking to save, opt to stay in a log cabin or cottage away from the lakeshore.”
Additionally, look for destinations where traffic dies in the fall. In Alaska, the cruise season starts to wind down over Labor Day. “It’s a great time to get the most bang for your buck,” says Jen Rosa, a travel adviser with Cruise Planners.
To arouse your wanderlust, here are five destinations where you can celebrate summer’s last hurrah on a budget.
Comb a beach in Fort Bragg, California
Indigenous tribes populating the north coast of California frequently visited the area now known as Fort Bragg to collect shellfish, seaweed and salt. Today, 170 miles north of San Francisco, the former Mendocino County milling town — which is entirely enshrined as a California Historic Landmark — attracts beachcombers for another reason: beach glass. Though it’s hard to believe, before 1967, the ocean served as a city dump site. But the ocean has given back. Apothecary bottles, auto taillights and other glass debris have been polished by the surf action, resulting in a gem-studded beach of smoothed sea glass. Glass Beach — where visitors are encouraged to take photos, not glass — resides in MacKerricher State Park, also home to tide pools and hiking trails.
Where to stay: Overnight at the inexpensive Jug Handle Farm & Nature Center, a nonprofit educational center about 5 miles south of Fort Bragg where programs cover the Native American use of plants and mushroom identification.
Take a last-chance mountain drive at Mount Washington, New Hampshire
Before the snow flies in the White Mountains, take a seasonal joy ride up the Mount Washington Auto Road, a 7.6-mile “road to the sky” in Gorham gaining more than 4,000 feet in elevation to reach the 6,288-foot summit of Mount Washington. (The toll costs $45 over Labor Day weekend plus $20 for each additional passenger.) The attraction, opened in 1861, offers scenic turnouts and short hiking trails en route to the peak where motorists can visit the Extreme Mount Washington museum to learn about the peak’s polar-like weather, the 1853-vintage Tip Top House and the popular gift shop, dispensing bumper stickers that read, “This car climbed Mt. Washington.”
Where to stay: For convenience, consider The Glen House at the foot of Mount Washington.
Attend the state fair in Minneapolis
Salute the seasonal harvest over Labor Day by attending a state fair. Several states hold them over the holiday weekend, including Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota and Washington. Dating back to 1855, the Minnesota State Fair sprawls over 320 acres through Sept. 4 (advance tickets $15). Apart from games and rides, the fairgrounds are packed with 4-H livestock exhibits, beekeeping demonstrations, horse shows, displays of perfect tomatoes and pumpkins, juried art exhibits and contests for the best cakes, jams, quilts and stamp collections. Don’t miss the dairy-meets-art tradition of refrigerated busts sculpted from giant slabs of butter. Chow down on fair food spanning more than 500 menu items, 80 of them served on a stick including deep-fried candy bars, spaghetti and meatballs and Key lime pie.
Where to stay: Numerous affordable hotels, including the Hampton Inn & Suites Minneapolis University Area, are on the light-rail Green Line that connects, with a short bus transfer, to the fairgrounds.
Bake in the heat in Scottsdale, Arizona
Hot weather lovers meet bargain seekers in the summer in Scottsdale, the resort-filled Phoenix neighbor. Temperatures in the Sonoran Desert destination typically average in the low 100s throughout the summer and into September, when many resorts slash their rates and tout their swimming pools. (Even if you choose a hotel without a pool, you can get a day pass to one starting at $15.) Rise early to catch the coolest temperatures on the hiking trails of the vast McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Float down the Salt River through the Tonto National Forest on one of the final weekends of tubing. Spend your après-sun hours in Old Town Scottsdale, filled with galleries, shops, restaurants and museums — including Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West and the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.
Where to stay: The affordable Hyatt Place Scottsdale/Old Town puts the neighborhood’s attractions within walking distance.
Jump in a lake in Joseph, Oregon
In northeastern Oregon, the small town of Joseph is a gateway to glacier-carved Wallowa Lake, the surrounding Wallowa Mountains and Oregon’s largest wilderness area, Eagle Cap Wilderness with more than 500 miles of hiking trails. For water lovers, Wallowa Lake offers clear shallows and uncrowded beaches for swimming on its north and south ends. Paddle the lake from Wallowa Lake State Park in the south, which hosts a marina renting kayaks, paddleboards and canoes as well as dispensing fishing licenses for those seeking to cast for trout. Admire views of the lake from atop 8,238-foot Mount Howard reached via a Swiss-built tram. In Joseph, witness the inspiration the surrounding landscape has had on local artists in its many galleries.
Where to stay: Built in 1923 adjacent to Wallowa Lake State Park, the Wallowa Lake Lodge has all the rustic charm of a classic national park lodge — it’s constructed of trees cut and milled on the property — without the surge pricing.