CINCINNATI — The lockdown is over, and Americans are traveling again.
We found vaccinated travelers like Jenny Suarez hugging family members and flying again as she was catching a flight at the Cincinnati Northern Kentucky International Airport for Las Vegas.
"It's so good to get out and travel again," she said.
Newlyweds Nakita and Shaquille Moore, leaving for their honeymoon, were also feeling the freedom, saying they "can't wait to get out and just relax."
But last year's pandemic bargains are long gone, with prices already rising sharply on airfares, hotel rooms and rental cars. So we wanted to know where you can still find an affordable vacation heading out of the Cincinnati area, as lodging prices rise and campgrounds fill up.
Wild and wonderful West Virginia
She says the New River region is like visiting Colorado, but without having to pay for airfare or expensive hotels.
It is just a five- to six-hour drive from Cincinnati.
"You can do a lot of outdoor adventure there," she said. "Hiking, white water rafting, and the bridge adventure. Walk 800 feet over the river."
A bonus: Unlike popular beach spots, West Virginia's New River region still has hotel rooms for under $100 a night this summer.
But there, and in many areas, she warns that campgrounds are already sold out for most weekends this summer, as all the people who bought new campers last year booked spots earlier this year.
Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains
For families on a tight budget, another favorite driving destination of McDaniel's is Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and the surrounding Smoky Mountains, another five-hour drive from Cincinnati.
In one long weekend, you can enjoy Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Ripley's Museum, a sky ride, a world renowned aquarium, go-karts, golf and so much more.
If the area gives you a sense of "been there, done that," she said you need to visit the brand new Anakeesta mountaintop adventure center and restaurant.
Gatlinburg's mountainside cabins are mostly sold out for weekends this summer (with prices high for remaining ones), but McDaniels loved Pigeon Forge's new Under Canvas "glamping" site, which still has luxury tents available for around $200 per night.
Prefer basic hotels for your Tennessee trip? McDaniel said to look outside Gatlinburg and its $250 rooms, and you will find that prices drop fast just a town or two away.
"You can still find some inexpensive last-minute hotel rooms. It just depends on the area you are traveling to," she said.
If you want to get back to flying this summer, McDaniel suggests Las Vegas as your best value, with frequent, relatively inexpensive flights.
She and her family took a Vegas trip for Spring Break this year, where they visited the casinos, then rented a minivan and drove seven hours to the Grand Canyon and Zion and Bryce National Parks.
To save money, she said, don't stay at the national parks. Rooms there rent for hundreds of dollars a night. She says look for hotels or campgrounds about an hour from the big parks.
"We stayed at the KOA in Flagstaff," she said, "which was an hour and half drive to the Grand Canyon, but it worked out fine."
McDaniel's additional money-saving tip for a flying vacation: take a late-night flight home for a free day of vacation.
"We flew a red-eye home," she said, "which essentially gave us a free extra day to enjoy Las Vegas."
You can read more about her Las Vegas and national park recommendations in her recent blogpost.
McDaniel is hoping to return to Florida soon, where she considers Clearwater a best-value beach vacation, with affordable hotel rooms, lots of family restaurants, and one of the best beaches in the world.
You can read her Clearwater recommendations in her blog post on finding deals there.
And she said Florida prices drop in August, because many people don't like the heat. Prices come down even further in September, if you don't have schoolkids and can travel then.
Florida is most expensive in the spring, which is why she tries to avoid it then.
New York, Chicago
Travel to New York and Chicago is still near pandemic-low levels. Bargain hunters will find good hotel rooms as low as $150 a night in those cities, far below the $300 average price before the pandemic.
Wherever you're dreaming of, McDaniel has one word of advice as we come out of the long pandemic lockdown: "Go!"
And don't waste your money.
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