Budget-Friendly Fall Family Travel
By Melanie Monroe Rosen
Daytrips are a great low- or no-cost way to get away while sticking to a school schedule and budget this autumn.
Fall Festivals: With cooler weather in the air, autumn is a great time to take advantage of family-friendly festivals and fairs. Admission is generally inexpensive (or free!), as is much of the entertainment showcased. To find a festival near you, check out your local newspaper or Convention and Visitors’ Bureau (CVB). Here are just a few of the season’s highlights around North America:
• Pumpkin Festivals: We’re challenged to think of a kid who doesn’t love pumpkins, which means that a pumpkin festival or weigh-off could be a great way to spend a day together as a family. To find one near you, check out PumpkinPatchesandMore.org. Some of our top festival picks include Delaware’s annual World Championship Punkin’ Chunkin’ in early November where dozens of youth and adult teams compete to see who can throw a pumpkin the farthest using all kinds of homemade catapults, air cannons, and more. The three-day festival also includes live music, a pumpkin cooking contest, and a chili cook-off. Further north, the Pumpkin Festival in Keene, New Hampshire is a single-day celebration packed with a seed spitting contest, a pie eating contest, hayrides, a parade, entertainment, fireworks, and pumpkin carving. The festival set a Guinness World Record for greatest number of pumpkins carved in 2003 with 28,952 jack-o’-lanterns! And finally, on the West Coast, pumpkin lovers can enjoy the Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off (where the 2008 winner was a whopping 1,528 pounds!) and Half Moon Bay Art & Pumpkin Festival in mid-October in Half Moon Bay, California, the self-proclaimed World Pumpkin Capitol.
• Apple Festivals: Apple pie, apple cider, applesauce, apple butter… we get hungry just thinking about this delicious fruit. If your family loves apples, put an apple festival on your calendar. To find one near you, a good place to start your search is at PickYourOwn.org, which lists festivals throughout the US and Canada -- everywhere from small local orchards to large fairgrounds. A few of our favorites include the five-day Murphysboro Apple Festival in Murphysboro, Illinois, attended by over 45,000 people annually. It includes silly and fun contests like apple pie eating, apple peeling, and apple core throwing, as well as a huge parade, car shows, and carnival rides. If your family enjoys arts and crafts, you might like Brushy Mountain Apple Festival, a one-day apples and arts and crafts festival in Downtown North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, with over 160,000 visitors. Highlights include live music (bluegrass, country, folk, gospel, and Appalachian Heritage) as well as displays of Appalachian Heritage crafts like woodcarving, chair making, soap making, pottery throwing, and quilting. And finally, the National Apple Harvest Festival in Arendtsville, Pennsylvania offers plenty in the way of kids’ activities, like “apple magic,” old fashioned games, face painting, a petting zoo, kids’ karaoke, puppet shows, and lots of live music.
• Cultural Festivals: An easy, low-cost way to expose your kids to another culture is by attending a cultural festival like the Autumn Moon Festival in San Francisco’s Chinatown or the Magic of Lanterns festival in Montreal’s Botanical Garden, suggests Esther Lee, co-founder and CEO of Trekaroo.com, a family travel reviews website (but more than just reviews, Trekaroo.com offers a super-useful search engine for activities available at a particular destination -- it filters ideas by everything from price to age-appropriateness to interest). At cultural festivals, admission is generally free, there is often ample entertainment and food, and your kids can experience another culture without having to spend 20 hours on an airplane (phew!). Among some of the most popular cultural festivals is Oktoberfest, inspired by the original two-week-long festival in Munich, Germany. Two of the largest celebrations in North America, with hundreds of thousands of visitors, are the nine-day-long Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest in the twin cities of Kitchener and Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and the Oktoberfest Zinzinnati in Cincinnati, Ohio. Beyond bratwurst and beer, Oktoberfest generally offers plenty in the way of games, music, and entertainment like the “Running of the Weiners” race for Daschunds, and a giant pretzel toss in Cincinnati.
Get Back to Nature: Getting active outdoors as a family is a great budget-friendly way to spend time together (and burn some calories), as walking and hiking trails are easily accessible almost anywhere in the US and Canada. If you’d rather join a guided tour, check out local naturalist resources like Outdoors.org, the website for the Appalachian Mountain Club. It offers family-friendly hikes, bike rides, and canoe/kayak trips designed with time for child-friendly activities like wildlife viewing and, on occasion, stops for ice cream cones (yum).
If you’re within driving distance of a state or national park and might make several daytrips, Lee, of Trekaroo.com, suggests purchasing an annual pass. A regular pass for a single car entry to Yosemite National Park is $20 and valid for seven days, covering all occupants of the car. But, an annual pass to Yosemite is just $40 and allows for unlimited visits for a full year. If you think you might venture into additional parks, consider purchasing an America the Beautiful Pass for $80, which covers admission and standard amenity fees for a full year at national parks and federal recreation lands. Passes may be purchased through the US Geological Survey website or at any national park entrance station.
Hit the Slopes: No, we’re not predicting fall blizzards -- just plenty of fun on ski slopes before the resorts gear up for ski season. In an effort to bring in more visitors during non-winter months, many ski resorts across North America offer plenty of outdoor adventures available throughout the summer and into October, according to Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of WeJustGotBack.com, a family travel planning website. This is a must-do activity if your family loves outdoor adventures like alpine slides, zip lines, mountain biking -- or even just a bird’s-eye view of the blazing fall foliage from a scenic chairlift ride.
Leaf-Peeping: Admiring autumn’s fiery display of changing leaves doesn’t have to cost a dime and can spark lively family conversations (Why do leaves change color? Why are some leaves red and others yellow?) and activities (check out these ideas for faux stained glass leaves and fall wreaths). It’s possible to catch a spectacular show in many regions across the US and Canada, so you’re likely to not have to travel far. Prime leaf-peeping season stretches from early September in the North, to as late as late October or early November in the South. To know when to go, be sure to check foliage reports through FoliageNetwork.com, which collects data from observers twice weekly through the fall, or you can call the Forest Service’s Fall Color Hotline at (800) 3544595. And finally, YankeeFoliage.com offers a useful interactive foliage map of New England. If you’d like to add a bit more excitement to your leaf peeping outing, check out local options for family-friendly foliage trains (like those offered in New Hampshire through FoliageTrains.com), rock climbing tours, and bike paths and tours.
Pick-Your-Own Farms and Orchards: Encourage your kids to become “locavores” by hitting local “pick-your-own” orchards and farms. Kids love to pick their own produce like apples, pumpkins, raspberries, and more (bonus: they’ll probably be more inclined to eat whatever they’re involved in picking!). To help find a nearby orchard, visit PickYourOwn.org or PumpkinPatchesandMore.org. Many of the farms and orchards offer additional inexpensive activities like hay rides, face painting, or a small petting zoo.
Corn Mazes: No longer just the domain of local farmers, many corn mazes are now created with the help of agricultural engineers using GPS to plant and cut the mazes. These themed corn mazes form impressive aerial pictures of everything from jungle and underwater scenes to the Wild West and outer space, turning cornfields into life-size board games. Depending on the difficulty, family members can work together or compete against each other to solve the maze. To find a maze near you, check out the Corn Maze Directory.
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