Go Here, Not There: 11 Domestic Alternatives to Popular U.S. Destinations
Been there, done that. If that line sounds familiar to you, it’s time to mix things up. Every year, the same destinations get all the love but there’s more to the U.S. than New York, Yosemite and Florida.
While you could spin a globe and choose somewhere at random, finding the right destination takes more finesse than that. Not to mention, travel restrictions can still be complicated if you’re leaving the country and, of course, not everyone is comfortable with traveling overseas yet. Thankfully, the U.S. has more incredible destinations than you could ever visit in a lifetime. Break out of your routine and find somewhere exciting for your next trip.
This year, we have 11 destinations that probably haven’t crossed your mind. They’re often overlooked, which means you’ll get an incredible vacation spot all to yourself. Take advantage of smaller crowds, lower prices or even just a change of scenery compared to where you’ve been before. These places shouldn’t be missed.
Skip: Jackson, WY—Try: Cody, WY
Jackson gets trendier each year and with that comes larger crowds and higher prices. Cody, on the other hand, has embraced its Old West heritage. This small city in northern Wyoming is home to five Smithsonian-affiliate museums that pay homage to western history while modern-day cowboys show off their skills at the Cody Nite Rodeo, held daily during summer.
Like Jackson, Cody is also ideally situated for outdoor adventure. The east entrance to Yellowstone National Park—overlooked and underused—is just 52 miles from Cody and leads directly to the Lamar Valley wildlife corridor. You’re also right on the southern end of the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway for stunning mountain views and access to unspoiled hikes.
Though Cody is conveniently located near Yellowstone Regional Airport (COD), there aren’t many opportunities to fly in with miles and points. You’ll be limited to flying United or driving in from alternate airports. Both Denver and Salt Lake City are about seven hours away by car. Both IHG One Rewards and Choice Privileges Rewards—a transferable partner of Membership Rewards, Capital One Rewards and Citi ThankYou points—have hotels right in Buffalo Bill Village for an atmospheric stay.
Skip: Chicago, IL—Try: Milwaukee, WI
Milwaukee and Chicago haven’t always had much in common, but today there’s more than beer, cheese and German heritage when you head to Wisconsin. Like many Great Lake cities, Milwaukee is flourishing with vibrant neighborhoods, cosmopolitan restaurants and tremendous attractions that make it unique. There’s also Lake Michigan (and several beaches) right in its backyard.
Since Milwaukee is smaller than Chicago, you can explore much of it by foot or bike. Check out the RiverWalk, visit the Harley Davidson Museum and taste your way through the Historic Third Ward. If you can’t stay away from the breweries, go ahead and indulge your inner Laverne and Shirley. Let’s face it, there are lots of great ones here which makes it impossible to choose.
Getting to Milwaukee (MKE) is easy, with reward flights available on all major airlines so you can pick and choose from your preferred miles. Hotel stays are equally flexible—you’ll find properties with any program and at every price point. Another bonus? Depending on your intended activities, there’s a very good chance you can get around without a rental car.
Skip: Martha’s Vineyard, MA—Try: Block Island, RI
Block Island won’t necessarily help you escape summer crowds but it’s a fantastic option for anyone who wants to change things up after visiting Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket or Cape Cod. You’ll still find seafood, sun and stretches of sandy beach for ubiquitous summertime fun.
Once you’re on the island, your vacation can be as busy or as easy-going as you’d like. Try your hand at watersports and fishing or hang back to sample ice cream and saltwater taffy. For a quiet day, you’ll find plenty of green space. Trails funded by the Nature Conservancy and the Block Island Conservancy criss-cross through woods, meadows and to seaside bluffs.
To get to Block Island, you’ll need to ferry in. The closest commercial airport to a departure dock is Providence, Rhode Island, which is served by all major airlines. However, there are no chain hotels on the island. If you wish to redeem points to pay for your stay, you’ll need to use flexible points and book through your credit card’s travel portal.
Skip: New Orleans—Try: Lafayette, LA
Let the good times roll in Lafayette, Louisiana where Cajun and Creole culture are easy to find. This mid-sized city two hours west of New Orleans offers a lot of the same great experiences with their own local twist. It’s easy to find live music, great food and bayou scenery right outside town. In fact, it’s even easier to join in with local life and cultural traditions since the city is less watered-down with souvenir shops and tourist-trap bars.
Another advantage of choosing Lafayette over New Orleans is how family-friendly the city is. Kids will love the participatory Vermilionville Living History Museum and taking airboat rides through nearby swamps. Plus, Mardi Gras is still a major event here, with parades, floats and parties suitable for all ages.
Lafayette (LFT) has its own small airport with limited service on American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines so you’ll want to choose your miles accordingly and save your Southwest Companion Pass for another day. World of Hyatt points also won’t help you in Lafayette, though you’ll find hotel redemption options with most other major brands.
Skip: Vermont Leaf-Peeping—Try: Arkansas
New England gets all the love when it comes to chasing fall colors, but Arkansas is a worthy (if not surprising) alternative. Typically, colors first appear in the Ozark Mountains in the northern part of the state, with colors blazing the central Ouachita National Forest thereafter. Southern Arkansas usually changes color last, giving travelers a chance to see this natural beauty into the first half of November.
Scenic drives to take in the colors span across the entire state, with plenty of state parks and national forests perfect for slowing down to take things in. Another surprising reason to visit Arkansas in fall is to observe the elk rut. Listening to the mating call is a unique experience and there are more than 650 of these majestic animals in the state.
There are several airports to choose from in Arkansas, including Little Rock, Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (XNA) and Fort Smith (FSM). Between them, you should have no trouble finding flights to and from the state. Chain hotels are also easy to find in cities but in some small towns and rural areas, you may need to rely on flexible points to book independent properties.
Skip: Napa Valley Vineyards—Try: New York’s Finger Lakes
If you think the Finger Lakes wine region is only known for sweet whites, think again. For the past decade, both new and old-favorite wineries have expanded their repertoire to include plenty of crisp dry whites and full-bodied reds. Cabernet francs are consistently fabulous, but tasters will also find award-winning pinot noirs, syrahs and cabernet sauvignons.
Like Napa Valley, wine is just the start. The area also offers incredible culinary experiences centered on local, seasonal ingredients. Plus, you can afford to splurge on extras like luxury hotels and spa treatments (or a case of wine to take home). Prices here are easier to swallow than in Napa. Of course, magnificent views of lakeside vineyards are icing on the cake.
Comprising eleven lakes and covering a relatively large region, you have multiple options for airports and hotels. Fly into Ithaca (ITH) or Elmira (ELM) for the most convenience or Rochester (ROC) or Syracuse (SYR) for more options. To use hotel points, you’ll want to focus your search on some of the bigger towns in the region, such as Geneva and Ithaca.
Skip: South Dakota—Try: Nebraska
Families in search of open roads went straight to South Dakota last year, swarming tourist sites and campgrounds. But Nebraska? That’s wide open country waiting to be explored. Spots like Toadstool Geologic Park look incredibly similar to the better-known Badlands National Park but with a fraction of the visitors. Wildlife is abundant, too—find bison at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge or cross your fingers you spot bighorn sheep at Chadron State Park.
While Nebraska can’t boast anything like Mount Rushmore, there’s plenty of opportunity to trace American history without focusing on former presidents. Visitors can look for Oregon Trail ruts at Scotts Bluff National Monument or explore hands-on exhibits at the Lewis & Clark Visitor’s Center.
The state’s largest airport, Omaha (OMA), has service on all major airlines except JetBlue, making it easy to redeem miles. However, if you’re hitting attractions in the northwest corner of Nebraska, the airport in Rapid City, South Dakota (RAP) may be equally convenient and provide additional options. Like with most outdoor-oriented destinations, you’ll mostly find select-service hotels when redeeming points (though there are some luxury hotels in the larger cities).
Skip: Maui—Try: Lanai
Hawaii has been—and always will be—a favorite of travelers but perhaps it’s time to venture beyond the largest islands. At only 141 square miles, Lanai is a small package that packs a big punch. You’ll find everything you love about Hawaii in a blissfully uncrowded area with plenty of local culture shining through.
Highlights of Lanai (LNY) include touring the landscape of Keahiakawelo (Garden of the Gods), hiking to Pu’u Pehe (Sweetheart Rock) and snorkeling the clear waters of Hulopoe Beach Park. Beyond that, you’ll still find plenty of excuses for swimming, sunbathing, golfing and island cuisine.
Despite its small size, Lanai has its own airport with service to and from Honolulu and Kahului, Maui. You’ll need to book award flights to one of these larger airports and then book a separate, connecting flight on Mokulele Airlines from there since it doesn’t participate in other loyalty programs. In Lanai, book an independent hotel using flexible points or, if you have the The Platinum Card® from American Express or The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, consider booking the Four Seasons using Fine Hotels & Resorts (FHR) benefits.
Skip: Smoky Mountains—Try: Virginia’s Blue Ridge
Every year, the Great Smoky Mountains host over 11 million visitors which means you’ll need to plan strategically if you’re looking for solitude. The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia offer a similar experience with a dose of simplicity. Since it’s under a day’s drive from major metropolitan areas ranging from New York City to Atlanta (and as far west as Nashville), there’s no excuse not to visit.
The small city of Roanoke makes an excellent basecamp, with easy access to the Blue Ridge Parkway, recreational trails and everything from high-end hotels to private cabin rentals. From the parkway, you’ll find sweeping views of the Appalachian Mountains and ample options for outdoor adventures. Then, back in town, try one of the local restaurants and breweries to complete your day.
Roanoke (ROA) has a small airport with service on Allegiant, American, Delta and United, giving you several options for award flights. You’ll find hotels in all major programs, though many properties are outside of downtown Roanoke itself—for a central hotel, you’ll want to use Hilton Honors points at the Hotel Roanoke. Or, head to another town in the mountains: you’ll find hotel options dotted up and down I-81 all the way through Virginia.
Skip: Disney World—Try: Hersheypark
If the prices at Disney don’t scare you off, the crowds will. Instead, find another theme park where you can feel like a kid again, like Hersheypark in Pennsylvania. Similar to Disney, you’ll find one flagship park plus several other partnering attractions to round out your vacation, like ZooAmerica and Hershey’s Chocolate World.
Though the Hershey complex is nowhere near as large as Disney, it’s great for families that don’t want to be overwhelmed or that want more variety than one amusement park after another. Nearby, you’ll also find Indian Echo Caverns, Gettysburg National Military Park and Amish country in Lancaster.
Harrisburg (MDT) airport is only about 15 minutes from Hershey, though both Philadelphia (PHL) and Baltimore-Washington (BWI) airports are less than a two-hour drive away and will have far more flights to choose from when redeeming points. In Hershey, look for redemptions with IHG One Rewards, Hilton Honors and Marriott Bonvoy.
Skip: Pacific Coast Highway—Try: California’s North Coast
You don’t have to take Carmel and Big Sur completely off your bucket list, but if you’re looking for a quieter (and cheaper) option for this year, consider California’s northern coast instead. You’ll still find spectacular coastal scenery, unbelievably tall redwoods, farm-to-table food and small towns for all personalities.
Though highlights of the drives are limitless, don’t miss the dramatic views between Point Reyes and Mendocino—this section makes an easy side trip from San Francisco. If you have more time, even better: farther north, you’ll find the Avenue of the Giants and Redwoods National Park for more jaw-dropping scenery.
In a perfect world, you’d make this as a one-way drive between California and Oregon but one-way rental cars can be expensive. Don’t sweat it as it’s beautiful enough to repeat as a round-trip from the San Francisco Bay Area, where flights are plentiful—check out San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Oakland International Airport (OAK) or Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC). Many of the smaller towns have limited hotel options, making it a prime time to break out some of your lesser-used points like Best Western Rewards, Choice Privileges Rewards or Wyndham Rewards.
While there’s nothing wrong with traveling to classic destinations, a lesser-visited spot can offer a similar experience with fewer crowds or lower prices. These amazing places in the U.S. are all worth visiting and might be just the change of scenery you’re looking for.