We all need to save money sometimes. And I always say, better to vacation cheaply than not at all! (So, so, so much better!)
But Gatlinburg can be VERY expensive. So here’s a plan for vacationing cheaply in the Smoky Mountain area. Check out our ideas for cheap, very cheap, and cheapest travel. Good luck! And as always, if there’s anything I can help you with, email me at Kendra@CabinConnection.com. I love to hear from my readers!
- Discount cabins. You can find discount cabins by Googling “cheap cabins Gatlinburg,” or something similar. Here’s the website for American Mountain Rentals — the cabins listed on this page all rent for $100 per night (or less). Why rent a cabin? Well, you can save money by eating your meals in. And you can also share with other family members or friends. One cabin listed on this site, Bearskin Romance, sleeps six (I’m sure it’s cozy….), with one bedroom and a loft.
- Red Carpet Inn of Gatlinburg. Trust me, I don’t have any affiliation with this hotel, but I have stayed in it. That’s why I’m recommending it. If you’re into luxury, this isn’t for you. But these rooms are clean and adequate, if not very up-to-date. Some things I loved about this spot:
- The price! Rates vary, but you can get a room right now for around $50 per night (and even cheaper in the off-season).
- The location! You are right off the Parkway in Gatlinburg, so this hotel is right in the middle of everything. Plus, you get FREE PARKING with your stay. (If you’ve been to the area much, you know this is a big deal.)
- The beds. Okay, they aren’t Hilton quality. But they are queen beds, which is hard to come by in cheaper hotels. My husband is six-foot-six, so this is a necessity for us.
- Camp in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This can be a lot of fun for kiddos, anyway, if a lot of work for the adults. There are ten frontcountry (read: you can drive to them) camping locations in the park that have restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets. Fees vary by location, between $14 to $20 per night, per campsite. Even if you’re not a camper, remember that the memories you’ll make with your kids will be worth it!
- NASCAR Speedway Park. Okay, stick with me here. It may seem pretty hefty, but when you buy tickets online, you pay $17.99 for all day unlimited play. That includes 10 kids’ rides, 2 mini golf courses, 8 go-cart tracks, and a 3-story rock climbing wall. That’s not a bad deal for a whole day of entertainment.
- Ober Gatlinburg Aerial Tramway. For a beautiful view of the Great Smokies, ride the Aerial Tramway from downtown Gatlinburg (located at Parkway and LeConte Streets), then admire the views from the top, walk around the mall, then head back down. Tickets are $12 for adults and $9.50 for kids, but get this, kids under 5 are free, so that really helps! Be warned, though, that there are a lot of other fun things to do at the top, and they all add up. So set the expectation that you’re just riding the tram early!
- River Rage tubing. It’s a bit of a drive from Gatlinburg, but you can be in Townsend in about a half hour, depending on traffic. For $9 per person, grab one of four tube designs and float down the Little River, which flows out of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can float for as long as you want (same day), and free shuttles will take you back to do it again, if you want. Real bathrooms and free parking are included.
- Bear Habitat. The Three Bears General Store (Traffic Light #4 on the Parkway) in Pigeon Forge has a bear habitat that costs only $3.25 per person. Children under age 2 are free. Buy a cup of bear food for $1.25, or just watch other people feed the bears.
- Go on a waterfall hike. It’s absolutely free, and can be the most fun thing you do during your trip. Baskins Creek is one of our favorites, though it’s a pretty intense hike (I’d recommend it for ages 7 and up only). Grotto Falls is great, too, and easier for little ones (2.6 miles round-trip, and pretty easy terrain). We love, love, love to hike to a waterfall, then play in it for awhile. Both of these hikes are great waterfalls for playing in, but watch all kids closely.
- Become a junior ranger. For kids age 5-12, pick up a Junior Ranger Booklet for $2.50 at any park visitor center, then complete the activities. Stop back by the visitor center to receive your Junior Ranger badge.
- Hang out with a park ranger. Did you know that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers lots of ranger-guided programs, almost all of which are FREE? Next week, for example, there’s a night hike (free); a Cades Cove Mill area tour (free); a stream splashers kids’ activity (free — also a part of the junior ranger program); a scientific study of critters (free — also a part of the junior ranger program); a summer stroll (free); a family adventure (this one costs); work on a farm program (free — also a part of the junior ranger program); okay, and the list goes on and on. Check it out.
I love local restaurants, but when you’re trying to save money, they may not be the best choice. Here are my top money-savers in the Gatlinburg area.
- Eat your big meal for lunch, not dinner. Several area restaurants offer lunch menus for a much cheaper price. For example, Old Mill Restaurant in Pigeon Forge offers meatloaf with several sides at lunch for $10.49. For dinner, the same meal costs $17.99. So eat a big lunch, then grab a cheap sandwich, if you’re still hungry later. (Chances are, you may not be that hungry, anyway.)
- Subway. Grab $5 footlong subs at Subway on the Parkway in Gatlinburg, then head into the park for a hike. The subs make great (cheap) picnic food!
- Ogle Dogs! I’ve written about these quite a bit, but we sure LOVE them! They are located at Fannie Farkle’s, right on the Parkway in Gatlinburg. They cost around $5 each, but we usually split one between two people. They are SO good — it’s basically just a really big, really good corndog. They are a whole foot long!
- Smoky Mountain Breakfast Buffet and Character Breakfast. I have to admit, this seems a bit weird, but it’s hard to beat the price. Tuesday through Sunday, from 8-11 a.m., head to the Smith Family Dinner Show theater. The breakfast buffet is all you can eat, costs $4.99 and is BUY ONE, GET ONE FREE! So a family of four can eat for about ten bucks. Buffet features eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, biscuits & gravy, fruit cocktail, and basic drinks. During the summer, random characters come around to entertain the kids (this is the weird part — characters like Davy Crockett, Belle, a pirate, a princess, and Dorothy). We’ve never been to this buffet, but a reader just told me that her family did it, and it was great food for the price!
- Cook in your cabin! Or even find ways to “cook” in a hotel room:
- Take sloppy joe or chili in a cooler. Warm in slow cooker in hotel room.
- Bring granola bars, pop tarts, muffins, and fruit for a cheap breakfast that’s easy to take on the go. Hard-boiled eggs are another good cooler staple that will hold off the “hungries.”
- Keep lunch meat and cheese in a cooler, and make sandwiches for lunches on vacation. Add chips, fruits, and cold veggies to make it a meal.
- Bring cookies or other goodies to avoid expensive dessert in restaurants.
- Bring 2-liters of soda and cups (with a Sharpie, to write your name on it!). Get ice from the machine.
I’m passionate about traveling with our kids. But it can get expensive. I’m challenging you not to use that excuse. Instead, realize that there may be some years when your family vacation consists of a luxury cruise in the Caribbean. And there may be years that all you can afford is camping in the Smoky Mountains with cold cuts and granola bars.
The crazy thing? The kids may remember the camping trip even more fondly.
What they’ll appreciate most is your undivided attention and a chance to discover new things about their world. And what’s more important than that?