Save Money with These Alternatives to Austin and Hill Country Hot Spots
There seem to be limitless attractions, trails, swimming holes, museums, playgrounds, classes, farms, festivals, and historical sites in Austin and within the surrounding Texas Hill Country. My kids and I enjoy almost everything in this area! However, too many choices can paralyze the planner; they can also blow the budget.
Two of my kids are homeschooled, and we have a lot of time each day to fill with unique learning experiences. The term “homeschool” can often be a misnomer. We don’t really replicate school, and we also don’t stay home all that much. Many of my weekly plans involve getting my kids out of the house.
Unfortunately, many attractions, even those in natural landscapes, can be upwards of $20 per person. That adds up too quickly, especially with a large family. We’re often searching for options that are free or at least cost half as much as the typical attraction price.
To help with my own planning (and yours), I’ve made a list of frugal alternatives to the top attractions in the Austin area and the Texas Hill Country. These alternatives are not only cheaper, but they’re likely to be less crowded, especially on weekdays.
Hot Spot: Hamilton Pool ($12/car + $8/adult)
Frugal alternative: FREE Hamilton Greenbelt
While Hamilton Greenbelt is more of a trail than a tourist attraction, it offers a view of waterfalls, shaded walking trails, creeks to splash in (if it’s been raining), a bird blind, picnic tables and grassy area for sunning, a few animal sculptures to search for, and no fee, plus free parking.
Hot Spot: Umlauf Sculpture Garden ($7/adult)
FREE day at Contemporary Art Museum and Laguna Gloria (all day Thursdays)
See beautiful sculptures as you stroll along the calm waters of the Colorado River. Add on a visit to Mayfield Park to make your day truly unique and tranquil.
This short trail is a fun stop to add on to a day at the Hill Country Galleria, where you can visit the cute library, do a little shopping, and see additional art exhibits along the store fronts and at Bee Cave Art Foundation.
Hot Spot: The Thinkery Children’s Museum ($18/person)
Check out multiple museums for free on every second to last Sunday in September each year. Click on the link above to find participating museums.
McKenna Children’s Museum in New Braunfels ($8/person)
This museum is my younger kids’ absolute favorite! Their imaginations come alive in the many role play areas, including the hospital room, the grocery store, the space station, the bank, the art studio, and the outdoor water play area. We spend the whole day there for just $8 per person. Plus, there are several cute restaurants nearby to grab lunch. (Admission fee grants you in/out access all day.)
Johnson City Science Mill ($11/adult, $9.50/child)
If you’re up for more science-focused exhibits, the Science Mill is a frugal alternative with both indoor and outdoor hands-on experiences. They have many special events throughout the year as well.
Hot Spot: The Austin Zoo ($19/adult, $16/child)
Frugal Alternative: FREE Austin Nature and Science Center
Check out animal exhibits, both indoor and outdoor, a frog pond and streams where you can catch tadpoles with your own net, discovery rooms with insect and animal specimens, as well as a sandy dino dig area…. all for free.
Hot Spot: San Antonio Zoo ($32/adult, $28/child)
Frugal alternative: Cameron Park Zoo in Waco ($14/adult, $10/child)
If you’re willing to travel out of town for a bigger, better zoo experience, head north instead of south. You’ll find several of the same animals and a more chill and close-up experience at the Cameron Park Zoo. If you really, really love zoos like we do, it might be worth looking into a zoo membership for reciprocal discounts at other zoos.
Hot Spot: Kayak Tour of Austin ($45)
Frugal alternative: Zilker Boats BOGO Deal ($21/2 hours)
Explore Lady Bird Lake on a kayak or paddleboard and take in the downtown skyline, as well as the beauty of Zilker Park, for half the price (on weekdays). Coupon is on the site linked above.
Hot Spot: Bob Bolluck State History Museum ($13/adult, $9/child)
Frugal alternative: FREE day at Bob Bullock State History Museum
HEB sponsors a FREE museum day on the first Sunday of each month at the Bob Bullock Museum from 10 am – 5 pm.
Hot Spot: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center ($15/adult, $8/child over 4)
If your goal is to stroll among beautiful wildflowers, marvel at creative art pieces, find cute photo ops, enjoy a picnic or cafe-style lunch, roam free in the great outdoors, and even do a little wine tasting or shopping, this free alternative is the way to go. There aren’t as many play areas specific to children, but this unique spot hosts many fun events with kid-friendly activities, including a Fall Festival on September 23rd with face painting, pumpkin patches, and games.
Hot Spot: Guadalupe or Comal River Tubing Float ($20-$25/person)
Frugal alternative: FREE Rio Vista Park at San Marcos River
Hit the rapids, jump off the bridge, linger in the shade, or float the slow current of the San Marcos River. Bring your own tube to drop in at Rio Vista Park and head downstream a short ways to find one of the best tube chutes around.
Hot Spot: ZACH Theater Performance ($15-$40)
FREE musicals at Hill Country Galleria or Zilker Hillside (summer only)
Keep these options in mind for next summer. There are shows almost every night of the week with kid-friendly themes and excellent actors, all for free.
Affordable high school musicals ($10-$15/person)
Check the high school websites in your area for musicals in the Fall and in the Spring. Most are produced at a very high quality, and there’s a lot of young talent on those stages!
Hot Spot: Barton Springs Pool ($5-$9/adult, $3-$5/child)
Frugal alternative: FREE Barking Springs
This open access swimming area is just downstream from the popular swimming hole. It’s open year-round and has no restrictions on food and drink. It can attract a crowd, as well as lots of dogs, during popular times and really hot days. Swim at your own risk and go early to claim a spot on the bank. The easiest way to access Barking Springs is to go down the staircase just east of the Zilker Park Playground. You can park in the first parking lot near the playground.
Hot Spot: Austin Aquarium ($25/adult, $20/child)
Frugal alternative: The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment ($12/adult, $8/child)
Head down to San Marcos for a glass bottom boat tour, aquarium, discovery center, and trails. The cost is significantly less, and the experience is focused on conservation and education. If you want a truly frugal experience, go on a Family Fun Day for FREE admission and activities for children. There are also homeschool days that mimic a field trip for only $10/person (pre-registration required).
Hot Spot: Austin Bouldering Project ($20/person)
Frugal alternative: Hill Country Indoor Climbing Area ($5/person)
For only $5/hour, you can try out a variety of challenging and unique climbing walls at Hill Country Indoor, even if you’re not a member of the gym. Call ahead to make sure the climbing area isn’t reserved for a party.
Hot Spot: Painting with a Twist ($40-$50/event) OR fee-based art classes
Frugal alternative: FREE Art Classes at Buda City Library
This library has several options for all ages, including teen art projects and Adult Art with Inspired Minds, but they have more than just art classes. There are also STEM classes for homeschoolers, come and go crafting, cooking classes, and more.
Hot Spot: Pioneer Farms ($8/adult, $6/child)
Frugal alternative: FREE LBJ State Park and Sauer-Beckmann Farm
While Pioneer Farms is a cool place and not that expensive, Sauer-Beckmann Farm and LBJ State Park are completely free, and it’s one of our favorite attractions in the area. There are period actors every day working the farm and demonstrating how people homesteaded more than 100 years ago. There are also hiking trails, a museum, and animals to visit.
We hope this list encourages you to check out some of the lesser-known attractions in the area! It’s true that some require more of a drive and maybe a bit more packing or planning, but my family thinks it’s all worth it. Plus, the savings make a huge difference, allowing us to get out and explore even more.
If you’d like to experience some of the bigger attractions, as well as semi-professional games, in San Antonio, Waco, and Austin at a huge discount, check out the POGO Pass, which charges one annual fee per person for free admission into multiple family-friendly places.