Top sleeper cities of 2013

The New Year is finally here and one of my goals for 2013 is to have folks take advantage of their vacation days and take more trips, even if it’s just one.

Our 2012 American Travel Behavior survey indicated that the majority of Americans (87 percent) would take more leisure trips if they had the time and money to do so. As further research showed, we technically have the time, given that the average American left 9.2 vacation days unused last year. But what about the money?

One big way to save money and have a great getaway is to look at what the travel industry likes to call “sleeper” cities. Many travelers will have larger metropolises like New York or Los Angeles on their list of top destinations to visit this year, but those cities – as much as they are fantastic to experience – tend to be pretty expensive. On top of higher travel costs, the expensive attractions, activities and restaurants can also leave you with empty pockets once your trip is complete. But these big hubs aren’t the only places where you can have a great time; there are many smaller, less expensive destinations where you can have an unforgettable vacation at a fraction of the cost. These cities tend to be up-and-coming destinations, but have not found the mass travel audience to cause prices to spike yet. In a sense, they are sleeper hot spots.

With affordability in mind, I thought I’d share some of my favorite sleeper cities. I first pulled a list of cities where Hotwire has seen more hotels offering great discounts in the New Year. From there, I sifted through the destinations to figure out which ones are easily accessible and offer an overall enjoyable experience. The tourist attractions in the selected cities tend to be less expensive (or free) and less crowded, providing a great experience while sightseeing. In addition, budget-friendly airlines, like Southwest and JetBlue, have regular routes into these cities’ airports. Better yet, these destinations are also adding new attractions, from entertainment experiences to culinary quests to cultural treasures, and as a result they will start getting more attention. So visit them now before prices start to rise.

St. Louis, Mo.

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I love the value in St. Louis. With Southwest as the major airline serving the city, travelers will find affordable flights. They’ll find a number of affordably priced new or remodeled 4-star hotels as well. And while travelers may first think of Chicago when it comes to a Midwest vacation destination, St. Louis makes a strong case of its own. The Gateway Arch is the city’s most well-known landmark, but those looking to stretch their legs and enjoy St. Louis’ outdoors can visit Forest Park, which is actually larger than New York’s Central Park and is home to the St. Louis Art Museum and the Missouri History Museum. Within the park, visitors also have their choice of flora at the Jewel Box flower conservatory, fauna at the St. Louis Zoo or entertainment at the Muny, the country’s largest outdoor theater. Alternatively, shoppers and foodies can get their fix by taking a stroll down Delmar Loop, catching a live band at one of the five concert venues in the city or visiting one of St. Louis’ famous breweries like the Anheuser-Busch Brewery.

Phoenix/Scottsdale, Ariz.

When you think of a desert city, Las Vegas likely comes to mind. But Arizona has two cities (Phoenix and Scottsdale) that are only about a 20 minute car ride away from each other with a number of fantastic attractions and great values year-round. Airlines have been going head-to-head on pricing in Phoenix, leaving travelers with great deals to choose from, and hotels continue to offer low prices. Budget-conscious travelers can do things like taking a ride through downtown Scottsdale on the Scottsdale Trolley or joining the ArtWalk, an event held every Thursday, to enjoy the eclectic offerings from more than 100 different galleries. In Phoenix, travelers can visit famous sites like the Heard Museum or Chase Stadium, home to the Arizona Diamondbacks. If you’re the outdoorsy type, stunning hiking and biking trails abound, including The Apache Trail, Camelback Mountain, Pinnacle Peak Park and Piestewa Peak, all of which can be accessed for free or for a nominal cost.

Sacramento, Calif.

The Bay Area might be known for its food, wine and entertainment, but Sacramento is quickly becoming a California city to watch. Less than two hours away from San Francisco, the capital city offers great savings along with a ton of different “must do’s” throughout. Visitors can take advantage of free wine tastings and food pairings in downtown Sacramento, hosted every Saturday and Sunday by Revolutionary Wines, or join one of the tours through Capitol Park. Music aficionados can experience Dive Bar’s Dueling Pianos every Tuesday night with free admission, or check out one of the Pops in the Park Friday night concerts at the Cesar Chavez Plaza downtown. If you’re interested in shopping and filling your stomach with the city’s finest fare, head to either Old or Midtown Sacramento to find unique shops worth perusing and cuisine worth devouring. And all of this is in addition to the fascinating gold rush frontier history you’ll find throughout the area.

Raleigh, N.C.

North of the popular city of Atlanta is Raleigh, North Carolina, an unexpectedly dynamic destination. Raleigh has seen a lot of growth, resulting in revitalized attractions and hot spots that are a must-see for visitors. The growth has also prompted several new hotels to open and with more rooms slated to come online this year prices are expected to stay low. Travelers can take advantage of many of the city’s free offerings like the North Carolina Museum of History, which also houses the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. Other notable free attractions include the State Farmer’s Market, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Gardens. Summer visitors can also enjoy Downtown Live, a free concert series sponsored by the City of Raleigh. If you’re looking to wake up your taste buds, pick your own berries at the Porter Farms Strawberry Farm or visit one of the city’s local breweries or vineyards for tastings. Downtown Raleigh also plays host to a ton of restaurants specializing in a variety of global cuisines such as American, Creole, Asian, Mexican, Lebanese, Indian, German and more.

Palm Springs, Calif.

Less than two hours away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Los Angeles is Palm Springs. This city has gone through a bit of a renaissance over the past few years and as a result many new hotel rooms and flight routes have opened up prompting some great deals. Though commonly known as a golf destination – there are numerous courses to choose from that are sure to satisfy any golf enthusiast – the city now offers fantastic things to do that are a fit for any traveler. Palm Springs is great for the outdoorsy type as there are plenty of free trails to hike or ride your bike through that also offer some amazing desert vistas. The more urban travelers can instead immerse themselves in Palm Springs’ local flavor at the weekly Villagefest Street Fair and Certified Farmer’s Market. Others can explore Native American traditions at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, find an oasis in the 13,000 acre Coachella Valley Preserve or go star-gazing at the Springs’ version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the “Walk of Stars”. And don’t forget – there are 350 days of sunlight here, so you can soak in some rays poolside practically year-round or get pampered at one of the many resorts’ spas.

As you can see, traveling is an exciting experience, but it doesn’t have to be an expensive one this year. Each state in our wonderful nation has so much to offer, and while larger cities are always a must-do, don’t forget to check out those sleeper destinations for a fantastic and affordable experience.