Love it or hate it–Branson seems to elicit strong reactions from just about everyone, especially from those who have never been here and dismiss it as a hick town filled with kitsch and country music. If you’re checking out what Branson offers, however, you’ve probably already guessed that Branson’s 8 million annual visitors must be on to something. The truth is, Branson’s small-town friendliness, quaint historic downtown and improbable pairing of outdoor recreation and big-time entertainment make this Missouri town an irresistible lure. It’s also affordable, which explains why it’s a big hit with families and for family reunions. And it’s within a day’s drive of one-third of the country’s population.
Surrounded by pristine lakes and nestled in the scenic, mountainous Ozarks region, Branson is known for fishing, golfing, and boating. It offers both bass and trout fishing, rental boats, more than a half-dozen golf courses, zip lining, mountain bike trails and much, much more, including campgrounds and hiking trails close at hand. One of the most beautiful outdoor destinations is Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, a 2,200-acre slice of Ozark paradise. If you have little or older ones who can’t get around very well, a great alternative is the Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail, which allows visitors to immerse themselves in spectacular scenery via self-driving electric carts.
Yet it’s also home to more than 100 different live shows covering everything from great hits of the ’60s and gospel to bluegrass, classical music, comedy, acrobatics and magic acts. Several of these shows, like the Baldknobbers Jamboree and Presleys’ Country Jubilee, are credited with launching Branson into the entertainment business more than 55 years ago. Tribute bands to such greats as the Blues Brothers, Elvis and Hank Williams are popular in Branson. There are also so many families and siblings that perform together, it sometimes seems like the whole town must be talented (the Baldknobbers, Presleys, Haygoods, Lemon Sisters, SIX and Duttons are just some of the family performers). Most theaters also pay tribute to veterans and include patriotic songs and faith-based songs. And it’s a Branson tradition for performers to meet the audience during intermission or after the show to sign autographs and pose for pictures.
There are shows morning, afternoon and night, but if that’s all you did you’d miss out on shopping, museums and Branson’s many other attractions. There are specialty shops like Bass Pro Shops and Dick’s Oldtime 5 & 10 that will remind you of your childhood, antique malls like Cadwell’s Downtown Flea Market, wineries, and discount outlets like the Tanger Outlet Center. There are museums you won’t want to miss, including the Titanic Museum Attraction and the one-of-a-kind Ralph Foster Museum.
If you have kids, or even if you don’t, Silver Dollar City is probably Branson’s top attraction and one of the country’s most attractive theme parks, nestled among wooded hills and featuring artisans at work, live music and more than 30 rides and attractions, including Outlaw Run with its 16-story vertical drop and the only wood coaster to twist upside down three times. If roller coasters are your family’s thing, you’ll also want to hit the Runaway Mountain Coaster. Other great kid attractions include White Water water park, the Branson Scenic Railway that takes in the surrounding Ozarks, a butterfly house, go-karts, miniature golf and many other diversions, including a Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
In other words, you can enmesh yourself in the thick of things or escape to scenic countryside in a flash. As for country music and kitsch? You betcha! Bring it on.
Branson sees visitors most of the year. In fact, its 11,000-some residents welcome more visitors than the populations of Denver, San Francisco, Seattle and Dallas combined, meaning that tourism is Branson’s number-one business. Visitors come for all kinds of reasons–for a weekend getaway, to camp in the stunning beauty of the Ozarks, for family reunions, to celebrate honeymoons and anniversaries, to see as many shows as possible and for family vacations. And yes, sometimes all of those. In fact, I know people who visit Branson every year.
Most visitors spend about three days in Branson, but there’s plenty to keep you occupied for a week, especially if shows are your thing. Otherwise, it’s easy to divide Branson into different geographic areas–along Highway 76, in historic downtown Branson, around Table Rock Lake–and devote a day in each– but you can also spend an entire day at Silver Dollar City or explore destinations outside Branson, like the Mark Twain National Forest. In short, plan on anywhere from three to seven days.
Branson is a year-round destination, but January to mid-February are the slowest months. After the busy tourist season (March through December), many theaters are closed to give their entertainers a break, and family businesses (including restaurants) may reduce their hours or close up shop and go on vacation for some needed R&R. Still, there are always things to do in Branson.
For families, spring break, summer and the November and December Christmas season are extremely popular, while seniors and empty-nesters find spring and autumn great times to visit due to slightly fewer visitors and beautiful seasons. Branson is one of the area’s most popular Christmas destinations, with illuminations, special shows in virtually all theaters, and more.
As for booking accommodations, the main thing to keep in mind is that because Branson is first and foremost a tourist town, many properties have higher rates during peak season (from about May to September, Thanksgiving through Christmas), though more modestly priced accommodations tend to have the same prices year-round. In addition, some accommodations have minimum night stays during their busiest periods (usually 2 or 3 nights), which they clearly state on their websites.
Like most of mid-America, Branson is generally cold in winter and hot and humid in summer. But between the extremes of snow in winter and unpleasantly sticky conditions in summer, it is often gloriously perfect in spring and autumn.
No matter when you come to Branson there’s probably something going on. Spring kicks off with See the World in Branson, with participating hotels, restaurants and other venues representing cultures from around the world in April or May. Silver Dollar City celebrates with a month-long World-Fest featuring international entertainers and cuisine, followed by Bluegrass & BBQ bringing top names in bluegrass music. In fact, special celebrations are held in Silver Dollar City throughout its season, including its Star-Spangled Summer (featuring the Harlem Globetrotters in 2015), followed by the Southern Gospel picnic, Country Music Weekend and National Harvest & Cowboy Festival.
Branson Landing holds free outdoor concerts June through September, as well as fireworks to celebrate Independence Day. Independence Day brings firework displays and other events all over the area (check the calendar link below). Veterans are honored every day in Branson, with virtually every show recognizing veterans during its performance. There are also many yearly veteran events, the biggest of which is Veterans Week in November, which includes a Veterans Day Parade downtown on the 11th.
Branson comes alive in November and December, with special Christmas shows at theaters, drive-through lighting festivals like The Shepherd of the Hills Trail of Lights, huge festivities at Silver Dollar City, and much more.
In any case, I’ve barely scratched the surface here. Contact the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce/CVB for more information, or, for information on what’s happening during the week you’re there, go to its This Week in Branson page.
January (1st): New Year’s Day
January (third Monday): Martin Luther King Jr. Day
February (third Monday): Presidents Day
May (last Monday): Memorial Day
July (4th): Independence Day
September (first Monday): Labor Day
October (second Monday): Columbus Day
(not the same as Native American Day, which is only celebrated officially in two states, on September 25th)
November (11th): Veterans Day
November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
December (25th): Christmas
Branson is located in the Central Time Zone, one hour behind New York and two hours ahead of Los Angeles. To check the local time in Branson, click here.
Daylight Savings Time (DST) happens in the spring (on the second Sunday morning of March at 2 a.m.). It’s when clocks are advanced one hour so there is more daylight later into the evening. In the fall (on the first Sunday morning in November at 2 a.m.), clocks shift back one hour to standard time. The entire U.S. (except Hawaii and most of Arizona) participates in this ritual of ‘springing forward’ and ‘falling back.’
Branson is a casual town, so you might want to leave your designer digs at home. On the other hand, it’s not unusual to see older folks dressed in their finest for some of the evening shows. About the only appropriate clothing is weather appropriate, with cool cottons in summer and jackets or coats in winter. Depending on the season, you’ll also want to pack suntan lotion and, if you plan on hiking in the woods, insect repellent.
Branson will seem like a bargain compared to many other vacation spots around the country, especially when it comes to meals and lodging. You’ll want to check well-known hotel booking companies, but don’t forget also to check individual hotel online rates for various packages.
Shows, however, can be expensive. Sometimes a variety of seats are offered, with the most expensive being VIP seats right up front or in the most desirable sections, so you can save money with general seating. Your first strategy should be to check the theater’s website; most prices given include the 11.6% tax right up front, but sometimes they don’t. Note, too, that some online services charge a $3 booking fee. Children generally receive discounts (children younger than 4 or 5 are often free).
You’ll then want to call the box office directly, because many theaters offer a family pass or discounts for veterans and their spouses but don’t mention it on their website. Family passes can be good for 2 adults and up to 2 or even 5 children, certainly the cheapest way to go. Veterans with ID and their spouses also get discounts, usually $5 to $10 off their adult general admission.
You can also check prices against giant booking agency Branson.com, which books everything from shows and attractions to hotels. Just make sure prices quoted are deals by checking them against what you’ve learned above. Prices are sometimes the same, but I’ve also seen deals offered on theater websites (like a Spring Break Special) that may not be offered
In addition to booking tickets through ways listed above, if you wait until you get to Branson you can also get tickets through discount ticket outlets virtually everywhere in Branson. Some have strings attached (like being required to attend a condo sales pitch) but others can be very good deals. There are also booklets and maps at the tourist office and other venues with discount coupons for shows, attractions and restaurants. If you have your heart set on a particular show at a particular time, however, you should probably book in advance.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$$ => Tickets $26 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double
$ => $1-15 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $16-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$ => Tickets less than $20 per person
$$ => Tickets $20-$40 per person
$$$ => Tickets $40 per person
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person
$$ => Tickets $26 per person
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.
There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.
Zipcar is another choice for rentals. Available in many major cities and college towns in the U.S., Zipcar is a great alternative for super-short term rentals. Picture this scenario: you are in a big city with terrific public transportation, so you don’t need a car. But then you hear about an amazing restaurant 20 miles away in the suburbs. You can’t go home without trying it. A taxi would cost a fortune. You’d have to wait a long time to get a return taxi. Open the Zipcar app; search for a nearby Zipcar locale. You need to apply for membership and download the app in advance. Memberships cost about $7 a month; rentals are about $8 to10 per hour; gas and insurance are included. Foreign drivers can apply and you don’t need to pay a monthly fee if you’re an occasional driver (from $25 per year for a membership).
Ride-sharing companies, Uber and Lyft, are also ubiquitous in major cities. Through a smart phone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.
Money Saving Tip: Costco, because of its behemoth size and price negotiating power, offers great low prices for most major car rental companies. Yes, you need to purchase an annual Costco membership first, but it more than pays for itself with what you’ll save with a typical week’s car rental (i.e. searches turn up a mid-size car through Costco for $225 and a comparable car through another aggregator for $325.)
Did You Know: Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day. By the way, when renting in California, there are no additional driver fees by law.
Hopefully, your trip to (or within) the U.S. goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation: About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical: Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.
Trip Interruption: For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay: Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage: Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case” … no matter what.
Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework; check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregator sites like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions: Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance: If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans have an understandably tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.
Coins in wide circulation include the penny (one cent), nickel (five cents), dime (ten cents) and quarter (25 cents). The 50-cent and one-dollar coins are seen occasionally.
Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so have twenties or smaller bills in hand. ATMs usually dispense $20 bills.
Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any U.S. travel experience, whether urban or rural. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but other costs should also be taken in to consideration. General guidelines include:
For excellent service, plan to tip 20% on the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In many states, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.
To complicate matters, many restaurants in the major metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco — are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.
Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included, usually for groups of six or more people. But at least it will be itemized in plain sight on the bill, if you look closely for it.
Most bell staff receive $ to $2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $5 or $10, but this doesn’t happen much in Branson.
Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2 to $3per day and about $5 per day in higher-end properties.
At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets around $10 to $20 per day. Concierge staff do not normally expect a tip for simply orienting you with driving directions of public transportation info. Car valet staff expect $2when returning your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually see 20% tips on their services, whether performed at the spa or in your room.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.
Sales Taxes, Lodging Taxes & Resort Fees
In Missouri, the state tax on all retail goods and services is 4.225%, but cities also levy their own local taxes, which in Branson includes a 1.5% local tax and other taxes (including a tourist enhancement tax), for a total retail sales tax of 8.6%. For tourist-related sales (amusement, theaters and lodging), the total tax is 11.6%, while for food and beverages it’s 8.975%. Note, however, that there are special areas with higher local taxes, including Branson Landing, which has a 9.6% retail tax, 12.6% tourism-related tax and 9.975% food and beverage tax.
Keep in mind that when it comes to lodging, taxes may not be stated up front in the advertised room rate. Neither are the mandatory “resort fees” being charged by an increasingly number of hotels.
Be aware, too, that third-party booking agents, especially online, often don’t include resort fees in their reservation charges, so you may be unhappily surprised by the final bill when you check out.
Like in many average-size American cities, Branson is geared toward the automobile and is darn near impossible to navigate without one. For that reason, ask anyone who has ever been here: Branson is notorious for traffic jams.
But most of that traffic is concentrated on West Highway 76 (also known as the “Strip” and “76 Country Boulevard”), simply because that’s where most of Branson’s theaters, hotels, restaurants, museums and other attractions are located. On the plus side, Branson has begun a $75-million project along five miles of Highway 76 to add walkways, landscaping, landmarks and benches in an effort to make it more pedestrian-friendly.
In addition, to alleviate congestion, Branson has built a number of relief roads that parallel the Strip, color coded for your convenience, that connect with Highway 76 at various locations. Green Mountain Drive/Wildwood/Fall Creek, to the south, is yellow; Shepherd of the Hills Expressway to the north is red; and Gretna/Roark Valley roads are blue. Other useful roads you’ll want to become familiar with include James Epp Road and Rosalee Street.
You’ll most certainly want to visit downtown Branson, quaint and lined with specialty shops (Dick’s 5 & 10 is a must), antique stores and cafes. Parking is free for 2 hours on the main streets; there are also public parking lots at both ends of Branson Landing. After parking, your best bet for getting around downtown and the Landing are your own two feet or the free downtown trolley, running daily February through December about every 15 minutes
In any case, I wouldn’t avoid driving down Highway 76 altogether. In the off season there’s little traffic during the day. And in peak season there’s something about inching along the Strip with everyone else that makes you feel part of the action if you aren’t in a hurry. But this is what I like best: Branson drivers are also notoriously friendly, and part of the reason traffic snakes along is that entering cars are good-naturedly waved in.
Most people drive to Branson, which is within a day’s drive of almost one-third of the US population. Otherwise, it’s about a four-hour drive from Little Rock, St. Louis and Kansas City.
About 10 miles south of the Highway 76, Branson Airport (BKG) opened in 2009 as the nation’s first private commercial airline. It offers direct service from Houston, Austin, Dallas, Denver and Chicago (note that some of these routes are seasonal). From
the airport, Gray Line Airport Shuttle (800-237-4466), taxis (417-332-2227) and Uber provide transportation to Branson hotels.
Otherwise, the Springfield-Branson National Airport
(SGF) is 45 miles north of Branson and offers nonstop flights from 13 cities, including Atlanta, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix, Chicago, Atlanta and Orlando.
Car rental is available at both airports.