Saving Money in Expensive Cities
If you travel much in the United States, you're probably aware that it can be pricey. In some of the biggest destinations, like Seattle, New York City and San Francisco, travelers can easily spend over a grand for just a few short nights.
What should you do if you want to enjoy your trip and make lasting memories — but also want to save some money?
There are a few basics that apply to any travel destination: shop early for the cheapest airfares; search around for lodging options just outside the city; and always consider public transportation from the airport and for getting around during your trip. But there are also specific things you can do to tighten your purse strings in major U.S. locales.
Here's how to explore 15 of the most expensive and visited destinations in America without breaking the bank.
15. Las Vegas
Cost to visit: $1,193.58*
Drinks (including beer): $50.76
3-night hotel stay: $328
*Source: GOBankingRates, based on calculated food and drink costs, the average nightly rate for the three least-expensive hotels in the area, and 2018 airfare averages.
For decades, there were dozens of things to do during a Las Vegas stay that were free or low-cost — but that’s drying up. Hotels and restaurants with celebrity chefs are profit centers now. Parking in hotel lots is no longer free. And though you can still get comped drinks while playing table games, a bad roll at the craps table might result in a hefty tab for that “complimentary” bottle of beer.
That said, if you’re not a gambler or have suffered a bad night at the blackjack tables, there are still plenty of things to do and see for free in Sin City. The Bellagio Fountains are choreographed to music and the dancing waters explode every 15-30 minutes each afternoon and evening; inside the Bellagio lobby is a ceiling featuring 2,000 Dale Chihuly-crafted glass flowers, as well as a 14,000-square-foot flower conservatory.
Also worth checking out: The Cosmopolitan's three-story Chandelier Bar and its 2 million beaded crystals, and the Fremont Street Experience, which boasts a 1,500-foot LED canopy light show set to music.
Vegas’ RTC transit system also runs sorely underutilized buses up and down The Strip and to downtown; the cost is just $6 for two hours, $8 for 24 hours or $20 for three days.
14. San Diego
Cost to visit: $1,339.44
Drinks (including beer): $60.36
3-night hotel stay: $285
The sun is out almost all year round in San Diego — but hotel room rates dip during the city’s low seasons of January through March and October-November. Summer is in general a pricey time to visit, and you definitely don't want to book a room in the Gaslamp Quarter or anywhere near the San Diego Convention Center in mid-July, when the annual Comic-Con Convention’s 130,000 colorfully dressed visitors invade.
Any time of the year you can also opt to stay in small hotels or Airbnbs in neighborhoods just outside of downtown, including Kensington, Normal Heights and North Park.
Know that San Diego has 70 miles of beaches — and most are free and don’t charge for parking. Exploring the expansive cultural center of Balboa Park, adjacent to the San Diego Zoo, is another good choice. Of its 25 museums and attractions, the Timken Museum of Art is always free, and package deals are available for the others.
More freebies: head to the La Jolla coastline to see the seals that gather at the Children’s Pool; tour the historic frontier city of Old Town; or if you need a ride downtown, hail a FRED (Free Ride Everywhere Downtown) shuttle, which can also be summoned by app.
Cost to visit: $1,344.52
Drinks (including beer): $46.44
3-night hotel stay: $370
After landing at Denver International Airport, hop on the so-called “Train to the Plane” for just $10.50 to downtown. Then continue utilizing the city’s light-rail system to access the city’s many sights; a local day pass is just 6 bucks.
Explore the city’s bustling 16th Street Mall — filled with outdoor cafes, shops and, of course, brewpubs — on foot or via a free bus that runs its length. Or head on over to the extensive Denver Art Museum on the first Saturday of the month, when admission is waived.
Feeling more outdoorsy? About 8 miles from downtown, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge offers nature at its most unbridled and beautiful, free of charge.
12. New Orleans
Cost to visit: $1,468.20
Drinks (including beer): $42.60
3-night hotel stay: $406
The Big Easy is a destination that often fills up around big events (including Mardi Gras in mid to late February, spring break and the Sugar Bowl college football game in January). Summer is busy, too, so the times of year to find the best deals are late spring and the fall.
Now, let’s face it, New Orleans is a boozy kinda town. Happy hours abound — but there is one way to save money on your first drink: fill up at your hotel and take a roadie with you. As long as you’re not using a glass or metal cup, it’s legal to drink liquor on the French Quarter streets.
It’s also free to people-watch on Bourbon Street, and there’s plenty of jazz going down in bars and restaurants. The Jazz Playhouse, for example, has a one-drink minimum — but no cover charge.
To get around town unfettered by the number of Hurricanes you’ve downed, check out public transportation. Bus and streetcar rides are $1.25; day passes are $3.
11. Los Angeles
Cost to visit: $1,497.98
Drinks (including beer): $59.76
3-night hotel stay: $386
L.A. is sprawling and traffic is as bad or worse than anywhere in the country. Therefore, it’s a cost-efficient idea to plan ahead on what attractions you want to see and book an inexpensive hotel as close as possible. It’s not even a bad idea to change hotels if you’re hopping around to different parts of the city.
Things to see and do: Strolling along Venice Beach will usually offer up memorable Left Coast sights; hiking through Griffith Park up to the Griffith Observatory (as seen in the movie “La La Land”) costs nothing — and the Observatory has free admission and access to telescopes; hiking Runyon Canyon is great exercise, and likely to include a celebrity sighting; and the Santa Monica Pier is free to tour (though you do have to purchase tickets for the roller coaster or any of the other rides).
Note that you’re not allowed to walk up and touch the famous Hollywood sign, but you can drive up to the Lake Hollywood Overlook area for a close-by photo op.
Cost to visit: $1,510.86
Drinks (including beer): $57.18
3-night hotel stay: $430
Getting into downtown Seattle is both easy and, if planned right, cost-effective. Book a flight to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (affectionately known as Sea-Tac); from there, take the Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail to downtown stations in the Financial District, Pioneer Square and Chinatown. It’s $3 for adults, $1.50 for kids 6-18 and free for the under-6 set.
Of course, you have to visit Pike Place Market, which is free to enter, though you’ll be enticed to spend while perusing the food vendors, fishmongers and florists. Looking out over the city from atop the Space Needle is also considered a must, but it costs $22 — a couple free spots to take in the views over Lake Union include Gas Works Park and Kerry Park on Queen Anne Hill.
Culture hounds can enjoy a free walking art tour in the Fremont District or soak up events, including comedy shows and lectures, gratis at the Seattle Center. And instead of paying $30 for a Harbor Tour, take the ferry to Bremerton or Bainbridge Island ($8.95).
Cost to Visit Portland, Ore.: $1,510.88
Drinks (including beer): $49.92
3-night hotel stay: $482
Set and filmed in Portland (Oregon), the popular show “Portlandia” both parodied and glorified the city’s endearing hipster weirdness, and often explored the city’s thrifty side. You can do the same by opting for cheap activities and accommodations.
For those who don’t mind sharing common bathroom facilities, the Crystal Hotel boasts low rates. Plus the city offers a nice array of budget-minded hostels.
Getting around Portland is as easy (and cheap) as buying a one-way ticket for $2.50 on the TriMet light rail line. A day pass is $5, and can get you to attractions like Washington Park, Lloyd Center and the Portland Expo Center.
The city also has an excellent biking and alternate-transportation infrastructure (exemplified in “Portlandia” by the mayor — hilariously played by Kyle MacLachlan — who peddled and paddled around town via bike and kayak).
Free stuff to do includes: monthly brewery and distillery tours and tastings; the artsy First Thursday Gallery Walk; and free seasonal tours through the International Rose Test Garden.
Cost to visit: $1,525.32
Drinks (including beer): $48
3-night hotel stay: $425
After flying into Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, consider heading into the city via Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) trains. The trains arrive and depart from the west entrance of the huge airport complex every eight minutes, and usually take just 15 minutes to reach downtown. One-way fares are $2.50; a three-day pass is $16.
Free activities in the city include: all the attractions and tours at the 30-acre Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, strolls through Piedmont Park (where crowd-gathering events are regularly scheduled), visits to the Atlanta Contemporary art museum, and participation in the gallery-hopping First Thursday Downtown Atlanta Art Walk.
If you have several days to while away and want to sample several attractions, consider buying the Atlanta CityPASS, which bundles eight sites (including World of Coca-Cola and the Inside CNN Studio Tour) into one price ($76 for adults; $61 for kids).
Cost to visit: $1,640.12
Drinks (including beer): $54.24
3-night hotel stay: $567
If you’re flexible with your schedule and willing to risk snow delays, Chicago’s winter air fares (excluding the holidays) are significantly lower than during the rest of the year.
Hotels in the popular Chicago Loop are pricey — but there are deals available at properties proximal to both the Midway and O’Hare airports that have access to the downtown area via the Blue Line “L” train or Metra commuter rail line.
In the city, Chicago River cruises are popular — but it’s free to take a self-guided tour of the Chicago Riverwalk, which is open to pedestrians, pets and bikes. The Riverwalk has several dining options and often hosts free outdoor music concerts.
Other freebies include: a trolley that runs from the Art Institute of Chicago to the Navy Pier; the waterfront Navy Pier itself, which houses free attractions like Crystal Gardens; the Chicago Lincoln Park Zoo; and the Lincoln Park Conservatory.
Cost to visit: $1,697.56
Drinks (including beer): $52.32
3-night hotel stay: $528
Wherever you fly in from, when you land at Philadelphia International Airport, get to your downtown hotel via a SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) train. The $8 trip from the air terminals to Center City Philadelphia on the Airport Line is 25 minutes. (Note: Philly is also served by Amtrak trains and affordable bus lines Peter Pan and Greyhound.)
If you’ve got a long list of sites you aim to see, The Philadelphia Pass offers up to 45 percent savings on a variety of top tourism attractions, including The Big Bus Hop On Hop Off Tour, One Liberty Observation Deck and the Franklin Institute Science Museum.
It also costs nothing to check out the iconic LOVE Sculpture in JFK Plaza, take a gander at the iconic Liberty Bell at Independence Hall, or run the 72 “Rocky Steps” (filmed for the Rocky Balboa movies) that lead up to the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
5. San Francisco
Cost to visit: $1,705.52
Drinks (including beer): $62.52
3-night hotel stay: $463
You’ll likely leave your heart in San Francisco, but there’s no need to leave all the cash in your wallet.
Before you book a flight into San Francisco International Airport, look for cheaper airfares coming into nearby Oakland and San Jose airports. Note that free Airport Flyer buses will take you from the San Jose airport to the CalTrain service that rolls into San Fran.
There are an overwhelming number of attractions packed into the City By The Bay, so consider a San Francisco Travel Pass, which can save 44 percent on admissions, lets you skip lines and includes unlimited cable car rides. Use the pass to explore the city’s Museum of Modern Art or Aquarium by the Bay, or to take a Bay Cruise Adventure.
Of course, it’s free to walk or ride a bike across the Golden Gate Bridge — and there are complementary walking tours of the iconic bridge on Thursdays and Sundays.
Looking to venture about an hour outside the city to California’s famed Napa wine country? Summer is peak season, so going on the shoulder season (April, or September/October) will save money. Many years ago, wine tastings in Napa were free — those days are long gone. Nowadays, most wineries charge anywhere from $15 to $25 per person for a tasting flight. But some wineries will waive the fee if you purchase a certain amount of wine by the bottle. And many hotels offer two-for-one deals at the front desk at winery partners.
Cost to visit: $1,730.02
Drinks (including beer): $59.40
3-night hotel stay: $634
This is no place to travel economically by car in Boston — parking garages can be $40 a day, and you’ll shell out $50 or more to park within walking distance of Fenway Park, where the Red Sox play home baseball games. Instead, travel the city by ride-share services, buses or the subway system (known as “The T”). Purchase a Charlie Card from the Downtown Crossing MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) and get a discount on all one-way subway rides (including free bus transfers).
To save money on hotel rooms, forego staying near the waterfront and find a bed and breakfast that’s served by the T-line in an affordable neighborhood like Braintree, Revere or Jamaica Plain.
If you were planning on paying to take the popular Freedom Trail tour (led by guides dressed in 18th-century clothing), consider downloading the free Freedom Trail app, which includes a full map and all the essential historical commentary.
3. Washington, D.C.
Cost to visit: $1,881.48
Drinks (including beer): $59.88
3-night hotel stay: $558
Even though the U.S. capital is pricey, you can still plan a trip that won’t clean out your coffers. Depending on your itinerary and travel dates, compare the airfares at all three airports that service D.C.: Ronald Reagan Washington National, Dulles International or Baltimore-Washington International. And note that you can use the Metrorail to get in and out of National only.
When planning what sights to take in, know that The Smithsonian Institution is federally funded — which means it’s free to enter its 17 museums and galleries. It’s also free to get into the National Zoo, as well as most monuments in the National Mall and Memorial Parks.
The best way to get around Washington is the Metro subway (a SmarTrip card will cut your fares). And the DC Circulator Bus ($1 fares) covers many of the spots not served by the Metro.
Cost to visit: $1,924.04
Drinks (including beer): $78
3-night hotel stay: $751
You won’t want to pinch every penny if you’ve gathered up the family or your special someone for a dream vacation in the Pacific. But moderated with a few strategic splurges, there are ways to save money in pricey Hawaii, including its particularly expensive island of Maui and the city of Honolulu on the island of Oahu.
Cost-free activities on Maui include taking a drive along the scenic Road to Hana, bird-watching at Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge or exploring Waianapanapa State Park, home to a striking black-sand beach and freshwater caves.
As for accommodations, booking a hotel that’s not right on the beach will save a bundle. Look for properties a few blocks off the beach and within walking distance to the sand. And check to see that the hotel you book has a refrigerator where you can store food you can purchase at the nearest ABC Store.
These same cost-saving tips hold true in Honolulu. Here, free activities include visiting the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor; live entertainment or hula classes at the Royal Hawaiian Center; and watching the Friday Night Fireworks at Hilton Hawaiian Village.
1. New York City
Cost to visit: $2,070.36
Drinks (including beer): $67.44
3-night hotel stay: $773
Before the Big Apple takes a bite out of your budget, shop around for airfares that fly into the three airports that serve Manhattan — John F. Kennedy International, La Guardia and Newark Liberty International. Once you've landed, avoid a budget-busting cab ride. If you’re coming in from the East Coast, Amtrak trains are an option; bus lines BoltBus, Concord, Greyhound, Peter Pan and Megabus are all affordable as well.
There are a million things to do in The City That Never Sleeps. One way to see the sights and save a few bucks is to plan ahead and purchase a New York City Attraction Pass. Buy an all-inclusive pass with a set number of attractions, or a build-your-own version.
You can get free people-watching entertainment by turning any corner in New York — one of the nicest and safest options is to wander Central Park or to take advantage of some of the free tours offered there.