Visiting a big city can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. There are several ways to soak up what places such as New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston have to offer even on a small budget. You can save on accommodations, transportation, entertainment and dining by using these strategies:
Look for lower-priced locations. Prices for accommodations in big cities can vary greatly by neighborhood. So you can save a lot depending on the location you choose, says Cheryl Rosner, CEO of Stayful.com, a booking site for independent boutique hotels. For example, tourists can find deals on hotels in a big city’s financial district for weekend stays because demand drops when business travelers head home at the end of the week, she says. And during the week, hotels in tourist hot spots such as Times Square in New York tend to lower their rates because they aren’t as full as on the weekend. And don’t write off the suburbs as too far away because the savings on staying outside a city’s center can be substantial. Most major metropolitan areas have public transportation systems that make it easy to get downtown quickly.
Beat published rates. Several sites and apps can help you book a room at a price much lower than a hotel’s published rates. For example, you can use Priceline.com’s “Name Your Own Price” tool to save up to 60% on hotels. You can select an area of town and a star level but you won’t know what hotel you’re getting until your bid is accepted and your credit card is charged. You can eliminate the mystery by using Stayful.com to bid on a room at an independent boutique hotel. Choose a destination and travel dates, then you’ll get a list of hotels and recommended bids for each. You can bid lower (or higher), and if your price is accepted, you have the option to book a room at that rate or continue looking elsewhere. Or you can use the Last Minute Travel app, which offers travelers access to wholesale prices for hotels.
Consider renting. Vacation rental properties, such as apartments and condos that owners rent to travelers, can be a bargain compared with hotels. For example, the average nightly rate for a vacation rental in New York City listed on Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO.com) is about $219; whereas, the average nightly rate for a hotel is $350. Other sites to check for vacation rental properties are Airbnb.com, HomeAway.com and VacationHomeRentals.com.
Take public transportation. You’ll save a lot of money and time by taking public transportation rather than a cab, Rosner says. Don’t worry about getting lost because many cities now have mobile apps you can download on your smart phone or tablet to help you navigate their public transportation systems. And rather than pay for each trip you take on the subway or bus, score savings by purchasing a multi-day pass.
Rent a bike. Many major cities now have bike rental programs to help residents get around town. But tourists can take advantage of them, too. Rosner says that when she is in San Francisco for work, it’s much easier and cheaper to get around by bike because she doesn’t have to pay for a pricey rental car or for parking.
Take advantage of free activities. Big cities typically have an abundance of free things to do, from street performances to outdoor art installations to concerts in the park, Rosner says. So don’t assume you have to see pricey attractions to experience a city. Walk across the iconic Brooklyn Bridge in New York, window shop in Beverly Hills, watch sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and soak up history strolling through the streets of Boston for free. Rosner recommends the Sosh city guide app, which can help you find free events in select cities. Most cities’ official tourist associations or visitor centers publish lists on their Web sites of free things to do. Or look for a free tour of the city by a local. The Global Greeter Network organizes volunteers in several cities worldwide to show you around, give you the inside scoop and answer your questions.
Find food trucks. Street food has evolved far beyond cheap, greasy hot dogs sold from a cart on a corner. Now you can find mobile vendors -- better known as food trucks but also food carts -- throughout major cities selling inexpensive, eclectic food. Rosner says food trucks should be your go-to source for affordable meals while visiting a big city. Many publish their schedules and locations online. Simply do a search using the name of the city and the words “food truck” to find mobile vendors in the area you’re visiting.
Award-winning journalist, speaker, family finance expert, and author of Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk.
Cameron Huddleston wrote the daily "Kip Tips" column for Kiplinger.com. She joined Kiplinger in 2001 after graduating from American University with an MA in economic journalism.