Here’s a way to save money when visiting Miami: buy whole bottles of booze.
That’s what Rob Mackey, a life coach and author of Happiness from the Inside Out, learned when he moved to the Florida city from Philadelphia a few years ago. While many things are more expensive in Miami, cocktails—easily $12 to $15 these days—changed the way he treats a night out. “Stick to places that have happy hour specials,” he says, “and if you go to a club with a group, a bottle—even at $300 apiece—is actually cheaper than drinks, if you do the math.”
“Doing the math” may take some of the fun out of traveling, but these days, many people can’t help it. In the latest America’s Favorite Cities survey, Travel + Leisure readers ranked 30 U.S. cities on such qualities as their hotels, restaurants, shopping—and just how affordable the place is. Miami, home of the $15 mojito, rolls in at No. 5, while Philadelphia, perhaps more of an ale-drinking town, came in at No. 19.
Indeed, a city’s culture, its personality, and its basic real estate all dictate where it falls on the price spectrum. Los Angeles, for instance, ranks third most expensive in the AFC survey, and it also ranks third for its luxury retail. Perhaps as a result, it also comes in fourth for the most attractive and stylish locals.
Other cities can get away with charging top dollar for both tangible and intangible offerings. Honolulu is the second most expensive city in America—and a lot of that may come from the fact that much of what you consume on the islands has been brought in by plane or boat (gas usually tops $3.50 these days). But people are also more than happy to pay for everything that comes with those prices. The Hawaiian capital wins the AFC survey for being the most romantic and relaxing vacation.
Some good news, too: even the most expensive cities are getting a bit cheaper. According to a recent Hotels.com survey, the average price for a U.S. hotel room has gone down since 2008—anywhere from 10 percent in Atlanta to a whopping 24 percent in NYC. A room in Honolulu now averages $160/night—down 12 percent from 2008.
Hotels, of course, are only one element in a city getaway, and the other stuff can add up fast. In San Francisco—which came in at No. 4 among the most expensive cities—renting a Mazda for the week can top $400. In Kansas City, which came in at No. 29, that same car rental goes for only $260.
Travelers can sniff out the best bets by taking tips from the locals—like buying that bottle of booze, or straying from the tourist path. “If you love theater, there are so many less expensive options in NYC than Broadway,” says Bryan Herb, the chief marketing officer for tour operator Zoom Vacations, who lives in New York but used to live in Houston. “Some off-Broadway shows can even be found for under $10 a ticket, which is tough to come by in a city like Houston. Every city has its inexpensive and even free gems. You just have to look for them.”