America's Most Expensive Cities
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.”
Luxury hotels, romance, attractive locals—alas, all are sharply lacking in this Rust Belt town, according to the AFC survey. The good news: you have plenty of cash to spend on seeing its world-class symphony. It ranks No. 2 for classical music—just barely behind top-dollar New York City.
#29 Kansas City
If you like to spend big bucks on new shoes—well, keep on walking: AFC survey respondents ranked this midwestern city dead last for its shopping. Its most enticing diversion, it turns out, is kinda corny—literally. Farmers’ markets came in at No. 6.
#28 St. Louis
It might be hard to find many places to strain the plastic in the Gateway City. It ranks as No. 29 for both luxury stores and stylish boutique hotels and 28th for big-name restaurants. And perhaps as a sign that the locals are just fine with their retail options, they rank themselves as the least stylish city in the AFC survey.
Music acts can’t command high-ticket prices when they’re doing sound checks in a local sandwich shop. The No. 2 city for live music, meanwhile, offers one draw that’s completely free: its locals rank first in the AFC survey for friendliness.
Apparently, oil barons don’t get rich springing for plush hotel rooms anymore. This port city ranked first for affordable hotels and second for business hotels. A bonus: many of the city’s great art museums and galleries, such as the Rothko Chapel, have free admission.
#25 Minneapolis/St. Paul
Blowing cash in the Twin Cities might mean going crazy at the used book store. In the nation’s smartest city, according to the AFC, you might be more likely to find the local foodies flocking to a café (ninth) or a farmers’ market (eighth) over a big-name restaurant. Thriftiness is next to tidiness too: Minneapolis/St. Paul wins as the nation’s cleanest.
#24 New Orleans
The good times roll in the Crescent City, but happily a good time need not cost much more than a pile of plastic beads. It’s the winner in the nightlife category and also takes the top prize for the best freebie in any bar: people-watching.
Your money is pretty safe in the capital of Rhode Island. Ranking a wallflower 25th in the wild weekend category, Providence offers more quiet diversions. It ranks second in the U.S. for good neighborhood joints and fifth for homey B&Bs.
#22 San Antonio
The hometown of the Alamo knows where its handmade tortilla is buttered. The city ranks fourth for family vacations and fifth for both historic monuments and ethnic food. And perhaps as a subtle sign that this is not a flashy town, it ranks 28th for stylish locals.
A city that has “Keep Austin Weird” as its unofficial motto obviously doesn’t put on too many airs. While the Texas capital attracts plenty of talent (its locals are the third most intelligent), it’s not flashy. It ranks only 27th for both luxury stores and big-name restaurants. Hey, you can only charge so much for a pile of barbecued brisket. It does however, rank third for its neighborhood joints.
#20 Portland, OR
This low-key, northwestern city doesn’t put a lot of effort into business hotels (No. 28) or fancy restaurants (No. 29), but it ranks first for its lovely parks and offers affordable luxuries such as those fabulous Pinots.
You won’t be overwhelmed by all the fancy boutique hotel options (it ranks 28th) or intimidated by the good-looking locals (they rank dead last for attractiveness). Despite a little East Coast price inflation, the best things here are cheap or free, like checking out the Liberty Bell (Philly ranks third for historical sites) and tucking into a nice cheesesteak (No. 7 for neighborhood joints).
Once you’ve plunked down for hiking boots or a bike, you’re set. In the country’s most athletic city, the best qualities stay down-to-earth: it ranks second for outdoor access and a lowly 21st for luxury shopping and 20th for cocktails.
Love for sale: this genteel city ranks second for romance, first for B&Bs, and third for relaxing. After all, it’s tacky to overcharge. Save your money instead for the antique and vintage shops (No. 2).
Corporate travelers may drive up some prices here: Atlanta ranks sixth for its business hotels and fourth for its airport amenities. Certainly, it seems that everyone is a bit tense: it ranks close to the bottom (27th) among relaxing retreats.
#14 Dallas/Fort Worth
Big D is famous as the birthplace of Neiman Marcus (it ranks 10th for shopping), but otherwise the Texas city is middle of the road on hotel affordability (16th) and big-name restaurants (16th). May depend on how you define big name, though: ever since Dallas spawned Chili’s back in the 1970s, some would say it’s the mother ship for “casual dining.”
A city made for an expense account. The Windy City ranks first for its business hotels and second for its big-name restaurants. On many days you might happily pay just to stay inside: the city comes in last for its weather.
#12 Las Vegas
For each super-bargain motel room in Sin City (it ranks 10th for affordable rooms), there are at least two over-the-top excuses to drop cash. Vegas ranks first in the U.S. for big-name hotels, fourth for luxury stores, and fourth for big-name restaurants. Thank goodness for those cheap buffets too.
The desert mecca has long attracted folks whose idea of a tough day is getting a tee time after 11 a.m. It ranks first in the U.S. for all-in-one resorts and comes in fourth for a relaxing retreat. And if your Birkin bag is looking a little worn, you can poke out for a shopping trip: it ranks seventh for shopping.
A city filled with prosperous techy types would seem to create a high threshold for spending. They drink their espresso like water and won’t skimp on good Gore-Tex hiking shoes. (The city ranks second for coffee bars and fifth for both smart locals and athletic types.) But you don’t have to throw money around here either: even Bill Gates reportedly loves the legendary, cheap burgers at Dick’s Drive-In.
#9 Washington, D.C.
On one hand, our nation’s capital is a cheapskate’s delight: the best sights—monuments and the Smithsonian—are free for visitors, and D.C ranks first for both museums and historical sites. So who’s jacking up the prices? Perhaps it’s all those lobbyists making deals: D.C. ranks fourth for business hotels and a lowly 25th for peace and quiet.
#8 Santa Fe
This artsy spiritual town is the antithesis of mass-market appeal: it ranks second for its independent boutiques, third for its B&Bs, and third for its environmental awareness—none of which are known for being screamin’ deals. That reminds us: it also tops the list for peace and quiet.
#7 San Diego
Wouldn’t you pay a little more for—well, everything, if it all came with perpetual sun and 70 degrees? San Diego ranks first for its lovely weather, and hotels and restaurants can make hay on that. The mellow beach city ranks fifth for being a relaxing retreat and fifth and sixth for romance and cleanliness.
The Brahmins may be long gone, but the erudite set here still loves the finer things, such as classical music (it ranks third), museums and art galleries (fifth), and a well-educated mind (third in smarts). Locals may also have a weakness for cashmere: Beantown ranks 10th for luxury stores.
Come to South Beach and much of your per diem can easily go to cocktails—the city ranks second in the country for its bar scene. A mojito can run you $15, but at least you get a view: Miami ranks first for attractive locals too.
#4 San Francisco
Even if you’re not buying real estate in this high-priced turf zone, you’re still paying top dollar just to borrow it for a few days. But at least you’ll live well: the City by the Bay ranks fourth for luxury hotels and third for boutique hotels. The locals, meanwhile, rank No. 2 in diversity and No. 3 for style. The city also comes in fourth for people-watching—which, happily, is free.
#3 Los Angeles
Much of your expenses in L.A. may come just from looking good enough to walk out the door: the city ranks third for luxury stores and fourth for boutiques—and its locals rank fourth for being America’s most stylish and attractive.
Paradise doesn’t come cheap. This island city ranks first for both romance and relaxation, and fourth for all-in-one hotels. Luckily, you don’t need to spend your vacation budget on culture, aside from those hula lessons: Honolulu comes in dead last for theater and next to last for its classical music.
#1 New York
If it’s fabulous, world-class, and carries a hefty price tag, you’ll find it in New York City. The most expensive city, according to the AFC survey, also ranks first for luxury stores, big-name restaurants, and culture. And while money may talk, it doesn’t always say nice things. The Big Apple also came in last place for friendliness.