Best U.S. Cities for Affordable Getaways 2012
Can’t bear another staycation? T+L readers offered their two cents on which U.S. cities are the best values for travelers.
One of Laura Martone’s favorite New Orleans jazz clubs is the Spotted Cat, which offers cachet—it’s been featured on the HBO show Treme—without high prices. “Despite the awesome music, patrons are almost never charged a cover,” says the author of the American Nomad travel blog. “And the one-drink minimum is totally reasonable.”
That kind of easy-on-the-wallet atmosphere helped New Orleans place in the top 10 of America’s Most Affordable City Getaways, according to Travel + Leisure readers. In the annual America’s Favorite Cities survey, travelers ranked 35 cities for qualities that span the price spectrum: from fine dining to street food, from luxury shopping to flea markets.
Finding deals is a priority for plenty of travelers who wish to trade in staycations for a real vacation again. “I think there’s a lot of pent-up demand from people who have been working more hours and taking less time off,” says Tim Leffel, author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations.
So what makes a city a great value? Reasonably priced hotels and restaurants, certainly, as well as enticements such as budget-friendly theater tickets, free museums, or low gas prices. The survey’s winner, Kansas City, has an average nightly hotel rate of about $100 and also won the T+L survey for cheap, mouthwatering barbecue.
Kansas City’s airport offers relatively low airfares, too, as does another top-five city: Puerto Rico’s San Juan. To offset the high prices of poolside cocktails, the island city offers the nation’s top-ranked street food and walkable streets in Old San Juan.
The ability to explore a city by foot also boosts its affordability. That may explain why sprawling Dallas/Fort Worth—which has reasonably priced hotels, but ranked as the least pedestrian-friendly city in the survey—scored poorly for overall affordability.
Small costs—a taxi ride here, a club cover charge there—add up over the course of a trip and can turn off a traveler to a particular city or venue. Leffel agrees with a recent survey that revealed how much travelers dislike one particular fee: paying for Wi-Fi at a hotel. “Charging for Wi-Fi is as silly as charging for hot water,” says Leffel. “Even millionaire entrepreneurs will skip a hotel that charges for Wi-Fi, just on principle.”
No. 1 Kansas City, MO
Dinner for two in this midwestern city can cost as little as $25, especially if you choose a spot such as Arthur Bryant’s, one of the restaurants that helped Kansas City win the barbecue category. The survey’s most affordable city also entices travelers with its low airfares—no one airline dominates Kansas City International Airport—and freebies, such as tours of the Harley-Davidson Plant and Boulevard Brewing Company.
No. 2 Salt Lake City
Voters like this Utah city for being mellow and tidy—and it’s easy for skiers to streamline expenses here. The city’s Super Pass, a lift ticket starting at about $65 a day, gets you into Alta, Brighton, Snowbird, and Solitude and includes a free bus or light rail ride from downtown. Still others come here to explore the 10-acre Mormon complex of Temple Square, the state’s most popular attraction.
No. 3 Nashville
In the No. 2 city for live music, you can access the Nashville Sound for free, and without even trying very hard. Check out the legendary Tootsie’s or Robert’s Western Wear downtown, where you’ll pay no cover early in the day, or see who’s playing onstage in stores such as boot shop Peter Nappi or Grimey’s New & Preloved Music. Voters gave Nashville a thumbs-up for its wallet-friendly burgers, but you can also get a James Beard Award–winning meal of southern comfort food at Arnold’s Country Kitchen for about $10.
No. 4 San Juan, P.R.
The big Caribbean hub offers low airfares ($300 from NYC in a recent search) and a multitude of hotel options: if you don’t want a splashy resort, try a boutique-style parador, such as the acclaimed El Convento, where rates start at $180 a night during high season. The expanding and accessible dining scene impressed voters, too: the city ranked first for both street food and ethnic cuisine.
No. 5 San Antonio, TX
There are plenty of reasonably priced hotels in the picturesque Riverwalk area, which also has easy access to flea markets and great Tex-Mex. For a different kind of outing in this family-friendly city, check out the free mariachi mass on Saturdays at the historic San Fernando Cathedral. And speaking of history, admission to the famed Alamo is always free.
No. 6 Houston
For a city that ranks so highly for its luxury shopping, the Texas oil town still offers a lot of cowtown-style value: the average hotel room here costs only about $113 per night. You can see a lot of the city’s renowned art for free, including the Menil Collection, the Art Car Museum, and the Rothko Chapel. Voters also loved the city’s old-school simple pleasures of burgers and barbecue.
No. 7 Portland, ME
Voters crowned this city No. 1 for summer, when a lobster roll makes the ultimate affordable luxury. Year round, however, Portland International Airport has been rated as one of the cheapest airports in the country. Voters also applauded the New England city for being highly walkable, and for having an array of indie boutiques, good pizza, and microbrews.
No. 8 New Orleans
The Crescent City’s hotel rates may not be the least expensive in the country—the average inched toward $150 a night in 2011—but the city’s atmosphere runs charmingly cheap. Hearing live music may cost only a few bucks, tucked into a tip jar, and voters loved the reasonably priced cafés and cocktails. For $1.25, you can also ride the St. Charles Avenue streetcar past historic mansions. And one of the best local sports—people-watching—is always free.
No. 9 Memphis, TN
Big portions are a recurring theme in Memphis, especially when it comes to local barbecue, which voters ranked at No. 2. It’s free, meanwhile, to pay your respects to Elvis first thing in the morning at Graceland’s meditation garden, or to watch the famous ducks parade through the Peabody Hotel’s lobby.
No. 10 Philadelphia
Hotels here average $130 a night—30 percent less than their peers in NYC—and the widely available Philly Overnight Hotel Package ups the ante by giving you free parking along with your hotel rate. This foodie city, meanwhile, has cheap but fabulous street food, as well as a slew of BYOB restaurants, which further cut your costs.
No. 11 Savannah, GA
This southern city is full of quaint B&Bs, which tend to be good values compared to bigger hotels. Such charming lodging, part of the city’s cool architecture, apparently filled voters with all kinds of whimsy: the city ranked first for romance and second for Valentine’s visits. You can explore the city’s renowned Telfair Museums—with three locations, and featuring the Bird Girl statue from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil—for $15. Or, pack a picnic lunch and lounge for free in Bonaventure Cemetery.
No. 12 Providence, RI
Compared to nearby Boston, which ranked at No. 29 for affordability, this Rhode Island city is a bargain. Its art scene and cool design shops ranked well, and you can wander the Rhode Island School of Design’s museum for free on Sunday mornings. For a great lunch, plunk down $1.99 at Stanley’s for a Stanley Burger, and understand why the city won the survey’s burger category.
No. 13 Minneapolis/St. Paul
These smart locals are a pretty down-to-earth bunch, according to voters: the Twin Cities ranked near the top for both parks and peace and quiet. They also embrace solid midwestern value: voters loved the local theater, where big shows can run as low as $25 per ticket. And here’s a good excuse to browse the Mall of America or other local shops: you get tax-free shopping on clothes and shoes.
No. 14 Austin, TX
Hotels are more expensive in the Texas capital than in San Antonio or Houston, but Austin is otherwise a cheap date when it comes to food and entertainment: it ranked No. 6 for its vast selection of food trucks, such as the Korean-Mexican fusion Chi’Lantro. For one form of free entertainment, follow the locals to the Congress Avenue Bridge on any evening between March and October to watch the nightly ascent of millions of bats. No surprise, voters also found the locals a little quirky.
No. 15 Portland, OR
The Hoyt Arboretum and the International Rose Test Garden—both with free admission—are lush examples of why voters loved this city’s outdoorsy qualities. Once voters got indoors, they were quite fond of the local coffee and beer. Visit microbreweries such as Widmer Brothers Brewing and BridgePort Brewing Company for a free tour. And before you go, check the city’s tourism site, Travel Portland, for hotel deals such as the recurring Portland Perks discounted package.
No. 16 Denver
Voters were more impressed by the locals’ rugged athleticism than their fashion sense, but it may just depend on your taste: the city’s Rockmount Ranch Wear is known as the originator of the snap-button western shirt with bolo, and you can take one home for less than $100. Travelers who appreciate every nickel can take a free tour of the U.S. Mint, while beer lovers get complimentary walk-throughs at Wynkoop Brewing Company or Coors.
No. 17 Las Vegas
The city that elevated the all-you-can-eat buffet to near-mythic status also won the AFC survey for its smorgasbord of hotel options. While the highly ranked swanky bar scene is not known for its deals, cocktails are probably not the biggest budget-buster in town: consider the fact that the average person spends $466 per visit on gambling.
No. 18 Baltimore
Reasonable prices may have inspired voters to embrace this Maryland city as a good base camp for day trips—into pricier D.C., or over to Mount Vernon. There are good values in town, too: it doesn’t cost anything to hear concerts at the Harborplace Amphitheater, ride the tourist-friendly Charm City Circulator bus, or visit Edgar Allan Poe’s grave (would he root for the Ravens as much as the sports-loving locals do?).
No. 19 Charleston, SC
This refined city isn’t typically known for runaway bargains, but you can streamline your costs by booking your getaway as a bundled hotel package: check out the city’s CharlestonPackages site for deals with charming extras such as wine festival tickets and carriage tours. You might also get a steal on some denizen’s former treasures: the city ranked in the top five for both antiques and flea markets.
No. 20 Phoenix/Scottsdale
Voters wildly preferred coming to this desert area in the winter, including Christmas, New Year’s, and Valentine’s. But if you want to make the cities more affordable, you may have to wait a few months. From June through August, you can save more than half off hotel rates, compared to the winter’s high season. If you can’t abide summer’s triple-digit temps, come in late spring or fall, when the shoulder season still offers some discounts.