Best U.S. Cities for Affordable Getaways
This piece originally appeared on Travel + Leisure.
When David Bakke visits Savannah, he loves dining at the upscale Olde Pink House. But Bakke, a writer for personal finance site MoneyCrashers, has figured out how to avoid the high price tag—he sits in the restaurant’s basement section, the Planters Tavern. “By taking the trip downstairs,” he says, “you get extraordinary ambiance and affordable food.”
It’s a good example of why the quaint, accessible Georgian city made the top 10 for affordable getaways, according to Travel + Leisure readers. In this year’s America’s Favorite Cities survey, readers ranked 35 metropolitan areas in qualities such as fine dining and cultural offerings, which become especially enticing when offered in a lower price range.
Even as the economy shows some signs of improvement, plenty of travelers still want to maximize value. According to the Traveler Sentiment Index, from marketing firm MMGY Global, 57 percent of Americans are planning a vacation sometime within the next six months—but high gas prices worry 51 percent of them. Hotel rates have also ticked up about 7 percent since summer 2012, according to Kayak.com.
Daunting gas prices may be another reason that pedestrian-friendly cities such as Savannah and Portland, OR, won over T+L readers for their affordability. Another influential factor: free-admission museums and historical attractions, such as the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Park in Atlanta, or Baltimore’s Museum of Art, which has the largest Matisse collection in the world.
But freebies aren’t enough: Washington, D.C., won the survey’s free attractions category, yet ranked as one of the least affordable cities overall, perhaps due to high hotel and restaurant prices. For cheap eats, look to Kansas City (rated No. 1 most affordable getaway), as well as Nashville and Providence, which delivered some of voters’ favorite barbecue, burgers, and pizza.
Low-impact bar prices don’t hurt, either. “Maybe it’s our Yankee frugality, but well drinks start at $3.50 in some places,” says Portland, ME, local Kelsey Goldsmith. “My friends who come in from out of town laugh when they get their bar tabs.”
They’re laughing all the way to the bank, that is. Bakke says his Savannah foodie trick is just another valuable lesson from the recession: “I’ve learned how to fly for cheaper, and I’ve found ways to enjoy entertainment activities while on vacation at a cheaper price.”
Read on for the most affordable U.S. city getaways.
No. 1 Kansas City, MO
It’s one of the few cities where hotel prices have stayed the same or even dropped in the past year (the average summer rate is $137, according to Kayak). Sightseeing also remains a great value: you’ll get in free at three of Kansas City’s main art museums, as well as two fun factory-style tours (the Hallmark Visitors Center and the Boulevard Brewing Company). The savings continue at dinnertime. KC won the survey for its budget-minded, slow-smoked barbecue: a classic “burnt ends” sandwich at Danny Edwards’ Boulevard BBQ is just $5.99.
No. 2 Nashville
Voters increasingly love affable Nashville for its locavore-friendly food scene, ranking the city highly for burgers, cafés, and microbrews. At East Nashville’s Pharmacy Burger Parlor & Beer Garden—where toppings include wasabi aioli, stroganoff béchamel, and “beer gravy”—the local-beef burgers start at $7. Meanwhile, you can see early shows for free at the legendary Bluebird Café (where a kid named Garth Brooks once played open mikes). To boost your odds of getting in, reserve your seat online.
No. 3 San Antonio,TX
The Texas city inched two spots closer to No. 1 this year and ranked near the top for its free attractions—such as all five of the city’s historic missions, including the Alamo. The city has become more eco-friendly. Along the Mission Reach section of the Riverwalk, a 15-mile stretch of urban ecosystem restoration, you can rent bicycles (through B-Cycles) for $10 a day. Voters preferred San Antonio during cooler months, particularly around Christmas, when the city is full of luminarias and one of the holiday’s best cheap eats, tamales.
No. 4 Minneapolis/St. Paul
With 20 lakes and more than 200 miles of biking and walking trails, this down-to-earth metro area climbed nine spots for affordability this year. No surprise, the Twin Cities scored at the top of the survey for those easy-access parks, where trails even get plowed during the long winters. Voters also commended the cities for their brainy, offbeat locals—which seems to translate into a wealth of affordable, hipster-friendly fun: check out Bryant Lake Bowl’s weekly Cheap Date Night (dinner for two, a bottle of wine, and bowling for $28).
No. 5 Memphis, TN
Memphis ranked in the top five for the free, omnipresent tunes of street performers. You can also sit down and hear free music at the city’s WPA-built Levitt Shell, which has its own historical relevance: Elvis was the opening act here one night in 1954, which many consider the Big Bang of the rock ’n’ roll era. Finger-friendly gourmet food is also easy to come by: at Hog & Hominy—named by GQ as one of this year’s best U.S. restaurants—you can try the duck sausage with brussels sprouts slaw, or a mortadella corn dog, for under $10 each.
No. 6 Salt Lake City
While the Utah city dropped four spots in the survey’s affordability category this year, readers still found it to be family-friendly, peaceful, and pleasantly spic-and-span. Like a lot of reasonably priced cities, Salt Lake offers a discount pass on its tourist board website: Connect Pass easily pays for itself by bundling a long list of free meals and attractions, such as tours of Olympic Park or admission to the Natural History Museum of Utah and the Hogle Zoo.
No. 7 Houston
Business travelers will like how this city affects their per diem: according to Zagat, restaurant meals are about $3 cheaper than the national average. You can bring that average down even more if you stick with the city’s old-school Tex-Mex—like Ninfa’s on Navigation, which claims to be home of the nation’s first fajitas (Mama’s Tacos al Carbon, $9.99). Hotel values, meanwhile, include Midtown’s new La Maison, which starts at $159 a night. The city also scored in the top 10 for its classical music, which can be heard for free at Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park.
No. 8 Savannah, GA
This southern town may have strolled into the affordable top 10 using its pedestrian-friendly charm. Voters appreciate the portable happy hours (thanks to open-container laws) and the rich history, which you can access with walking-tour apps such as Historic Savannah and Haunted Savannah ($2.99 each). You could also call it a history tour when you check out the city’s top-ranked frozen desserts at Leopold’s Ice Cream parlor (est. 1919). The downtown institution sells old-fashioned sodas and rum bisque, lemon custard, and tutti-frutti ice cream.
No. 9 Austin, TX
Many of the Texas capital’s diversions are geared toward local college students and young techie types. Among the best food trucks, for instance, is Gourdough’s on South Lamar, which may finally legitimize the donut as a complete meal: its Boss Hog donut ($5.50) is topped with pulled pork, potato salad, and honey BBQ sauce. Meanwhile, one of the most classic, all-ages Austin experiences costs just $3: taking a dip in Barton Springs in Zilker Park; it’s great for some free and colorful people-watching.
No. 10 Providence, RI
The diverse Rhode Island capital is the only northeastern city to make the budget-friendly top 10 this year, perhaps thanks to its crowd-pleasing dining, arts, and theater scenes. No-cover-charge events are especially common in summer: on the third Thursday of the month, for instance, you can take part in the free Gallery Nights, which feature free rides on an Art Bus. In summertime, it’s also free to stroll through the WaterFire displays, evening bonfires that line the city’s rivers.
No. 11 Portland, ME
Even if lobster prices inspire some sticker shock among travelers, summer and July 4th are the most popular times of year to visit. The seasonal Portland Lobster Company balances the cost of crustaceans with free live music and will extend happy-hour prices if you present one of the house’s coasters as a coupon. That said, you will cut costs by showing up here in winter, when you can still enjoy Portland’s highly ranked microbrews, coffee, and indie boutiques.
No. 12 New Orleans
People love New Orleans for its live music and fabulous food, and both can be found in abundance at the city’s often-free festivals, such as spring’s French Quarter Festival or November’s seafood-focused Oak Street Po-Boy Festival. If you don’t want to compete with the wild-weekend crowds, there are also posh places to enjoy free music, such as the Ritz-Carlton’s Davenport Lounge, where you can sip a Pontchartrain Punch (vodka, Chambord, citrus, and a splash of bubbly, for $14).
No. 13 Portland, OR
The Northwest city’s No. 1 ranking for mass transit makes it easy to cut the cost of a car rental. The new Eastside Extension of the Portland Streetcar costs $1 for two hours, and passes through the buzz-filled Central Eastside Industrial District, where you’ll find Boke Bowl (with creative ramen dishes) and sandwich shop Bunk Bar. Portland also ranked near the top for its groovy, bargain-filled flea markets.
No. 14 Charleston, SC
The southern city ranked first in the survey for its fine dining. For a reasonable $40, you join Culinary Tours of Charleston to meet with award-winning chefs, heirloom bakers, and artisan food purveyors. An early evening ride on the Schooner Pride ($35), a three-mast wooden ship, takes you past Civil War landmarks, barrier islands, and the pretty harbor at sunset—nice reminders of why the city ranked fifth for history and No. 1 for romance. Charleston also ranked near the top for girlfriend getaways.
No. 15 San Juan, P.R.
Summer and fall are the best times to find deals in San Juan—thank the less-predictable weather. But the good news is that airfares into the Puerto Rico capital have gotten more competitive now that Southwest is flying here and JetBlue has added more flights. You can also bring home inexpensive treats such as a bag of highly ranked coffee from Old San Juan’s Finca Ciales or Cuatro Sombres.
No. 16 Dallas/Fort Worth
Voters have long saluted Big D for its haute taste in shopping, but this year the Texas metropolis climbed 10 places in affordability—so voters clearly found more to love than just the original, downtown Neiman Marcus. At the nearby free Dallas Museum of Art, the permanent collection includes a re-creation of Coco Chanel’s living room. The Metroplex also scored well for its value-minded sports bars. Better yet, catch a minor league Cats baseball game in Fort Worth, with scenic downtown views, from $9.
No. 17 Philadelphia
As the birthplace of our democracy, the City of Brotherly Love has mastered both high and low culture with equal accessibility. You can visit the Liberty Bell (free) as well as the largest collection of Rodin sculptures outside of Paris at Philly’s recently renovated Rodin Museum ($8 suggested admission). If your idea of a masterpiece, however, is the perfect microbrew, take the free Saturday tours at either Yards Brewing Company or Philadelphia Brewing Company, which include samples.
No. 18 Baltimore
Voters were perhaps so struck by the locals’ distinctive “Bawlmerese” accents, as well as the good pizza, that they may have overlooked the world-class art at bargain prices—namely, the free Baltimore Museum of Art, home to the world’s largest Matisse collection. At Gertrude’s, run by cooking show host John Shields, Tuesday means an authentic, crab-loving Chesapeake meal with a $12 prix fixe. For a taste of Charm City’s quirky side, stop by the free Baltimore Tattoo Museum, honoring the best in human canvas work.
No. 19 Denver
Fresh air is free, and Denver has plenty—ranking well among T+L voters for outdoorsy pursuits and great day trips. There’s no charge, for instance, to explore the dino-track-filled Dinosaur Ridge (a National Natural Landmark), just outside town. The earthy city also ranked well for being pet-friendly: dogs are even welcome at the stately Brown Palace Hotel, which has hosted nearly every president since Teddy Roosevelt, and where rooms start at $179 a night.
No. 20 Atlanta
One of Atlanta’s must-visit historic sites, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Park, is free, and you need reservations only if you want a guided tour of King’s birthplace or the Ebenezer Baptist Church. Another reason that Atlanta may have cracked the top 20 this year is that voters gave high marks to its affordable barbecue. Start your taste test at Candler Park’s Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q, which has developed a cult following for its wallet-friendly brisket, fried okra, and grilled pimento-cheese sandwiches.