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Travelling to a foreign city can be exciting. It can also be very expensive. Along with high living costs, big cities often attract the most tourists and so prices of travel and accommodation are always higher. Fortunately, you can save your cents by knowing a few tricks of the trade. Here are just a few ways to plan a city escape abroad on a budget.
Timing it right
On the whole, the cheapest times to visit a city are between September and November and between February and May. Christmas time and summer attract the most tourists and so flights, hotel prices and attractions will always be higher during this period. Out of season when there are less tourists, airline companies and hotels and attractions will all lower their prices to compete with another making it a great time to find a deal.
When it comes to flights in particular, you may be able to save extra money by flying out an awkward time such as early morning or late at night. Use sites such as Skyscanner to find budget flights.
Occasionally, the one off festival or national holiday may boost prices up – something to look out for. For example, visiting Beijing around Chinese New Year or Washington DC on Independence Day is going to be very pricey.
Whilst the off-season period is cheaper, you may miss out on certain opportunities. Some places may only be open around Christmas and in summer, although generally in major cities this won’t be the case.
Hotel prices in any city centre are going to be sky high. If you can find somewhere on the city outskirts, you could end up paying a lot less. You can then use public transport to get you to the city centre.
Youth hostels are generally your best bet, although you can sometimes find basic hotels that are just as cheap. If you’ve brought a tent, you could save a huge amount by staying in a campsite outside the city. Cities such as Venice and Paris which are notorious for their high room rates are surrounded by campsites – many with shuttle services to the city. Even if you don’t like tents, you might be able to get a budget chalet.
You’re always best booking far ahead using a hotel comparison site such as Trivago. If you’re backpacking, try looking for hotels the night before and book ahead online – you may save a few dollars as opposed to booking there and then at the desk.
For really experiencing the culture, another option may be to use a site such as Homestay. These sites allow you to arrange to stay with a family who will then provide your accommodation and food and drink. Not only is this a great way of seeing how the locals live and getting local advice on what to see and do, it’s also likely to save you a lot money.
Volunteer experiences can also be another great option, allowing you free accommodation for doing some local work. In such cases, always research into visa laws to make sure that you have all the right documentation to legally work in that country.
Food and drink
Fine dining is often best reserved as a one off treat when in a city. You can sometimes find great budget restaurants in the backstreets. Prices however will always rise dramatically in any popular dining areas.
Street food can be a good option for saving money. Expensive cities such as London, Sydney, New York and Toronto all have a large range of markets that are great for getting good priced international cuisine. In third world countries, be careful of buying drinks from stalls – the water could be untreated and give you a bad stomach. Look for corner shop and supermarkets when buying drinks and check that the bottle cap is properly sealed.
If you have the means to cook your own food (if you’re staying in an apartment or a hostel with a shared kitchen), supermarkets and local shops can be a great place to buy food and save money. You’ll get to taste local produce and try new ingredients. In much of Europe, you’ll get bakery sections that can also be great for grabbing some lunch.
Buffet (or all-you-can-eat) restaurants can also be a great find. Not all cities around the world will have these.
When it comes to alcohol, drinking costs will almost always be higher in the city. The tax on alcohol is particularly high in countries such as Australia, Sweden and Norway. Backpacker hostels may have their own bars which are often the best places to get cheap alcoholic drinks. Supermarkets are also great for getting drinks at a reasonable price – you can bring them back to your hotel or hostel room. Drinking in high street bars and night clubs should be avoided – if you want to experience the nightlife you’re best of pre-drinking first. Even water in some superclubs can cost a few dollars.
Seeing the sights
When planning what to see in a city, the opportunities are endless. You’re best off always using a guide such as Lonely Planet to get an idea of the best things to do. There are now many video travel guides online which can be great for giving you a full taster. Review sites such as Trip Advisor are also recommended to save you wasting your money.
Buying tickets for attractions in advance is recommended not only for saving money but for skipping the queues at ticket booths. Museums and art galleries in some countries such as the UK, Australia and many cities in the US are free. Other countries such as France may have free admission to those under 26. However, in many other countries these attractions are still charged.
It’s well worth looking out for multi-passes where you may be able to visit multiple attractions at a discounted price. Travel leaflets and magazines may also sometimes include vouchers for certain attractions which could bring down costs.
If you’re going as a group you may also be able to take advantage of family deals and group discounts. In some cities this may only apply if you have kids. Also note that if you’re in the EU and visiting other EU countries, some cities such as Budapest or Rome may offer attraction discounts to other EU members.
Cities can be expensive to get around. Some such as Venice, Copenhagen and Singapore are heavily pedestrianized and you may find walking to be the best and only option. Other cities may be far too big to explore by foot, in which case public transport is necessary.
Some cities such as Sydney have great public transport deals that allow you to ride all trains, buses and ferries in the city centre. Such multi-pass deals are well worth looking out for but may not apply to all cities.
Generally speaking, taxis are the most expensive option and should be avoided (unless you’re having to get to and from an airport). Tuk Tuks are popular in many Asian cities such as Bangkok, Dehli and Colombo and can be a cheaper option to taxis. Some Tuk Tuk drivers may even offer guided tours of a city at a good price and you can often haggle to get the best deal.
Buses are often cheap but can be very slow. If you want to pack a lot of activities into one day, you could find yourself wasting a lot of hours on a bus. If you have no time constraints however these could be your cheapest option (in some cities such as Tokyo there are even free bus services).
Trains will vary in price from city to city. Many metro services are very reliable whilst overground trains can be less trustworthy. Trams in cities such as Amsterdam, Budapest and Rome can often be a more affordable option – slower but not as slow a bus services.
Driving in a foreign city is generally ill-advised. Some cities are notorious for being nightmarish to non-natives such as Naples, Athens and Mumbai due to their bad traffic and relaxed approach to the laws of the road. You then have parking restrictions and high fuel costs to consider.
For those on a roadtrip, in which driving is unavoidable, you’re best off parking up on the outskirts and taking local transport in. You may be able to find free parking here – backstreets and supermarket car parks are some of the best places to save your money in this regard. In Europe, Sundays may sometimes offer free parking.
Hiring an electric vehicle could be a way of keeping costs down and getting around the city by car. Cities such as San Francisco, London, Paris and Berlin may offer perks to electric vehicles users that could include free parking areas, free charging stations and use of bus/HOV lanes. Whilst you’re unlikely to do a roadtrip in an electric vehicle, they’re a lucrative rental option.
What to pack?
When it comes to weekending, travelling carry on only is the only way. Instead of spending money on unnecessary checked in luggage, loosing time at bag drop and then at the baggage carousel, travelling carry on only will have you through the airport and on your way, leaving you plenty of time to enjoy your weekend exploration. Click here for The Ultimate Weekend City Break Packing Guide.