How to Keep Costs Down When Visiting a Big City

Visiting a big city for a holiday is always exciting simply because there's so much to see and do. However, pricey hotels, restaurants and attractions can make travelers think twice about that kind of vacation.

If you're looking to visit a big city this year but want to keep costs down, you can do so with a little bit of advance planning. There are savings to be had right from plane tickets to food but you have to know where to look for them. 

Tourists in NYCCredit: Guian Bolisay, on Flickr

The following tips come from years of travel for business and leisure either alone or with my family so I've now got my money saving methods down to a fine art. They're specifically meant for holidays in big cities but a few of these tips are good for other kinds as well.


1. Research Budget Airline Options

Most people know about Southwest Airlines in the U.S. and Ryanair in Europe but few know that there are many more budget airlines to choose from in every region in the world. The main reason is that most airline aggregate websites don't list them when you do a search through them.

Ryanair and WizzAirCredit: Mark Harkin, on Flickr -

So, how do you know which budget carriers fly in and out of a particular city?[2] lets you see select any city in Europe with one or more airports and then lists all cities it connects to with every available carrier. For North American cities, About's Budget Travel page[1] is a good resource. For other regions like Asia, you'll have to do a little bit of extra digging but it's well worth the effort. A few major carriers offer heavy last minute discounts, so be sure to check those as well.

One thing you have to be aware of is that most of these airline tickets only include the simple airfare with one carry on bag allowed on board and no meals. Some don't assign seats. If you want to check in luggage, include food or ensure that the entire family sits together, that's extra that you'll have to shell out, so to really take advantage of low fares you must be willing to accept a no-frills experience.


2. Be Flexible with Hotel Bookings or Use Holiday Rental Sites

It's easy to find an amazing deal on a hotel room when you use traditional booking engines until you find that that "amazing location" description hides the fact that the hotel is an hour out of the heart of a city and a pain to get to. If you like to have basic comforts like an attached bathroom and a decent location within the city, try using a service like Priceline. You won't know which hotel you're getting but you can be assured of its general location, amenities, and overall standard. This opacity means that you can get a room of really great value that's situated where you want to be - something that's otherwise nearly impossible in cities like New York or Tokyo!

Welcome MatCredit: Mitra Sahara, on Flickr - other good option that's gaining popularity and ardent devotees is the holiday rental. AirBnB is the most well known worldwide and my favorite. While some travelers might feel like it's risky staying at an independent place, there are ways to ensure your safety when using these peer-to-peer rental engines. AirBnB lets you thoroughly vet a homeowner if you want to. If you pick a place with lots of positive traveler reviews, you're in good shape. Because these home owners have to keep up a good reputation in order to get steady business, many of them will go above and beyond to provide you with a wonderful place to stay hoping that you'll leave them a glowing review after you leave.

While you rarely get breakfast or room cleaning included, the lower cost will still get you more space and at least a basic kitchen if you book an entire apartment or home. Many even have laundry facilities within the home - a boon when you're travelling for more than a few days and don't want to cart around lots of luggage or pay astronomical hotel laundry charges.

Another advantage with holiday rentals is that you often get an authentic feel of the city because hosts will give you valuable local insight and tips that hotel concierges cannot. If you want to know about less touristy things to do, the host is the person to ask.


3. Save on Food Costs by Sampling Street Food or Picnicking

Eiffel Tower PicnicCredit: Alex Thomson, on Flickr - having good meals out is a given while traveling, restaurant meals in big cities can empty out your wallet pretty quickly. For example, sitting down to eat in any Scandinavian restaurant can make your eyes water. To save on food costs try street food if you can. While big cities in the U.S. have finally latched on to the food truck concept, street food has been around for centuries in other parts of the world. The food is authentic and cheap and contrary to popular opinion, it's safe to eat if you see a stall that's crowded.

You could also visit the neighborhood grocery store to pick up some fresh ingredients to make a simple but delicious meal yourself. This option is really easy if you stay at a vacation rental with a small kitchen. If you have kids, they'll appreciate having a relaxed night in after a long and tiring day out. Or you can could rustle up a few sandwiches for lunch and find a pleasant spot in a park or a square where you can people watch. The food will taste just as delicious as a gourmet meal!


4. Dine Where the Locals Dine and Buy Restaurant Coupons Ahead of Time

CouponsCredit: Carol Pyles from, on Flickr - big city has its chain restaurants clogging up the main tourist areas and then you also have independent restaurants charging unsuspecting tourists astronomically high prices for average food. The smart thing to do is to venture a little bit off the beaten path to little mom and pop places where you'll see the locals feasting. You may not be able to get menus in English here but the authenticity of the dishes and lower prices more than make up for it.

Another thing you could do is try to get your hands on restaurant coupons. The Entertainment book for many cities in North America has them but you can also try the website where you can pay a lot less for vouchers worth a lot more at participating restaurants. This website shows a list of top rated and popular ones so you know the food will be good. Of course, this means you have to plan some of your meals ahead of time and travel to those locations if you're not already in the vicinity. 


5. Buy City Passes or Look for Discount Coupons to Attractions

If you're spending quite a few days in the city and want to see lots of major sights in the city, it can quickly become quite expensive, especially if you have kids. While many European cities admit children for free, tickets are only priced lower in many other parts of the world.

Tourist PassCredit: Ania Mendrek, on FlickrThis is when buying a tourist pass makes sense. It won't save you money if you can only visit 2 to 3 attractions during your trip, but any more than that and it will be cheaper than buying separate tickets to each place. In addition, some cities have an official pass that includes some local bus and subway travel. What all these passes have in common is that you can skip the long queues to enter. In cities like Paris and Rome we're talking about more than an hour during tourist season. 

The all-inclusive CityPass for any of North America's biggest cities includes admission to most major attractions and you can see them all leisurely as they are valid for nine consecutive days from the time of first use. You'll save big and avoid long entrance queues. The Paris Pass can be purchased for a specific number of days and includes a Hop-on-Hop-off tour, unlimited rides on the metro and buses and a guide book. The London Pass includes all of the above except for the tour. All these passes can be shipped to you or you can print out the e-mailed voucher and pick up the passes at the first attraction you visit. 

If you only want to visit a few attractions but also want to save on restaurant meals, check to see if there is a coupon book available for the city. The most popular one is and it includes coupons on just about anything you'll need.


6. Check for Free Days and Visit Free Sights

Some cities like London and Rome have lots of free attractions, so it makes sense to spend more time seeing those and only include in your itinerary a few places where you have to pay. 

Many cities generally have a day each month when museums are free to visit. Some cities even dedicate a whole free weekend at certain times of the year for special cultural days. Be warned that on these days crowds will be larger so it may be wise to schedule less popular sights for those days.


7. Skip the Car and the Hotel Parking Fees

London UndergroundCredit: Grand Parc - Bordeaux, France, on Flickr - only can navigating the streets of a new city be bewildering, but paying for parking is one of the worst ways to spend your money. Most big city hotels charge for parking and finding a free spot for your car near an attraction is next to impossible.

Most big cities in Asia and Europe have an efficient, convenient and reasonable mass transit system and you can get to almost anywhere within the city. Of course, if you're a family of 4 or more, it may be cheaper to use cabs.

If you absolutely have to drive, at least look for a city-run public garage near your hotel where the fees will be lower than at the hotel.


8. Get Mass Transit Passes

You may feel pleased with yourself if you manage to go about using only the local metro or buses, but you shouldn't stop there. Get a mass transit pass that includes multiple number rides on either or both forms of public transport. Some cities offer a tourist transport pass that gives you an unlimited number of rides for a fixed number of days. Some of these passes may even include transport to and from the airport if this option is available. Be careful to check that cities with multiple airports have a subway line or bus servicing the airport that you'll be using.


9. Shop in the Cheaper Cities and Stay Away from Tourist Shopping Centers

Shopping in IstanbulCredit: Jorge Franganillo, on Flickr - you're visiting multiple cities during your trip, save most of your shopping for the cheaper cities. Except for a small souvenir picked up in Paris, you'll find cheaper things to buy as gifts to take home in cities like Istanbul. 

Souvenir shops charging a bomb for tacky items still manage to do brisk business but you can find great bargains if you venture off the beaten path. Ask locals for tips on where to shop and what to buy.


10. Carry Anti-theft Bags

This is not so much a tip for saving money as it is for keeping your money safe. Tourists are usually magnets for pickpockets anyway but it's more common to find your valuables missing in some European and Asian cities. The subway and crowded tourist attractions are notorious for this so you can take a few precautions, like being alert to your surroundings and wary of strangers brushing past. In addition, get an anti-theft handbag or backpack to carry your belongings while going about. The lockable zippers and hidden mesh lining are good deterrents to petty theft.


Travelon Anti-Theft Flap Front Shoulder Bag, Black, One Size
Amazon Price: $65.00 $45.22 Buy Now
(price as of Nov 17, 2014)
This anti-theft bag features a lockable main compartment, anti-slash mesh lining and an RFID-blocking card pocket so you don't have to worry about your belongings while sightseeing.

If you're city hopping, try to make do with just a carry on backpack

eBags Mother Lode TLS Weekender Convertible
Amazon Price: $200.00 $89.99 Buy Now
(price as of Nov 17, 2014)
This very popular carry on backpack weighs under 4 lbs and has organizational features like an upright bag, including a padded laptop compartment. It's a great option when you have to carry your luggage while walking over cobblestones from a subway station to your hotel.