How to Experience Expensive Cities on the Cheap

How to Experience Expensive Cities on the Cheap

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Budget-friendly travel doesn’t have to mean missing out on high-dollar destinations. Notoriously expensive cities such as Paris, London, New York, and Zurich attract all kinds of visitors throughout the year. If you have your heart set on visiting a pricey locale, there are several ways to experience it without a hefty budget.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way…!

Explore on the Cheap

Let’s say you spontaneously snag an amazing deal on a flight, only to panic with the onset of buyer’s remorse after the fact. Oy, who cares about the flight? How am I going to eat?!? Can I safely sleep on the street? What am I going to do there without going broke?

Or…perhaps you planned your trip a little more mindfully, but you’re still concerned about the overall cost of your trip in an expensive city. I’m no stranger to shades of buyer’s remorse or cautious concern, which is where my obsessive pre-planning shines. Plan A won’t work? Okay, well, let’s go to Plan B…or C. And so on and so forth.

The number one rule to keep in mind when exploring expensive cities on the cheap is to pre-plan. Pre-planning means that I am rarely without some kind of plan; it keeps me adaptable, present, and on my toes.

Pre-Plan for Expensive Cities

Budget-friendly travel is the name of the game for us! Brian and I love the affordable approach of many trips throughout the year rather than one or two big trips. Here is how we experience expensive cities on the cheap:

Carry Minimal Luggage

You’ll quickly find that traveling with multiple bags will cost you time, money, and extra effort. Whether you’re having to pay baggage fees, shell out for tips, or even arrange for transportation, there are all kinds of circumstances that end up costing you more in the long run. Minimal luggage can save you from expensive flights, lost or damaged baggage, or the overall hassle of lugging extra stuff around.


Research Accommodations

Try not to automatically resort to your tried-and-true accommodation preference. It pays to research alternative options. While hotel loyalty can pay off, it’s not always the most practical or affordable approach.

Explore hostels, private rooms, hotel rooms, and more on websites like Tripadvisor,, and Agoda. These websites can be used as a research tool to help you filter and find a stay. You can choose to book through these sites or use them as a search guide to contact hotels directly. Airbnb and VRBO are also great tools that can help narrow down an affordable accommodation.

If you’re a bit of a risk-taker, you can wait until last-minute to place a reservation. This works well especially for Airbnb and VRBO listings since the host usually would rather offer a discounted rate than have a listing sit vacant.

Choose a Place with Kitchen Access

…or a microwave at minimum! This budget-friendly tip helps curb the cost of pricey meals out and about. Brian and I favor booking accommodations with at least a refrigerator and microwave so that we can prep our own snacks or meals. It’s even more helpful if we pick place that includes breakfast!

Swing by a Grocery Store

Pick up snacking essentials, browse local selections, and enjoy a meal or two courtesy of the neighborhood grocery store. We love stocking up on groceries – and not just because it’s much cheaper than dining out. It’s also a fun way to check out the local community and try different things.

Use Paid Services as a Guide for DIY Tours

While there are some tours worth paying for (lookin’ at you, food tours abroad!), others can be done on your own. The internet is your friend here! Check out different forums, websites, and other online guides to determine if you can put together your own itinerary and tour. Brian and I have saved hundreds of dollars by using ideas and itineraries from paid tours.

I recommend using your best judgment. Not everyone has fun with putting together their own tours. It depends on the type of traveler you are; you might prefer and value paying for tour services. Keep this in mind as you pre-plan your trip. Also, it’s important to be mindful of the local community and its efforts in preserving culture and history. Some tours and activities are well worth the paid rate, especially when they support the community.

Refrain from Dining in Tourist Traps

If you are looking for a quick way to drop some cash, then it’s really easy to do so in a touristy restaurant. The menu reflects the prices tourists are willing to pay. You can guess how this works in expensive cities! Dining out in popular areas is a sure-fire way to make a serious dent in your travel budget.

Instead, find out where the locals frequent for a more affordable (and genuine!) experience. Brian and I are more partial to hole-in-the-wall spots, though that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Still, there are plenty of other dining options in expensive cities that will fit your budget and fill your appetite.

Be Selective About Where You Splurge

Create a category for splurging within your budget. Earmark it for a special dinner, activity, or simply for whatever speaks to you. The key is that this category is defined with a limit. If you’re selective about where you splurge, then you can anticipate it without fear of going over budget.

Use Public Transportation and Walk

Expensive cities tend to have efficient transportation infrastructures. Avoid the added expenses of a car rental and parking fees by exploring the city on foot.

Utilize Military, First Responder, and Student Discounts

If the above applies to you, keep in mind that many hotels, tours, restaurants, and more offer discounts. If you’re unable to locate this information, don’t be afraid to ask!

Explore Obscure, Low-Cost Entertainment

Expensive cities will undoubtedly present you with a multitude of must-see and must-do activities. And guess what? You don’t have to do these things if you don’t want to.

I think that the idea of travel can be stressful sometimes, especially if you’re the kind of person to want to pack each day to the brim. The travel-planning and subsequent trip can feel more like a checklist rather than an experience. It’s helpful to remind yourself that there’s no need to experience every clich√© touristy activity if you’re not that into it.

Take some time to truly consider what interests you and where you would find value. Check out Airbnb Experiences or Withlocals to see if local hosts offer unique experiences that better align with your interests and budget. Aside from the online community, you can always explore the local community around you. Pop into a public library, cultural center, or visitors center to learn about low-cost (and free!) attractions, events, and activities during your visit.

A Worthwhile Experience

Expensive cities can drain a traveler’s wallet in an instant. With a thoughtful budget and careful planning, you can have a trip of a lifetime on the cheap…even in an expensive city. Make your travels worthwhile.

Is there really any sense in visiting an incredible destination only to be holed up in a cheap hotel room or surviving off of ramen just because you’re trying to save money? If you’re traveling, you might as well enjoy the experience!

What other ways can visitors explore expensive cities on the cheap?

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