How to Save Money on Urban Travel

06.05.2010 In: Travel tips

Every urban travel experience is different, but the world's biggest cities share some common traits. Although it's true that big cities generally are more expensive to visit than less populous urban areas, you'll can find opportunities for savings if you know where to look. For example, big cities frequently offer you and your travel party safe, swift and inexpensive rides to the airport via mass transit options that aren't available in smaller towns. Take a look at a step by step approach to saving money on urban travel. These pictures and tips were captured in St. Louis, but they can be applied to any large city in the world.

Know the Dominant Budget Carrier in the Market

Urban travel frequently involves getting on an airplane. In St. Louis (where all of these examples were taken), you'll want to get a look at fares for Southwest Airlines. Frontier and America West might have some strongly competitive fares, too. Every big city has a few dominant budget carriers that serve at least one of the major airports. In Europe, look at for a quick directory of budget carriers in nearly 400 cities. In North America, a quick fare search on Kayak or some other search engine might not reveal budget carriers. It is best to check last-minute airfare pages here at Budget Travel.

Look for Airport Mass Transit

Not every large city offers light rail, a subway or commuter train that stops at the main airport. But you are likely to find these convenient, money-saving options in most big cities. This family is boarding a light rail train in the downtown area and will be stepping off this car at the main airport terminal about 30 minutes later. The cost is a small fraction of what a cab driver would charge to cover the 13-mile trip. Find the airport website that corresponds to your destination and look for mass transit options before you leave home. Note that in some cities, one major airport will be well served, while another will not. In almost any situation, you should be able to find bus service that will save you cash. Warning: if you arrive late at night, it's often safer to spend the extra money and take a cab.

Purchase One- or Two-Day Mass Transit Passes

Some who embark on urban travel adventures are satisfied to be using mass transit, knowing it saves money over cabs or car rentals. But don't be satisfied too easily. Many times, there are multi-day passes you can purchase that will save even more money. In most large cities, these passes can be purchased at automated ticket machines using a credit card. Note that the offers will vary widely from city to city. Read up on your favorite destinations to understand the current pass options and how they would match up with your itinerary.

Go with Opaque Pricing for Hotel Rooms

In large cities, finding an affordable room usually means staying miles from the city center (often near the noisy airport) or using opaque pricing techniques to find a downtown room. When you consider the added expense and time involved in staying on the perimeter, most urban travel specialists at least check to see what Priceline or Hotwire are offering in city center zones. Travelocity is now offering a limited opaque pricing option called Top Secret Hotels. Be sure you bid on a zone that works for your itinerary.

Avoid Overpriced Parking

This urban innkeeper offers a rare perk--free parking. In most large cities, you will pay dearly for the privilege of parking your vehicle in a hotel parking lot. Fees approaching $50/night are possible in cities like New York and San Francisco, where real estate is most expensive. But realize that you are also paying for convenience. Often, there is a city-run parking lot a few blocks away that charges less than half the price of what the hotels require. Don't walk eight blocks to park your car or risk a dangerous stroll late at night. But before check-in, it often pays to drive around the block for a few minutes and see if there is a metered space where parking is allowed overnight or a city garage.

Get Current Route Information

This street along the Mississippi River is inundated with Spring flood waters. It leads to one of St. Louis' most popular entertainment districts for tourists. The adjacent Laclede's Landing restaurants and shops were not closed, but getting to them required some alternate routes. Situations like this are a common pitfall of urban travel. Construction on a major highway bridge or a street closure can have profound impacts on your travel time and create traffic jams where they might not normally be expected. Check web pages for your destination's major newspaper or television stations. Type in "road construction" or "major detours" and you'll often pull up current, useful information.

Book Popular Attractions Early

Urban travel means visiting world-famous landmarks. In New York, you'll want to see Times Square, but you might also want tickets for a Broadway show. In St. Louis, many first-time visitors at least consider a trip to the top of the 600-foot Gateway Arch. On the afternoon this picture was taken, an arriving visitor expecting to ascend the Arch would have been disappointed. At such attractions, it is usually possible to purchase tickets online and print them at home, or have them waiting at a will call window. It's also possible to buy city passes that admit a visitor to a variety of popular attractions for one price.

Look for Cheap Seats

Many budget travelers will shy away from professional sports or major theatrical events, thinking the ticket prices are just too high. That's not always true. In some MLB cities, you can get "cheap seats" (sometimes referred to as "nose bleed" seats because they're so high off the ground) for under $20/person. If you spend two or three hours at the park, that's a fairly inexpensive evening of entertainment. Some cities also offer half-priced ticket brokers for theater and concert events. It pays to check for such opportunities. By the way, the cheapest ticket for a game at Busch Stadium is $19, but children pay as little as $7. In Cincinnati, you can see a game in the cheap seats for $5.

Enjoy Free Attractions

Urban travel can be expensive, so it's best to find free things to do. Even pricey Europe offers things to do for free. In most large cities, it's usually possible to find museums offering free admission or perhaps a free day at a fixed time each month. For example, the St. Louis Art Museum attracts about a half-million visitors each year and not one of them pays an admission fee to walk through the front doors. The same is true of the nearby St. Louis Zoo. Both sit in sprawling Forest Park and are subsidized so everyone can visit and learn. Even when you visit free facilities, be mindful of the fact that parking could cost you (at St. Louis Zoo, it's $11), and that certain special exhibitions might have an admission fee attached. By the way, it's always a nice gesture to make a small charitable contribution at free attractions if you can afford to do so.

Dine on Local Specialties

Experienced urban explorers know unexpected food costs are the ruin of many a travel budget. What's worse: many of those expensive meals are of the variety found in your hometown. If the first rule of dining is "don't spend too much," perhaps the second rule should be "don't eat ordinary meals every day." In St. Louis, a neighborhood known as "The Hill" is home to a variety of small Italian restaurants. These are not like the chain outfits that serve the same main course in 230 cities. Here you'll find charm and perhaps a price that's a bit higher than the chains are charging. But you'll also have a memorable experience that is tied to the geography and history of your destination. Read up on the culinary specialties of your urban destination and plan to sample them -- at reasonable prices. Another tip: stock up on certificates from These $25 coupons are often available for a fraction of that price. Check to be sure a variety of restaurants at your destination accept them.