Friday, May 29, 2009

How much does a weekend away cost?

Not as much as the editors at Real Simple magazine think. Hey, it's one of my favorite magazines, but this is another case where I think they miss (big) when talking about travel on a budget.

In the current issue, they've done a cost comparison of 24 hours in different U.S. cities (click on my pic here to see a bigger, readable version). They choose top-rated hotels and restaurants, but judging by the amounts listed, it appears that they're showing full fares, and no discounts. And that, as you can see for yourself, is a bit pricey.

Does that mean you have to stay in a fleabag motel on the edge of town to enjoy those cities in order to avoid dipping into whatever's left of your 401k? Absolutely not.

The first thing you need to do is acquaint yourself with a couple of websites, if you don't frequent them already: and Both offer deeply--and I do mean deeply--discounted rates to hotels all over the world. The prices on Hotwire will sometimes be a little better than, but the catch is that you have to pay up front for the hotel, and you also have to choose (mostly) blindly. It'll give you plenty of generic info about a hotel--whether it's a four-star, where in the city it's located, what the amenities are--but you won't be completely sure which hotel you're booking until you actually purchase the stay. If you study both sites closely after you've entered your search parameters, you can make a fairly educated guess which hotel (or three) you're getting, but if you don't care to live on the edge, then stick with so you know exactly what you're getting.

So, how big is the difference in rates? Try this on for size: for the Washington, DC outing, Real Simple shows a hotel rate of $479 per night at the Marriott at Metro Center. The same room bought through is just $228 per night--and that's the weekend rate; expect it to go down even more if you make the trip during the week. And if you browse through the offerings for our fine Capitol city, you'll find equally highly rated hotels for even less.

You get the idea. Never, ever pay what's called "rack rate" for a hotel room. A few minutes of internet searching will always turn up a better rate for you.

Okay, so we've got a sweet hotel room to crash in after a day of sight-seeing, but what about food? Oh, the options are almost endless--and don't think you have to drop $100 and up for a great meal. As long as you're online anyway doing your trip planning, check out the two best websites for restaurant recommendations and REALLY in-depth reviews: and Yelp is great for been-there-ate-that reviews; Chowhound is a hardcore foodie site, and will put you in touch with a community of people who know their restaurants. Try searching by city first, narrow it down by type of cuisine if you want, and if you don't find exactly the information you're looking for, post a thread with specific questions. Legions of foodies will come to your aid, and you'll have more insider restaurant info than you'll know what to do with.

Some general tips to keep in mind to keep costs down while dining out (and dining well):
  • Check around to find out which restaurants offer a prix fixe menu--that's a fixed-price menu, usually three or more courses, where you'll have your pick of a range of appetizers, entrees and desserts, and it's usually a bargain compared to ordering a la carte.
  • Don't be afraid to go the appetizers-in-lieu-of-entrees route; unless you're completely famished, you can probably fill up quite nicely on appetizers and a bread basket, and save a fortune on your tab.
  • If you want wine with dinner, call ahead to find out if the restaurant will allow you to bring your own wine, and if so, stop by a wine shop before heading to the restaurant and choose something nice (and within your budget). Wines at restaurants are generally marked up 100 percent (and sometimes more) over retail, per bottle, so you'll almost certainly save by buying your own bottle and then paying the corkage fee at the restaurant (usually $15-20).
And finally, don't feel that you have to have a white tablecloth under your plate to have a great meal. Use Chowhound to scout out the great ethnic restaurants wherever you're going. If that happens to be DC, you'll find just about anything your palate desires--neighborhoods in the Virginia suburbs known for their incredible Vietnamese cuisine, Chinatown, Ethiopian restaurants near Georgetown--and almost all of them are less expensive (sometimes greatly so) than the trendy, high-priced joints.

If you've scraped together even a tiny travel fund for the summer, you can still eat and sleep in style--just do a little homework first, and make sure you're getting the most for those precious travel dollars.


  1. OMG -- I love Real Simple, but I thought that was outrageous, too.

    I mean, I can have an awesome weekend in NYC (including staying at nice places) and spend WAY less.

  2. Brilliant! This is something to brag about. A low-cost weekend getaway. I believe having this kind of weekend just needs research and planning. We don't want to just have fun and spend a lot, but have fun while still saving. Thanks for the great tips. Will look forward to more amazing ideas in the future. Thanks for sharing!

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