RECESSION SPECIAL

Expensive Cities on the Cheap

Strategies for navigating notoriously pricey cities like Honolulu, London, New York, and Tokyo, along with unique experiences in each that won't cost you a penny.

By Tim Leffel, Monday, Oct 20, 2008, 2:18 PM

Big Ben and the London skyline
Big Ben and the London skyline (Goodshoot/Corbis)

The foot of Powell Street in San Francisco is a downtown transportation hub (Phil Coblentz/San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau)

LONDON
At about $5 for a pint and $8 for a single Tube ride, that London pub crawl is going to cost you. But London does have a better choice of hotels in all ranges than most other European capitals, and most of its fantastic museums are always free.

To find other bargains, go to the Budget section of Visit London for an exhaustive rundown of free attractions and performances, cheap eats, and inexpensive hotels. If you're only going to be in London a short time and plan on buying theater tickets, you can save a small fortune by booking a Theater Breaks package with tickets and a hotel stay. Be sure to get an Oyster card if you'll be using the Tube regularly; it cuts the ticket price down to a more bearable level.

Freebie Join a BBC show audience by reserving tickets for a TV-show taping—perhaps trivia with Brain of Britain or comedy with Grown Ups. Choose from a schedule of upcoming sessions and come ready to laugh or clap.

TOKYO
You know you're in trouble when half of the "affordable tips" section of Tokyo's website is devoted to ways to get from the airport to the city for under $40.

To find an affordable meal, eat at noodle stalls for under $10, or explore the unique Japanese culinary stop: the department store basement. Seibu Department Store in the Ikebukuro area is a destination in itself, with two giant underground floors of food stalls extending several city blocks. The prim uniformed greeters bow as you enter.

Book a free walking tour of the Shinjuku commercial avenue through the tourist office and you'll get the lay of the land from English-speaking volunteers.

Freebie Gape at the neon city below from the 45th-floor observatory of the Tokyo government skyscraper. For only-in-Tokyo views of another sort, stroll through the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market, otherwise known as the Tsukiji fish market. By either name it's the world's largest, with 1,400 stalls selling everything that moves in the ocean,as well as active auctions from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m.

NYC
New York City gets a bad rap mostly because of its sky-high hotel prices. But beyond hotel doors, NYC is teeming with cheap or free events and attractions all year long.

If you're around in the summer, look for free outdoor concerts in Bryant Park or during Central Park's SummerStage series. On Saturdays between 10 a.m. and noon and on Wednesdays, you don't pay to enter The New York Botanical Garden. Every day is free at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Museum at the Hispanic Society, and the National Museum of the American Indian, the latter housed in the beautiful original Custom House building.

One silver lining in the recent economic meltdown is that prices are leveling off and even falling a bit at many New York hotels. If you don't see a deal, try Hotwire and Priceline, where unbooked rooms go for a sizable discount. Also check BT's recommendations: New York Hotels at a Price That's Right.

Freebie Get a good look at the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline by taking a free cruise on the Staten Island Ferry. Join the commuters at dusk to watch the skyscrapers change as the sun goes down. There are also views of the Statue of Liberty from the Ikea Water Taxi, which makes the trip between Manhattan and Ikea's new location in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Tip: On the way there, sit on the starboard/right side as you're facing forward—and leave time to sample Ikea's take on Swedish meatballs.

MOSCOW
Expensive restaurants, pumped-up prices for foreigners at museums, and forgettable hotel rooms that can easily top $500 a night—what's not to like?

Fortunately, parks and gardens cover almost a third of Moscow, and it's easy to put together an interesting walking tour. Many guidebooks list routes that circle around the center, stop by all the historic churches, or explore the oldest section of the city, called Kitay gorod. If the weather isn't ideal, go underground. Moscow's metro stations are attractions of their own, impressive spaces alternately filled with mosaics, marble columns, and bronze statues. A one-way ride will cost you less than $1.

Avoid accommodations in the the pricey city center and instead find something near an outlying metro stop. You can reach the center within 30 minutes from almost any stop. If you're staying for a few days to a week or traveling with a group, renting an apartment is an option. You'll pay anywhere from $80 to $200 a night for a larger space with cooking facilities; browse cityrealtyrussia.com.

Freebie At Red Square, you'll find Lenin's Mausoleum, where His Waxiness has been embalmed since 1924. The line starts moving at 10 a.m.

PARIS
France is so popular that restaurants and hotels don't have to try very hard to stay full. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to save a euro besides sitting by the Seine eating baguettes and cheese.

The Vélib bike service launched in 2007. More than 20,000 bikes are kept in automated racks posted throughout the city, and the first half hour is free. Use your credit card if it has a smart chip; the chip is typically visible as a small gold or silver circuit board on the card. (some American Express cards, for example, will work.) Otherwise, you'll need to buy a seven-day ticket for €5 to access the system. Pick up a free Paris a Vélo map for routes and bike paths. Find out about more European bike-sharing programs here.

To get a good feel for the city on foot, join up with Sandeman's guided walking tour. The guides work for tips, so you simply pay what you think the tour is worth.

Freebie Marie Curie's laboratory? The home of Victor Hugo? Eau de toilette? All free. In the pedestrian-friendly Marais neighborhood, the Musée Cognacq-Jay is free—and so is the Centre Pompidou, if you can time your visit to the first Sunday of the month. The Fragonard Perfume Museum doesn't charge admission, and it won't cost you anything to visit the Cathedral of Notre Dame on your own.

OSLO
The whole of Scandinavia rivals Japan for eye-popping prices, and it's not easy to find a cheap place to sleep or eat in Oslo.

For $38 a day or less, you can use the Oslo Pass—sold at most hotels and at three tourist stations throughout the city—to control costs. It gives you entrance to 33 museums and attractions, unlimited public transportation, and a lunch cruise.

The city's Oslo on a Budget website provides tips on cheaper accommodations and places to eat well for less.

Freebie You don't have to go very far to find good public hiking and biking trails around Oslo, no fees required. There are an incredible 40 islands and 343 lakes within the city limits. An easy place to start is the central 80-acre Vigeland Sculpture Park.

HONG KONG
While expensive for business travelers trying to make the right impression, Hong Kong can be quite reasonable for regular tourists. Public transportation and basic restaurants are both a good value.

All government-run museums are free on Wednesdays, and other days the museum pass for seven major ones—good for a week—is around $4. Although it's good form to give a small donation, all of Hong Kong's temples are free.

You can set up your own sightseeing tour of Hong Kong for cheap. The double-decker trams only cost about 30 cents a ride. The half-mile-long series of covered escalators and walkways going up and down the steep hills between Central and Mid-Levels is free. Ride the Star Ferry to Kowloon and back for less than $1. Or take a ferry to a more remote island for hiking and beaches (less than $4).

Freebie Hong Kong's tourism board runs a wide variety of free culture classes in English. Learn the principles of feng shui one afternoon; then practice some moves with a tai chi master the next morning by the harbor.

LOS ANGELES
There's no getting around it: in L.A. you need a car and you'll put a lot of mileage on it. You're joining throngs of aspiring film and TV workers who are neither famous nor rich, so you can eat and have fun on the cheap if you know where to look.

Those in the know say L.A. has the best thrift shops in the U.S., and Hollywood estate sales turn up all kinds of goodies.

Cheap eats are plentiful: Try a double-double and a real milkshake from In-N-Out Burger, and stop by a taco stand for an authentic Mexican lunch.

For a quintessential L.A. experience, shell out $10 per person for a Sunday-night movie screening in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. You can bring a picnic dinner and a cooler of drinks—alcohol is permitted.

Freebie View the Hollywood sign and the city from the Griffith Observatory, or relive countless movie moments by admiring the sprawling city from nearby Mulholland Drive.

The beaches around L.A. are free and open to the public. Once you get north of Malibu to Zuma Beach and beyond, you can find free parking along the road.

HONOLULU
Let's see...take an isolated volcanic island chain in the Pacific and turn it into a tourist paradise full of golf courses and huge hotels. Only one problem: the costly long-distance shipping of everything but pineapples and poi.

Staying in a house or a condo with a kitchen helps. When stocking up on groceries, avoid the tourist centers and find a regular supermarket to save on your bill. Most restaurants in Waikiki are priced for tourists. To pay what the locals pay, head to Honolulu's Chinatown, order Hawaiian-style fast food from one of 24 Zippy's locations, or check out the Cheap Places to Eat in Oahu blog for ideas.

Freebie Learn to play the ukulele or dance the hula with free one-hour lessons at the Royal Hawaiian Center.

Get a free big-wave surf show between November and February by heading out of town and up to Oahu's North Shore. Many of the world's premier surfing competitions are held here, with waves that can swell to 30 feet.

SAN FRANCISCO
There's a lot to love about this city, but the dramatic hilltop vistas come with nosebleed prices for hotels and restaurants in prime areas.

The gap between expensive restaurants and cheap ethnic dives here is as wide as the San Francisco Bay. To eat great Chinese food on the cheap, avoid the spots decorated with pagodas and dragons, with waitresses in floor-length silk pajamas. Instead, find the alley spots away from tourist areas—the ones with Formica tables and a staff that barely speaks English. Z&Y Garden, Y. Ben House, and Hang Ah Tea Room are good places to start. Then next meal, hit one of the Mission District taquerias to stuff yourself as full as a burrito for $10 or so, drink included.

If you're traveling with a bike or in-line skates, you can move freely through the eastern half of Golden Gate Park on carless Sundays. Hiking trails in the hills of Berkeley and Oakland offer panoramic views of the whole area. You can also get some exercise and some interesting photo ops by strolling 1.7 miles (each way) across the Golden Gate Bridge.

The new CultureBus is $7 for an all-day unlimited pass, and it allows you to get on and off at many of the top museums and parks. Read more about it on our blog.

Freebie The volunteer San Francisco City Guides organization has been running walking tours for 30 years. Each day presents a menu of choices, like a "Bawdy and Naughty" tour of Gold Rush-era brothels and dives downtown or a tour of the famous Haight-Ashbury district.

ROME
Hotels and attractions in this popular European capital are jammed with tourists—especially in the summer—and eating out can make you say "Mama Mia!" when the check arrives.

On the other hand, getting around Rome by bus and metro is downright cheap: €4 for a one-day pass or €11 for a three-day tourist ticket (the BTI). Or just hop on the #40 express and get a scenic tour from the Vatican to Termini Station by way of the Forum, Piazza Venezia, and the Tiber River.

The Europeans love their bottled water, but that doesn't mean you have to shell out €2 or €3 for it every time you get thirsty. Buy yours at a supermarket instead, and refill it from one of the many public drinking fountains: the water's perfectly drinkable.

To eat well without breaking the bank, visit a pizza-by-the-slice place or a tavola calda (hot table) cafeteria, where you pick from a selection of meats and vegetables. If you manage to hit a bakery at closing time, you might luck out with a bag full of extra goodies thrown in gratis.

Freebie There are more than 20,000 pieces on display at the Numismatic Museum of the Italian Mint, where you can learn about evolving money-making techniques. Show your ID to obtain the free entrance pass. A free daily puppet show (granted, in Italian) at Park Gianicolo on Janiculum Hill has panoramic city views for a backdrop.

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