International Budget Guide 2013: Oaxaca, Mexico

If you are seeking an authentic and affordable taste of Mexico, look no further than Oaxaca.

The southwestern Mexican city has come a long way since the political protests of 2006, where non-violent activists clashed with corrupt government officials and militia in the streets. The protests led to a renewed sense of self-awareness and confidence for the city, and today, Oaxaca is once again a safe and welcoming place for tourists. The city boasts a strong cultural heritage, exciting contemporary art scene and deserved place as the gastronomic capital of Mexico. Central Oaxaca’s colonial buildings and cobblestoned streets have earned the historic district a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, and its many monuments are being spiffied up for the World Congress of World Heritage Cities, which the city will host in November.

Along with the old, there is also the new. Oaxaca’s universities imbue the city with a spirit of youth, creativity and entrepreneurial energy. In addition to the traditional markets and restaurants, there are plenty of exciting start-up businesses as well: affordable pop-up restaurants, yoga studios, mezcal tasting libraries and city cycling associations, to name a few.

Visitors to Oaxaca find a cultural experience that can’t be found in over-touristed resort towns like Cancun and Cabo. It is very much a city on the verge.

Budget Activities

The Zocalo: The historic Zocalo, bordered by the governor’s palace and main cathedral, can provide hours of people-watching entertainment. You could spring for a drink at one of the dozens of restaurants lining the plaza, or just buy a 10 peso (US$1.10) corn-on-the-cob and grab a park bench. Either way, there’s plenty to keep you busy in Oaxaca’s most famous plaza. On one side, activists protest peacefully for a change in government. On the other, small children push oversized balloons high into the air. And between, Oaxacans from all walks of life converge. It’s the true heart of the city. Between Hidalgo, Trujano, Flores Magon and Bustamente Sts.

Monte Albán: These ruins just outside Oaxaca once comprised one of Mesoamerica’s earliest and most important cities, said to be founded in 500 B.C. The impressive Main Plaza contains hundreds of carved stone monuments, with curious etchings that were once thought to be dancers, but are now believed to be tortured war prisoners. You can easily book a guided tour to Monte Alban from the dozens of tour offices across the city, but a cheaper option is to take the 50 peso (US$4) round-trip tourist shuttle from the Hotel Rivera del Angel, which departs every hour between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. http://www.hotelriveradelangel.com Calle Fransisco Mina 518

Bicycle Night Rides: Experience Oaxaca on two wheels by joining one of Mundo Ceiba’s “Paseos Nocturnos en Bicicleta” – nighttime bike rides sponsored by a local cycling association. The rides take place every Wednesday and Friday starting at 9 p.m., with meeting points in front of the Santo Domingo Church and on Macedonio Alcalá in the city center. Bicycles are available for rent between 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. at Mundo Ceiba’s headquarters at The Hub Oaxaca; bring 50 pesos (US$4) and prepare to leave your passport as a deposit. Quintana Roo 2011

Hotels

Hotel Azul Oaxaca: With 21 guest rooms designed by local contemporary artists, the stunning Hotel Azul Oaxaca is a concept boutique hotel aiming to combine art, design and comfort. The standard rooms are chic and clean, but the real treasures are the suites, like the minimalist Suite Dubon, the playful Suite Leyva and the geometric Suite Villalobos. If you’ve always sought a high-design hotel experience at an accessible price, this is your place. From US$130. http://www.hotelazuloaxaca.com Abasolo 313, Centro

Hotel Casa del Soltano: Housed in a historic colonial building, Hotel Casa del Soltano is a solid budget option that oozes Oaxacan charm, with its colorful yellow exterior, lush gardens and rooftop terrace overlooking the nearby Plaza Santo Domingo. The rooms are a bit cramped, but the outdoor ambience more than makes up for it. From 770 pesos (US$62). http://www.mexonline.com/sotano.htm Tinoco y Palacios 414, Centro

Hostal Casa del Sol Oaxaca: This charismatic hostel offers private rooms and dormitories – without the teenagers and tequila shots. Casa del Sol’s centerpiece is a bougainvillea-shaded courtyard that is perfect for enjoying a casual drink with fellow travelers. Its warm and welcoming atmosphere has earned it legions of glowing reviews and a spot on TripAdvisor’s list of top 25 Mexican bargain hotels for 2013. Dorms from 160 pesos (US$13), private rooms from 450 pesos (US$36). http://www.hostalcasadelsol.com.mx Constitucion 301, Centro

Eat & Drink

La Biznaga: Oaxaca’s artistic community regularly converges in the courtyard of La Biznaga, a popular restaurant serving creative, upscale Oaxacan fare. Chef Fernando López Velarde embraces the slow food movement, and he makes regular use of locally sourced ingredients. Prices are comparatively high but a bargain by American standards; expect to pay about US$20 a head for a multi-course dinner. Don’t miss the fried squash blossom appetizer, which pairs perfectly with the bar’s inventive mezcal cocktails. 512 García Vigil, Centro

Itanoni: The focus is on the corn at Itanoni, a humble eatery about a 15-minute walk from central Oaxaca. The restaurant specializes in tapas-style dishes featuring its famous house-made tortillas, made fresh in front of you from different varieties of local, organic, stone-ground corn. Alice Waters, the godmother of America’s farm-to-table movement, calls it her favorite restaurant in the city. Belisario Dominguez 513

El Olivo: The second-floor bar above the Meson del Olivo is a fixture on Oaxaca’s happy hour scene. Dark but atmospheric, it features an extensive selection of beers from local microbreweries, as well as a solid wine list and the requisite mezcal cocktails. The 100 peso (US$8) happy hour includes four small tapas and a beer or glass of wine. Murguia 218, Centro

Logistics

Get Around: The historic center of Oaxaca is very walkable, and it’s unlikely that you’ll require additional transport if you stay in the city. Oaxaca’s bus system is a safe and convenient option for inter-city jaunts. Buses are clearly and colorfully labeled with their destinations, and standard fare is 6 pesos (US$.50 – try to carry exact change). Taxis are also a decent option, but be sure to negotiate the fare before hopping inside. A ride within central Oaxaca shouldn’t cost more than 50 pesos (US$4), though fixed fares from the airport are significantly more expensive. Expect to pay upwards of 200 pesos (US$16) for the 20-minute ride into town.

Seasonality: Oaxaca’s southern location and high elevation provide it with pleasant temperatures year-round. Peak visitor season is from October to March, but it is also worth making a trip in late July for the famous Guelaguetza folk festival, with attracts cultural performers from across the region.

Safety: Oaxaca is a relatively safe place for visitors, particularly compared to other Mexican cities that have reputations for drug-related violence. However, you should still heed the precautions you would take in any Latin American city. Keep your belongings close to you, don’t flaunt expensive jewelry and be careful about walking alone at night.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user MichaelTyler]

Budget Guide 2013: Brooklyn

The days of visiting New York City and staying solely in Manhattan are over. Although the city’s center borough has earned its fame, there’s a new New York in town: Brooklyn. It’s true that many neighborhoods in Brooklyn have already gentrified rapidly, but there are still far more budget-friendly neighborhoods in the borough than not. The collective desire to keep expenses down still exists in Brooklyn and from that demand stems the economically sensible result: Brooklyn is still a treasure box of unbelievable deals, but this fades every year. So strike while the iron is hot and hop on the train over to the vibrant borough of Brooklyn, where each neighborhood brings something new and the bargains are many, no matter the area.

Hotels

The Nu Hotel: With four locations in Brooklyn, The Nu Hotel is an increasingly popular choice for budget accommodations in Brooklyn. With attractive and simple design, this boutique hotel is loft-inspired and even offers use of their new 2012 Brooklyn Cruiser bikes. The hotel’s general manager will even guide you on a jog across the Brooklyn Bridge on Tuesday mornings, which for first-timers is a must. To keep the Brooklyn theme going strong, the art on the walls is done by local artists – including some of the rooms featuring murals. From $160. nuhotelbrooklyn.com 85 Smith StreetHotel Le Bleu: Located on the border of Park Slope and Gowanus, this neighborhood is easily walkable with plenty of options for dining, drinking, shopping, recreation, arts and general nightlife. Accented in blue, as it should be, Hotel Le Bleu offers a clean and crisp modern design with complimentary breakfast and parking. For a quick drink and live music nearby, check out The Bell House. From $111. hotellebleu.com 370 Park Avenue

Union Hotel: Union is also located in the well-developed and charming neighborhood of Park Slope on the border of artsy Gowanus. The rooms are admittedly small, but they come with relatively comfortable beds, working air conditioning and a decent breakfast. Minimalist style makes the limited space less stuffy. The Brooklyn Flea, which is still pretty new to the area, is just 10 blocks from this hotel. Although this hotel sees its share of negative Yelp reviews, fans of the place can’t seem to stop raving about the comparatively low price. From $79.
unionhotelbrooklyn.com 611 Degraw Street

Eat and Drink

Tacos Matamoros: If you’re craving incredibly well-reviewed and unbelievably cheap tacos, grab the N or R train to 45th street in Brooklyn (or just take the N or D express to 36th street and walk to save time) to try out the food at Tacos Matamoros in Sunset Park, where you can still get a decent taco for $1.25. Types of tacos even include lengua and chorizo and they come garnished with cilantro, radish, chopped onion, lime and their own special sauce. While you’re in the area, check out the park in Sunset Park (mentioned below) and grab a coffee at the Green Fig Bakery Café, which has a great sandwich, baked goods selection and new owners, as of late 2012, who continue to enhance the place.
4508 5th Avenue

Foodswings: Located in Williamsburg, Foodswings is a saving grace for vegans and vegetarians as well as meat-eaters who aren’t afraid of soy. Unlike so many other animal-free restaurants everywhere, especially in NYC, Foodswings is good for budgeting vegetarians craving fast, comfort food staples. You won’t find a lot of fresh veggies here, but you will find a $3.50 vegan corn dog available even late at night. For some handmade imported goods ranging from books and housewares to jewelry, finger puppets and other little treasures, check out the nearby Fuego 718. foodswings.net 295 Grand Street

Christie’s Jamaican Patties: Christie’s Jamaican Patties, which is between the friendly and easily navigated neighborhoods of Park Slope and Prospect Heights, offers widely acclaimed patties with Caribbean flavor. For just $2 a pop, you can get patties in beef, veggie, chicken, meatloaf, coco bread, callaloo loaf and patty coco bread.
christiesjamaicanpatties.com 387 Flatbush Avenue

Budget Activities

Brooklyn Botanic Garden: If you’re feeling a little blue because of the lack of green in New York, visit Brooklyn’s Botanic Garden for a strong dose of nature’s beauty. Go on a Tuesday and your admission is free. Admission is also free on Saturdays between 10 a.m. and noon. The Garden has only just recovered from the substantial damage from Hurricane Sandy. The massive effort to restore the prized outdoor space established a strengthened sense of community. For some great drinks and affordable Mexican before or after the Garden, drop into one of my favorite places in Brooklyn, Chavela’s.
bbg.org 1000 Washington Avenue

Sunset Park: For one of the best free views of Manhattan, climb the stairs of Sunset Park and enjoy. With new restaurants, bars and other hang-out spots popping up all over the neighborhood, your journey to the park will help you fit a good walk in after eating and drinking at one of the new neighborhood hotspots. Get to Sunset Park by taking the N or D train (both express) to 36th street.
nycgovparks.org/parks/sunsetpark 41-44 streets

Brooklyn Crab: The newly opened Brooklyn Crab in Red Hook is a go-to spot for multilayered fun. With an 18-hole, mini-golf course and cornhole available for just a $5 entrance fee, Brooklyn Crab also offers a full menu featuring a wide range of crabs and other seafood.
brooklyncrab.com 24 Reed Street

Get Around

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) isn’t without its flaws, but it does the trick in getting you all around the New York City area via train and bus for a low fee. A single subway ride is $2.25. Although the MTA sadly doesn’t offer 1-Day Unlimited Ride MetroCards anymore (formerly referred to as a Fun Pass), you can still get a 7-Day Unlimited Pass for $29, which will save you tons in New York, even over the course of just a couple days if you plan on using the train a lot.

From LaGuardia airport, take the NYC Airporter, a shuttle bus that stops at Grand Central and Penn Station for $13 per trip. Manhattan can also be accessed through the M60 bus and several Q bus lines available from the airport stretch across Queens. For Brooklyn, it’s easiest to take one of the buses to a subway stop – the M60 stops at the Astoria Blvd. N/Q train station. Brooklyn and Manhattan can easily be accessed through the A from John F. Kennedy Airport while Queens can be accessed through the E or J/Z line. The NYC Airporter also makes trips from JFK every 30 minutes for $16.

Alternatively, you can pedal your way through your NYC trip. Bike rentals and bike shares are easy enough to come by in the city for around $40 a day. But more than anything else, New Yorkers take the cheap route and walk. Prepare to walk at least 5-10 miles a day if you’re going to be exploring the city and always wear comfortable shoes. Ladies: if you’re adamant on wearing stilettos, stash them in your purse until you get to your fancy destination.

Budget Tip

If you’re trying to save on expensive tickets to museums and art performances, by all means, pay attention to the art in the subways, parks and streets. Too often New Yorkers and travelers alike rush by these artists, dismissing them before giving them a chance. Don’t do that. Watch the boys breakdancing and risking their necks on your subway train. Listen to the musicians playing on the subway platform. Take a minute to look at the art all around you. Brooklyn is bursting with creative people who just want to share their talent. Allow them to share it with you, whether you’re in the park or the train, and do so with an open mind. The spare change or dollars you give to street and subway performers won’t leave much of a dent in your wallet, but it will help to keep them doing what they’re doing: offering their talent to anyone in New York interested enough to slow down.


Budget Guide 2013: San Francisco

san francisco
San Francisco has a well-deserved reputation for being expensive, but that’s not to say you can’t enjoy it to the fullest on a budget. The joy of this compact, walkable city is that you don’t need your own transportation. Remember, though, that food is the soul of San Francisco. That means loads of pop-up restaurants, street food, food trucks, farmers markets and ethnic bites for cheap. The cultural and multi-ethnic focus of the city also means there’s no shortage of art exhibits, festivals and parades, many of which are inexpensive or free.

The number one thing to do on the cheap? Walk! San Francisco is one of the world’s great strolling cities, with dozens of hidden stairways, garden walks, parks, narrow streets and bay views. There are even books devoted to the subject. If you want more of a historical, architectural or culinary focus, spring for an affordable walking tour of specific neighborhoods. Tip: If your feet are tired from all that trudging, one of the city’s best deals is the 60-minute “foot” massage – which includes head, neck, shoulders, back, arms and legs – at Delightful Foot Massage on Polk Street. And yes, it’s a reputable place.

If the weather is cooperating, take the ferry from Pier 41 to Angel Island ($17) and hike to a picnic spot (everything you need for lunch is right there; more on that in a minute). Since this is San Francisco, though, there’s a distinct possibility of crappy weather. No problem – hit the city’s plethora of museums or the Exploratorium (the latter is a must if you have kids with you). Most have free days. Check here for listings.

The way locals prefer to pass the time? Eating! Great food of almost every imaginable ethnic persuasion is so readily available in San Francisco. You can graze your way through the day for less than the cost of a mid-range dinner. Not hungry? Linger over a cup of exceptional – try Four Barrel in The Mission, and don’t forget a Bacon-Maple-Apple donut for later – and a good book. Used bookstores abound nearby.

Hotels

San Francisco has loads of scuzzy motels, but there are plenty of great places to stay, from hostel to boutique, that won’t bankrupt you. Avoid the depressing youth hostels located on sketchy side streets off of Union Square, the main shopping district, and the sad little motels in the Tenderloin (although there are some pleasant exceptions). For a little bit extra, you can have a more secure, peaceful and cleaner place to lay your head. Tip: Lombard Street just off the Golden Gate Bridge/101 is jammed with motels, most of which are decent, and usually offer parking – a precious commodity.

Fisherman’s Wharf Hostel at Fort Mason: This ain’t no ordinary, janky hostel. Situated in the historic waterfront buildings at Fort Mason, this attractive property with a cool, vintage nautical vibe straddles the border of the Wharf and Marina (which has a glorious green for strolling, kite-flying and soccer playing, as well as a beach). Dorm beds and private rooms provide wallet-friendly accommodations for all types, from young backpackers to older couples. There’s a free continental breakfast; clean, attractive rooms and airy common areas; loads of discounts and activities on offer; and a location that can’t be beat for views and convenience. From $28. sfhostels.com/fishermans-wharf 240 Fort Mason

Casa Loma Hotel: This sweet, 48-room, Euro-style hotel is centrally located in Alamo Square. The clean, spare rooms have a Scandinavian, modern aesthetic that gives off a hip IKEA vibe. Close to the park and famed “Painted Ladies” houses (think: title sequence of “Full House”). From $65 standard/shared bath.
casalomahotelsf.com 610 Fillmore Street

Hotel Des Artes: This swank, modern art hotel, a block off Union Square, is decorated with the current works of local artists. The special “Painted Rooms” are all unique (literally, the walls are murals) by emerging global artists, while standard rooms feature washbasins with shared baths. Seekers of San Francisco’s modern Boho scene will feel right at home at this kaleidoscopic boutique property. From $79.
sfhoteldesarts.com 447 Bush Street

Hotel Diva: Describing itself as, “sexy, modern, and fresh from a facelift,” this Union Square boutique hotel reopened last June. And it’s indeed seductive, from the gray and white color scheme with violet accents, to the sleek modernist trappings. Think the “W” with SF flair: nightly sake hour, fitness center, dog friendly and on the fringe of the rapidly hipsterfying Tenderloin. From $140 deluxe Queen.
hoteldiva.com 440 Geary Boulevard

Eat and Drink

Farmers Markets: You’re in Northern California, birthplace of the modern local food movement. That means year-round farmers markets, the most famous of which is the massive, Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on the Embarcadero (there are also smaller Tuesday and Thursday markets). Hit the market by 10 a.m., before the swarms arrive, and snack your way through the stalls. The Embarcadero itself has undergone a major renovation in recent years; it’s safe day or night, and populated with art installations and trendy cafes and restaurants. It’s also an ideal place for a long, bayside stroll or run on a sunny day.

The Ferry Building is a concentration of farmer- and artisan-owned shops featuring everything from estate olive oil to certified humane meat. Tip: Plan on buying a late breakfast or early lunch at the market. Top picks are the porchetta sandwich at Roli Roti’s stall (get there early or go hungry), anything from La Primavera’s stall, or a sit-down brunch at Boulette’s Larder in the Building (not served on Saturdays). If it’s oysters you want, hit Hog Island’s Raw Bar at the far end of the main hall. Then go stock up on edible souvenirs from Cowgirl Creamery, Miette (pastry), McEvoy Ranch and Recchiuti Confections.
ferrybuildingmarketplace.com One Ferry Building

Off the Grid: Every Friday from 5 to 8 p.m., a fleet of the city’s best food trucks arrives at Fort Mason, down in the Marina. Up to 40 sweet and savory vendors may appear on a given night, featuring street food as creative, multi-culti and adventurous as only San Francisco would have it. There’s music, views of the bay, Golden Gate and Alcatraz, and a seriously local vibe – this isn’t a tourist attraction. It’s simply a raucous, joyous, festival of flavor, San Fran-style. offthegridsf.com

Go Ethnic: Between the Asian restaurants of the Sunset and Richmond Districts (locals know better than to eat in Chinatown) to the diverse ethnic dives of the Tenderloin, you can indulge your inner glutton for less than a ten-spot. Best of all, adventurous eaters have almost every style of cuisine to choose from, as well as menus that boast authenticity (frog legs or sea cucumber, anyone?) Some of the best: Brother’s Korean and King of Thai Noodle on Clement Street (I don’t know why, but this is the only location that does it for me); Wing Lee Bakery and Burma SuperStar (Inner Richmond); and Shalimar, Pakwan, Turtle Tower and Osha Thai (Tenderloin).

The Mission: If you love Latin flavors, you won’t need to venture beyond this Hispanic neighborhood, where you’ll find excellent everything, from El Salvadorean to Peruvian. But the Mission is also the newest hipster ‘hood for craft foods, from coffee and chocolate (such as Dandelion’s “bar to bean” aesthetic) to modern Korean food. Check out the latter at Namu Gaji, or the insane happy hour deals at Wo Hing General Store ($6 craft cocktails to die for, and $5 for a bamboo steamer of shiu mai or plate of pork dumplings, 5:30 -7 p.m., daily). Whatever you do, don’t miss out on the baked goods at Craftsmen & Wolves (yes, you’ll pay $7 for a muffin, but it will have a soft-boiled egg encased within, as well as cheesy, hammy bits and it will fill you up for hours) or Tartine Bakery. Get there early to avoid a wait, and let go of guilt. One look in the pastry case, and you’ll understand.

Get Around

If walking isn’t an option, the bus, MUNI, will get you anywhere you need to go. Sure, it’s a crowded mobile petri dish and full of freaks, but do as the locals do. San Francisco is an easy city to navigate, since it really is a giant grid. Google maps makes things a snap on your phone or computer.

There are also the cable cars, which are just $6 a pop and always fun (they may not admit it, but locals love them, too), the trolley down in the Embarcadero/Market Street area, and BART, which covers the East Bay. It’s also the fastest, easiest way to traverse the Downtown, Financial and Mission districts of the city; otherwise the bus is your cheapest bet.

Budget Tip

One way to save a chunk of cash is to take BART to and from the airport (it services both SFO and Oakland). It will run you around $8, instead of a $50 cab ride, or $17 for a shared van, which can take well over an hour if you’re not the first drop-off. Even if you’re too far to hoof it to your hotel from the BART station, you’ll still save time and money, unless you’re staying out in the hinterlands of the city.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Trodel]

Budget Guide 2013: Orlando

The notion that “Orlando” and “Budget” don’t go well together has its basis in fact; theme parks are not a cheap day’s outing. Admission alone can cost $100 per person without spending a dime on parking, food or souvenirs. Still, without trying all that hard, a good time can be had on a budget in and around Orlando – a time that captures every bit of the magic and wonder.

In the past, budget travelers and Orlando had a hard time connecting. 2013 looks to see average room rates hovering around $100 per night with popular International Drive and luxury hotels running several times that amount. Stay on property at a major resort like Disney World and expect to pay over $250 each night with the sky being the limit. Orlando’s hotel business has been hit hard by the economy in recent years. Now a recovering work in progress, there are plenty of budget hotels in the market.

Theme park admission, hotel rates and dining aside, there are a variety of activities to do and places to see in Orlando that are free. The Downtown Disney area of Orlando is a good example and has free admission and entertainment. Every chain restaurant in the world, it seems, has a version of what they do here from TGI Fridays to The Capital Grille and everything in-between. You’ll also find friendly locals eager to help with directions, though odds are they’ll be dining at a local place as simple as a grocery store meat counter.

Hotels

Orlando hotel developers have returned to building hotels after suffering during the economic depression. In what seems to be a new sense of purpose, hoteliers in Orlando are now paying better attention to the details of their work. It’s kind of like a ride, watching them handle things so efficiently. It’s refreshing.

New this year, big resorts have individual special offers worth up to 50% off the price, reduced rates for children and other promotions. Expensive luxury hotels aside, here are some reliable, nicely priced places to stay.

Best Western Plus Orlando Gateway is a full-service hotel with an outdoor pool, two restaurants and a fitness facility. Located within easy access to Wet ‘n Wild and Universal Studios Orlando, and not far from Disney World and other attractions, this hotel has free Wi-Fi, free parking and a free shuttle to area parks.
From $70. 7299 Universal Blvd – bworlando.com

Travelodge Maingate Suites is in Kissimmee, not far from parks and other attractions, and has a free shuttle to theme parks. Unique to this hotel are cooking facilities in each room including a microwave oven and refrigerator. Free Wi-Fi, parking and a continental breakfast along with a picnic area make this one a good choice for budget-minded families. The average year-round price of $30 is a bargain at twice the price.
From $30. 4649 W Irlo Bronson Freeway – travelodge.com/hotels/florida/kissimmee

Days Inn Orlando Midtown is also not far from the theme park action as well as downtown places of interest like Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital, the revitalized downtown area and more. Days Inn Orlando Midtown, like other Orlando hotels, is more expensive on the weekends. From $48.
3300 S Orange Blossom Trail – daysinn.com/hotels/florida/orlando/

Eat and Drink

Like hotels, a good way to eat and drink at a reasonable cost in Orlando is to steer clear of International Drive, the hub of all things Orlando, and the attractions … although, the world’s largest McDonalds is probably a must-see for fast food lovers and it sits not far from Disney World.

Mama B’s Giant Subs is located downtown and is open for lunch only. A local favorite, there is a choice of 30 different sandwiches, all customizable and all huge. They have a $6 lunch special that includes any half sub with chips and small drink. For a big group, a 3-foot feeds 10-15 people ($36.96), 4-foot ($49.38), 5-foot ($61.00), 6-foot ($72.68) Note that they only take cash – no credit or debit cards accepted.
692 N Orange Ave - Mama B’s Giant Subs

Bubbalou’s Bodacious BBQ is a favorite of local residents looking for a whole lot of good food for little money. This is where local barbecue fans that know what they’re talking about eat. Absolutely nothing fancy to it, this place has Floridians driving from as far away as Jacksonville. Unique menu items here include Fried Pickles ($2.99), Fried Okra ($3.49) and Sweet Potato Tots ($3.99). Beef, pork, chicken and seafood are prepared fresh daily as sandwiches ($5.99) or dinners ($11.99).
12100 Challenger Parkway – bubbalous.com

Fish and Chips is actually the name of a restaurant in the Orlando suburban city of Apopka that started as a hole-in-the-wall place in a strip mall in 2006. Fish and Chips has such a big local following that it was expanded and moved to a larger location at the end of 2012 and looks poised to be even better in 2013. Based on a simple premise of providing hearty portions of quality seafood at reasonable prices ($5-$7), the fish served at lunch today “was swimming last night,” the owners are fond of saying.
1146 West S R 436 – fishchipsorlando.com

Budget Activities

Splitsville Luxury Lanes and Dinner Lounge is a 30-lane bowling alley ($15 per person per hour, all-you-can-bowl) in Downtown Disney that’s a hip, retro venue and also features pool tables (free) and a balcony bar that overlooks Downtown Disney. Budget watchers will like that at Splitsville they don’t need to bowl to enjoy the bars and food offerings. In addition, Splitsville has live music (free) on some nights, with a variety of theme nights on others.
1494 East Buena Vista Drive – splitsvillelanes.com

Pleasure Island, is a free entertainment area in Downtown Disney that can be a cheap, if not free night out. Parking is free and so is non-stop entertainment at various venues. Try a candy apple from the Candy Cauldron, watch singers and musicians for a few hours or ride the free water taxi around to see the area. On the marketplace side, visitors can always get a free chocolate sample at the Ghirardelli Chocolate shop.
1590 Buena Vista Drive – wdwinfo.com/downtown/pi/

Universal City Walk is similar to Downtown Disney and a fun area of restaurants, shops and entertainment that requires no admission. You’ll pay for parking here ($20) but buy something in a store and they will credit your purchase towards the fee. Travelers who enjoy a Caribbean cruise for a trip to Margaritaville can stop by Jimmy Buffet’s place for a Cheeseburger In Paradise fix and a LandShark beer.
6000 Universal Blvd – universalorlando.com

Get Around

By Bus: Orlando’s citywide bus system is called the LYNX public transportation system. The extensive system that runs until midnight is worth learning over other transportation methods. A one-way fare in a single direction anywhere on the system is $4, and transit directions can be pulled from Google Maps on your smartphone. To or from Orlando International Airport (MCO) and the suburbs via cab or private car will run around $100 each way.

By Car: Rental cars in Orlando are usually very competitive because of the high volume of tourists. Cars are almost always available and everyday prices for compacts start at just $25 per day with unlimited mileage. Start your search at kayak.com for a good aggregate of fares.

By Train: While a train is not a good way to get around once in Orlando, using one to get there is another matter altogether. The Orlando area has three Amtrak passenger train stations. The Orlando station is close to the attractions but the Kissimmee station is the closest to Walt Disney World. The Winter Park station delivers passengers to a quaint suburb with frequent street markets and old-fashioned charm.

Budget Tips

Watch Disney World Fireworks For Free by going to Disney’s Polynesian Resort (no admission fee required) for a cheap dinner at Captain Cook’s quick-service restaurant, then go sit on the beach attached to the resort for the show.
1600 7 Seas Drive – disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/polynesian-resort/

Driving? Bring a roll of quarters, as many roads frequently traveled by visitors are toll roads. Better yet, if you’re going to be in town for the good part of a week, buy a SunPass transponder to save on what a car rental company might charge. Save time driving too by paying attention to road congestion via your favorite up-to-date GPS-based app; major highway projects in 2013 and beyond will make driving an activity all of its own.

Pick a suburban hotel if visiting during peak times when hotel availability may be tight. Pick something close to I-4 if visiting attractions. It will be about a 30 minute drive to Disney World, Universal Studios and others but well-worth the savings. It is almost always less costly paying for the rental car and expenses vs. staying at a pricey hotel or resort on-site.


Budget Guide 2013: Washington, DC

All eyes have been on Washington, D.C., over the past year, and it’s not just because the historic city happens to be our nation’s capital. From the 57th presidential inauguration to fiscal cliff drama, much of the media attention has focused on the city’s overspending and excess.

What most don’t see is the vibrant mix of neighborhoods and ever-expanding web of restaurants, hotels and cultural attractions that make Washington a budget capital – not just a power broker’s destination. From new extended-stay hotel options to recently unveiled monuments and more than a dozen free museums, Washington, D.C., has more than its fair share of budget-friendly reasons to visit.

While Washington may still, in some ways, live up to its wonky, politically-savvy-yet-fashionably-challenged reputation, the city has spent the past decade and, most notably, its past few years coming into its own, forging a path that quickly puts this East Coast gem on par or ahead of Chicago, Boston or Atlanta for your next vacation destination.


Hotels

Before we venture into specifics, it’s worth noting that for the true budget seekers, staying just outside the city, but inside the Beltway, is often much more affordable than D.C. proper, and still accessible via Metro and just a 10- to 15-minute ride away from downtown. Neighborhoods like Arlington (Virginia) or Bethesda (Maryland) can be much more reasonably priced. But if a Washington, D.C., address is your priority, consider the following.

Avenue Suites: Part of a small group of boutique properties in the Washington area, this new extended-stay property offers the advantages of apartment-like living in the heart of the city’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood. Simple and clean lines give the property a timeless appeal, while photographs of Hollywood elite lend a touch of glam. Walkable to Georgetown shopping and dining, and yet still metro-accessible, this property is an ideal choice for those looking to stay more than a night or two.

An extra perk? Generously sized suites (600-650 square feet) have separate bedrooms and living areas, full kitchens and gratis Wi-Fi. They’ll even stock your fridge if you request it! Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the attached A Bar + Kitchen is one of the city’s more popular new spots for happy hour.
Avenuesuites.com 2500 Pennsylvania Ave.

Kimpton Hotels: If you’re going to attempt a budget-friendly trip, choose a hotel with a wide variety of value-added amenities. From complimentary in-room pet visitors in the form of goldfish to “Wine Down Hour” or a morning cold pizza and Bloody Mary bar, Kimpton’s dozen-plus D.C.-area properties are some of the city’s best budget accommodations. This boutique brand offers more than 50 hotels nationwide, but features a strong concentration in Washington, with many offering weekend rates starting at around $100.

These properties are as well-loved by locals as they are by guests, due in part to their affiliated restaurants that make up some of the city’s most popular tables, including Urbana in Dupont Circle’s Hotel Palomar, Poste in the Hotel Monaco D.C. or Jackson 20 in the Monaco Alexandria. Of course, cheeky in-room add-ons like leopard- and zebra-print robes don’t hurt the brand’s lighthearted but upscale rep either.
Kimptonhotels.com


Eat and Drink

Food Trucks: As in many cities, the food truck boom has hit it big in Washington. Locals spend lunch hour tracking trucks as they stop in popular downtown destinations like Farragut Square and George Washington University and get their fill of lobster rolls from Red Hook Lobster Pound, Cuban sandwiches from celebrity chef Jose Andres’ Pepe truck or enjoy more than 40 types of sauce add-ons to the fusion cuisine at the ever-popular Sauca. Of course, the varieties don’t stop there; trucks offer everything from cupcakes and banh mi to peanut butter and jelly as their specialties.
foodtruckfiesta.com is the easiest way to track where your favorite will stop today.

Union Market: Most D.C. guidebooks advise visitors to take a swing through Capitol Hill’s Eastern Market, a collection of food and flea market-style vendors that gather each weekend to display their wares. We’re not discouraging a visit, but food lovers should now seek out the city’s new market-style experience in the NoMa neighborhood. From oysters to ice cream and artisan olive oil to freshly-baked goods, the market is not only open Wednesday to Sunday, but it also offers an ever-changing array of pop-up artisans.
unionmarketdc.com

Charles Steak & Ice: For years, Washingtonians bemoaned the lack of quality delis downtown. That was until the duo behind Taylor Gourmet began a Philadelphia-style sandwich shop on H Street in late 2007. Offering up hoagies galore, this shop quickly became a cult favorite and now has six area locations with more scheduled for early 2013. But their newest venture, Charles Steak & Ice, riffs on another Philadelphia tradition that D.C. sorely lacks – the cheesesteak. Done up in artsy graffiti and reclaimed metal picnic tables, guests line up all day to order subs “wit wiz” or “wit out.” We’d suggest that you don’t miss the sloppy fries.
Steakandice.com 1320 H St. NE


Budget Activities

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial: The city’s newest monument is the recently-opened tribute to the nation’s most famous civil rights leader, located within walking distance of the presidential monuments.
www.nps.gov/mlkm

D.C. by Foot: Learning the ins and outs of any city is usually left to those visiting with a local. But not anymore – from the city’s “Secrets and Scandals” to the inside story of Lincoln’s assassination, these free (tip-based) tours are great ways to learn the city like a local.
freetoursbyfoot.com/dc/


Get Around

The easiest way to get from point A to B in Washington, D.C., is via the Metro rail system. Use Wmata.com for a simple trip planner, calculating distances via foot, bus or Metro.

Just be sure to stand on the right and walk on the left of Metro escalators – it’s the city’s cardinal rule of transportation.

If the weather permits, visitors can also test Capital Bikeshare. Rent by the day or three-day period, simply dropping your bicycle at locations around the metro area when you’re finished. With nearly 2,000 bicycles at your disposal, you’ll always have wheels when you want them. capitalbikeshare.com

Budget Tip

If you’re visiting the city for just a day, consider buying a daylong pass ($14), which allows for unlimited access to the system. When spending more than a day riding the rails, opt for a credit card-style “SmarTrip” card, which can be refilled again and again as well as used for parking at metro stations.

[Photo credit: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Edens]