Boston is certainly up there on the list of US cities with a high cost of living, which – unfortunately – can also mean a high cost of traveling. The biggest challenge is affordable accommodations, as hotels are pricey in this city of expensive real estate and packed event calendars.

Fortunately, there are ways to save, depending on when you travel, how you travel and where you sleep and eat. Best of all, it’s easy and affordable to be entertained (and educated) while visiting historic sites, exploring the city’s outdoor spaces, and enjoying aspects of the vibrant student life.

Take note of a few pointers and you can discover the best of Beantown without breaking the bank. Here are 13 tips and tricks to help you experience Boston on a budget.

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A group of friends take a selfie with Boston Harbor in the background
Wrapping up in extra layers is worth the money you'll save on a winter trip © Opla / Getty Images

Discover Boston in winter

Yes, it can be cold and gray. But there’s no better way to spend a blustery winter day than browsing art inside a (warm) world-class museum, spying on tropical sea life or tucking into a plate of pasta in a cozy restaurant.

Many of the city’s top attractions are indoors, which means they are open and enjoyable all year round, including in the depths of winter. The key fact is that hotel prices drop dramatically between November and March, so you can make substantial savings with a winter vacation.

Be aware of big events

Seasons aside, accommodation prices in Boston fluctuate wildly from week to week and even day to day, depending on what’s happening around the city. Major events such as the Boston Marathon, critical Red Sox games and college graduations draw visitors from far and wide, driving prices way up. Your budget will thank you if you skip these grand occasions.

Look beyond the usual hotel options

Most of Boston’s hotels carry a pretty hefty price tag, but there are a few lower-priced options for travelers who are willing to give up a degree of space and privacy. Book well in advance - especially during busy seasons – as supply is limited and these places fill up fast.

Hostels like HI Boston (dorm beds $60 to $90, private room from $225), in the theater district, are an affordable option and they usually organize many outings and free activities for their guests. On the edge of the Back Bay neighborhood, the old-fashioned Oasis Guesthouse is a favorite for its classic Boston brownstone location and very personable service. Rooms are available with a shared bathroom (from $170) or an en suite bathroom (from $250).

The South End is a hotspot for dining and nightlife and it is also home to some interesting and innovative budget lodgings. The trendy Revolution Hotel has small but comfortable rooms, some with shared bathrooms, starting around $165. Snap a picture of the bold Boston-themed mural in the lobby and – a great perk – take advantage of the free bikes for guest use.

There are also some affordable national chains that have outlets in Boston. Look for super modern but tiny rooms at Staypineapple in the South End, Yotel in the Seaport and CitizenM above North Station in the West End.

A man and woman walking together along a bridge with the Boston skyline in the background
Many of Boston's major sites are in one area, making it a very walkable city © Raymond Forbes Photography / Stocksy United

Walk this way

The center of Boston is compact, with many key sights located within its 2-square-mile core. Its neighborhoods are connected by green spaces and parkways, making it a perfectly walkable city.

By contrast, it is a terrible city for driving. Navigation is tricky, traffic can be nightmarish and parking is severely limited. Skip the rental car to save big time – not only on the cost of the rental but also on parking fees, tolls and peace of mind (priceless). Plus, you’ll see more of the city by exploring on foot.

Take the T or ride BlueBikes

When you want to venture to destinations that are too far away to walk, Boston’s network of public transportation can get you there inexpensively. The subway system (known as the T) runs from about 5am to 1am. Fares range from $2.40 for a one-way fare to $22.50 for a 7-day pass.

The city’s bike-share program is BlueBikes, with hundreds of stations around town (and neighboring towns). Borrow a bike for $2.95 for a single ride (up to 30 minutes) or $10 for a 24hr pass.

Follow the students for affordable food

Boston is a college town and college students are wicked smaht about eating on the cheap. So if you’re traveling on a budget, head to the popular student hangouts for affordable, filling fare.

The Fenway is student central – home to the mammoth Boston University and a slew of smaller schools. So it’s no surprise that this neighborhood is one of the best for affordable restaurants, including the strip of student favorites along Peterborough Street and the popular TimeOut Food Market in the Landmark Center.

There are more students across the river in Cambridge. In Harvard Square, the Smith Campus Center is a wonderful hangout space for students and visitors alike, with restaurants serving food from around the world (not to mention coffee and donuts), all catering to the cost-conscious. Nearby, Clover Food Lab and Tasty Burger are perennial favorites. Closer to MIT, popular student spots are Roxy’s Grilled Cheese (not your grandmother’s grilled cheese) and Naco Taco – both former food trucks that now have brick-and-mortar buildings.

Two women eating pizza on the street in Boston, one is kissing the back of the other's head
Follow Boston's student population to find high-quality cheap eats © Tetra images RF / Getty Images

Eat lunch on the cheap

Food trucks congregate along the Rose Kennedy Greenway (especially at Dewey Square) throughout the year. The food is high quality and the variety is impressive. They're also super convenient if you want to grab something quick in between sightseeing – and they are also (possibly) Boston’s most affordable lunch option.

If you prefer to sit down for lunch, budget travelers will find great restaurant deals at the eateries in Chinatown – and it’s not only Chinese food but also Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Malaysian and Japanese. Head to Kneeland Street to take advantage of the lunch specials, which usually include soup and a main course for about $12 – quite a bargain.

Give it the old college try

The colleges and universities in Boston are certainly up there on the list of the city’s greatest assets. Many lectures, performances and museums are open to the wider community – usually at affordable prices. This includes recitals at the Berklee Performance Center, movies at the Harvard Film Archive and weekly “Public Open Nights” at the Coit Observatory at Boston University.

The university campuses are also worth exploring, as many have a wealth of public art and interesting architecture on display. MIT has a particularly rich collection, which you can tour using their interactive app.

A room within Boston Public Library that has rows of desks with people quietly reading at them
The beautiful Boston Public Library is well worth a visit © mtraveler / Getty Images

Get a free history lesson at the city’s historic sites

One of the greatest appeals of spending time in Boston is discovering its rich history, from the colonial burial grounds and revolutionary battle sites to the stellar cultural institutions. Fortunately for travelers, several of these top spots are National Historic Sites and are free to explore. These include the Black Heritage Trail in Beacon Hill, the birthplace of JFK in Brookline and the Longfellow House in Cambridge.

The National Park Services also leads tours of the Freedom Trail, which connects 16 colonial and revolutionary historical sites. The sites are not all free to enter, but they are relatively affordable. Visit them all – which is a lot – and you’ll get a pretty good dose of history for less than $30.

On Copley Square, you’ll find the city’s most renowned architectural gems - the Boston Public Library and Trinity Church. Both offer free or cheap tours and occasional events. Free Friday organ concerts at Trinity Church are a treat.

Explore the great (urban) outdoors

Don’t leave Boston without enjoying its ample green spaces and walking places, all of which are free. From the gorgeous blooms of the Public Garden, the wild beauty of the Arnold Arboretum, and the riverside path at the Charles River Esplanade to the urban activity along the Rose Kennedy Greenway. There’s even a string of appealing city beaches in South Boston if you can brave the North Atlantic chill.

The Boston Harbor Islands are a fantastic and underutilized natural resource, replete with opportunities for hiking, swimming and investigating a Civil War-era fort. It’s all open for exploration – though you do have to pay for the ferry ride out to the islands.

With unique city views, wonderful landscaping, intriguing histories and public art, these are some of the city’s most delightful places – and it costs you nothing to enjoy them!

Enjoy Boston’s high culture at low prices

The city’s renowned cultural institutions have a mission: they want to make art, music and theater accessible to all. Do a bit of research to take advantage of discounted ticket prices to shows and free admission to museums. The Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Ballet offer discounted rush tickets for certain performances. From BosTix you can get same-day tickets to theater productions around the city for up to 50% off the original price.

Boston’s art museums offer free admission to all visitors on certain days of the week or year. The ICA Boston is free on Thursday evenings and the Harvard Art Museums are free on Sundays. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is free on the first Thursday of the month, after 3pm. The Museum of Fine Arts offers free admission on holiday Mondays, and it’s only $5 on certain Community Celebration Thursdays after 5pm.

Three older friends smiling and laughing as they walk through a park in Boston
If you're over 65, you can get lots of discounts at Boston attractions © PeopleImages / Getty Images

Take advantage of discounts for students, seniors and military

Museum admission can be pricey, often running upwards of $20 for one adult. Fortunately, almost all museums (and some other activities) offer discounts or free admission to those aged over 65, to active and veteran members of the US military and to students with a valid student ID. Some museums have a special `university membership’ relationship with certain schools, so it’s worth checking in advance to learn exactly how to take advantage of this savings opportunity.

Consider Go Boston or CityPASS to see lots of sights

The costs for sightseeing in Boston can add up so if you plan to visit several museums and maybe even take a tour or two, consider buying a multi-venue pass. CityPASS includes admission to four top attractions, including the New England Aquarium and the Museum of Science, for one fixed price ($79 for adults, $67 for kids). It’s a 50% savings if you visit all four.

Go City Boston is an all-inclusive pass that includes more than 40 attractions in Boston and nearby towns. You can buy a pass for one day ($64) or one week ($134) – or somewhere in between – and see as many sights as you want in the designated time. Go City also offers an alternative Explorer’s Pass where you pay for a certain number of attractions (e.g. five sights for $99) and choose when and where you wish to go.

The passes are not cheap, but they do offer significant savings if they’re used properly. This is a great alternative for travelers who are good planners and who want to cover a lot of Boston's big attractions.

Daily costs

  • Hostel room $60-70
  • Basic room for two $150-250
  • Self-catering apartment $200-300
  • Ride on the T $2.40
  • Coffee $4-6
  • Lobster roll $25-35
  • Dinner for two $60-120
  • Craft beer $8
  • Average daily cost $100-$400

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