By Montana standards, Bozeman is an expensive place for a vacation. As one of the main gateways to Yellowstone National Park, the city is currently experiencing a tourism boom, and hotel rooms (in fact all forms of accommodation) come at a premium, especially in summer.
That said, food and drink costs are still reasonable and it's perfectly possible to have a budget-friendly trip, especially if you're road-tripping with your own car and don't mind camping rather than staying in a hotel room. Stretch your dollars and cents further with the following money-saving tips.
- Chain hotel room for two in March/July: from $80/200
- Bison burger: $18
- Craft beer: $5-6 a pint
- National Forest campsite: $20 for two vehicles and up to eight people
- Mountain bike rental: $40-50 per day
- Tax: No sales tax (hurray!), but local accommodation tax of 8%, and Big Sky resort tax of 3%
- Museum of the Rockies admission child/adult: $10.50/16.50
- Whitewater rafting trip: $76
Pack a camp chair and go car camping
Rates at Bozeman hotels hit their apex in summer, but this is also the perfect season for camping. Save some serious money by heading to a Forest Service campground in the mountains outside town. There are numerous sites in the Hyalite Canyon and Gallatin Valley, though the nearest, Langohr, is 12 miles (19km) from town. In-town campgrounds offer more facilities but are more expensive and aimed more at RVers than tent campers. Bear Canyon Campground is one good option not too far from downtown.
Visit in the offseason
You'll save money on both airfares and accommodation if you visit Bozeman outside of the summer peak season (June to August). The spring months of April and May and the fall months of October and November offer great weather and some of the best hotel deals, and you'll see fewer crowds.
Head into the backcountry
Unlike in neighboring Yellowstone National Park, there are no fees for backpackers camping in the backcountry of Custer Gallatin National Forest. Invest in a map, bear spray and some freeze-dried camp food and you're good to go. Rules dictate that you must camp at least half a mile from a road; be sure to follow Leave No Trace guidelines.
Save money on bear spray
Bear spray is an essential investment if you are heading into the Montana wilderness, but a can in a fancy outdoor gear shop can run to $50. Costco in Bozeman often offers the best deal in town, with two cans for around $45 during the summer season.
Alternatively, you can rent bear spray at Big Boys Toys for $3.50 per day, but you'll have to pay the purchase cost for the canister if you use it. When flying home, remember that you can't take bear spray on a plane.
Connect with your inner mountain man in a forest cabin
The wilderness cabins maintained by the Custer Gallatin National Forest authorities are still a great deal, despite recent price hikes. The huts are pretty basic, offering little more than a stove and bunk beds with mattresses where you can unroll your sleeping bag, and you'll have to hike or ski in, but a group of four can score one of these rustic beauties for around $15 per head, and the natural setting is simply wonderful.
Be flexible and score some cheap flights
If you are flying into Bozeman, be sure to check fares with budget airlines such as JetBlue, Southwest and Allegiant Air, especially if you can avoid checking in any hold luggage. Also check fares to the larger airport at Billings, two hours' drive away – both flights and car rentals can sometimes be cheaper here.
Grab a takeaway gourmet lunch
The Bozeman Co-op is a local community institution and it's the best place to shop for local produce, bulk organic non-GMO ingredients and pre-cooked meals. It's not the cheapest place in town for groceries but it is cheaper than a restaurant and the food is top quality.
Take-out meals, deli sandwiches, rice bowls and an in-house bakery provide plenty of choice, and there are two branches – a downtown store and the bigger mothership on West Main. The community notice board is a great place to find information on wellness activities.
Drink at the source
Bozeman's half-dozen microbrewery taprooms offer the town's best and cheapest beer, charging $4 to $5 a pint. Most breweries offer specials, from cheap fills for your growler (take-out bottle) on a Thursday to weekly Pints With a Purpose, when $1 from the price of a beer goes to a local community organization. Just remember that unlike bars, breweries in Montana are required to close at 8pm.
Shave off some of the cost of skiing near Bozeman
Skiing is an expensive hobby in Montana, but there are ways to drive down costs. For a start, the community-run Bridger Bowl ski area is a much cheaper place to ski than ritzy Big Sky. Lift tickets can be a third of the price of lift tickets at Big Sky. Ski mid-week and buy tickets online in advance for the cheapest rates.
If you definitely want to ski Big Sky then you'll get big discounts on lift passes at the beginning and end of the season, notably in December and April. Save more by renting your gear in town instead of close to the slopes.
Sniff out the best happy hour deals
Taking advantage of happy hours in bars, taprooms and restaurants will save you a couple of dollars on drinks prices, normally between 2pm and 6pm, and sometimes after 10pm. Even sophisticated spots like Plonk and Copper Whiskey Bar offer drink and food specials at these times. Check out current deals on the Montana Happy Hour website.
Have dinner at a gourmet food truck
Between April and September, you'll find an impressive array of food trucks parked outside Bozeman's breweries, and also along Main St and at special events in town. Trucks shift location like a Mongolian nomad but you will normally find a couple parked outside Outlaw Brewery serving up gourmet crepes, tacos, burgers and loaded fries. Best of all, food trucks offer tastier, more imaginative and cheaper fare than most town restaurants.
Some of the best trucks include Knuckletruck and Rukus. There's more on offer than greasy, post-booze munchies: visit Mountain Berry Bowls for dairy-free smoothie bowls and Starseed for imaginative vegan options. The trucks' social media feeds detail their current locations.
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