Thanks to fantastic academic and cultural institutions and wonderful natural resources, travelers can experience the very best of Massachusetts without busting their budgets.
Making the right decisions about where to eat, what to do and how to move around the Bay State are key factors in experiencing it without the hefty price tag. Here’s our guide to a budget-friendly trip to Massachusetts.
Eat where the students eat
Did we mention that Massachusetts has a large student population? In any college town, students know where to eat for cheap.
In Boston, that’s the Fenway – and specifically, the row of tasty fast food eateries on Peterborough Street. In Cambridge, there are affordable restaurants (and food trucks) lined up along Mass Ave, near MIT.
Northampton and Amherst are college towns and food hubs too, with plenty of options for budget-conscious travelers.
Indulge in international cuisine
Do you want to eat well and experience Massachusetts at its most cosmopolitan? Head to the cities’ vibrant ethnic enclaves for dinner.
The biggest variety is in Boston, where you can get dumplings in Chinatown, pho in Dorchester and pizza in the North End – all at a remarkably low cost. Lowell is famous for Cambodian food, while Springfield has excellent Jamaican restaurants. You might bust a gut, but you won’t bust your budget.
Check nearby airports for cheaper flights
Airfares are usually the cheapest when flying into Boston's Logan Airport, which is the state’s largest airport. But it’s always worth comparing prices to other nearby airports in Providence, Rhode Island and Hartford, Connecticut.
From TF Green Airport in Providence, the commuter rail runs to Boston in 1.5 hours and costs just $12.75. For Bradley Airport in Hartford, from nearby Windsor Locks, it’s an easy 45-minute train ride to Union Station in Springfield at a cost of only $4.
For international arrivals, flights into New York City are often significantly cheaper than flights into Boston. It will tack on four hours to your journey (by bus, car or train) but it may be worth it for budget travelers heading to Massachusetts.
Travel during the off-season for more affordable accommodation
Hotel prices fluctuate dramatically depending on the season. If you’re traveling to Massachusetts on a budget, be aware that accommodations are at their cheapest from November to March. But you don’t have to brave the winter to get a good deal on a place to stay.
Different destinations have windows for affordable accommodation. Head to The Berkshires in late spring; hit the beach in June or September; visit Boston in July and August. Be aware that hotel prices are driven not only by seasons but also by major events and availability. So flexible trip dates can improve your chances of a deal.
Sleep in a hostel
Truth be told, there are not too many options for hostel-hoppers in Massachusetts. HI Boston is an excellent budget accommodation (dorm beds $60 to $80, private rooms from $260), located in Boston’s vibrant theater district, near the affordable eats in Chinatown.
There are also HI hostels in the notoriously expensive destinations of Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard.
Take the T in Boston
We can’t say this enough – there’s no reason to rent a car during your time in Boston. You’ll save the cost of the rental, not to mention parking and tolls. And you’ll gain even more peace of mind, without the stress of driving in the city.
Whether you travel by subway (known as the T) and/or utilize the bike-share program, Boston’s public transportation is affordable and user-friendly. The T runs (approximately) from 5am to 1am. Tickets are $2.40 for a one-way ticket or $22.50 for a 7-day pass.
Tickets and passes are available for purchase from the kiosks at any T station. The bike-share program, aka Bluebikes, has 400 bike stations around Boston and the surrounding area. Borrow a bike for $2.95 for a single ride (up to 30 minutes) or $10 for a 24hr pass.
Ride the rails and sail the seas
Cars are efficient and flexible modes of transportation when traveling outside of Boston, especially in places like the Berkshires and Cape Cod. But renting a car is expensive, so consider your trip carefully.
Many destinations in eastern Massachusetts are easily accessible by train and/or ferry.
The MBTA commuter rail goes to popular tourist spots like Plymouth, Concord, Lowell, Salem, Rockport and Gloucester. In the summer, beach buses ($1 to $1.25) run from the Rockport and Gloucester train stations to Cape Ann beaches every 20 to 30 minutes.
Speaking of beaches, the Provincetown Fast Ferry is a delightful (and fast!) way to get to Provincetown – no car required. The CapeFlyer is a train from Boston to Hyannis, with connections to the ferries to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. (To explore other parts of the Cape, you’ll need a car.)
Bring your special ID
Massachusetts is home to hundreds of colleges and universities. This is good news for students, as many cultural institutions in the Commonwealth offer student discounts.
It’s not unusual for museums, theaters, tours and other attractions to admit students for 50% to 60% of the full-priced admission. Some museums – such as the Harvard Art Museums and The Clark Art Institute – are free to students from any school. For student music lovers, there are great deals at the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood.
Other groups that are often eligible for discounts include senior citizens (60+) and military personnel. Senior pricing is widespread for museum admission and tours, with additional discounts available for AARP members (usually about 10%). Military benefits vary greatly, from 20% off a Duck Boat tour and 30% off at Tanglewood to free admission to The Clark, so it’s always worth inquiring.
Go back to school
Non-students can take advantage of the variety of affordable performances, lectures and museums at Massachusetts academic institutions.
The options run the gamut from recitals at the Berklee Performance Center, to movies at the Harvard Film Archive, to shows at the Williams College planetarium.
While you’re on campus, go for a stroll. Some of these schools are like museums themselves, replete with art, architecture and ambiance – all free. Our particular favorites include the public art and modern architecture at MIT, the greenhouses and gardens at Smith College, and the gorgeous landscaped grounds at Mount Holyoke College.
Get cultured for free (or at discounted prices)
Highbrow is not only for high incomes in Massachusetts. The state’s renowned cultural institutions have programs to make their treasures more affordable for everyone.
Many museums offer free admission on designated days (Thursday evenings at Boston museums, the first Sunday of the month elsewhere).
The Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Ballet both offer discounted rush tickets for certain performances. BosTix also sells same-day tickets to theater productions around the city for up to 50% of the original price.
Delve into the past at (mostly) free National Historic Sites
The rich history of Massachusetts is one of the state’s biggest drawcards. Lucky for budget travelers, many of the top spots are National Historic Sites – most of which are free to visit.
These include the Black Heritage Trail in Boston, the Adams homes in Quincy, the JFK birthplace in Brookline, the Longfellow House in Cambridge, Minute Man National Park in Lexington, the textile mills of Lowell (not free but cheap) and the Springfield Armory.
The National Park Service leads free tours of the famous Freedom Trail in Boston, which connects 16 colonial and revolutionary sites. (Some - not all - are free to enter.) It’s a very full day of history for somewhere between zero and $30.
Explore the great outdoors at state and national parks
From sandy shores and salt marshes in the east to rolling mountains and lush forests in the west, Massachusetts is a naturalist’s paradise.
Many of these wonderful outdoor destinations are protected as state parks and private reserves – and one fabulous national park. That doesn’t necessarily make them free, but it does make them affordable.
The parks are as diverse as the state itself, from Castle Island overlooking the Boston Harbor to Mount Greylock at the top of the Berkshires. Whether you’re up for beachcombing, pond swimming or mountain climbing, you’ll find a place to do it – for next to nothing.
Besides the state parks, Mass Audubon and The Trustees of Reservations are local organizations that manage many delightful properties throughout the state.
And the queen of Massachusetts protected areas is the Cape Cod National Seashore, which stretches for 60 miles along the Outer Cape, offering beaches to surf or swim, trails to hike and bike, birds to spot and lighthouses to explore.
You’ll pay $25 to park at designated beaches in season, but everything else is blissfully free of charge.
Daily costs in Massachusetts
- Hostel bed: $60-70
- Basic double room: $200-300
- Self-catering apartment: $200-300
- T fare: $2.40
- Cup of coffee: $4
- Lobster roll: $25-35
- Dinner for two: $50 -100
- Craft beer: $8