I love a challenge! I often assign myself nearly impossible challenges to stay motivated in my savings journey, and the budget I set for a trip to Boston was no exception. I challenged my husband and myself to take in as much of the city as possible on a budget of only $500, which required finding several free things to do in Boston. Read on to see how we managed in this challenge and to find out how you can see Boston on a budget too.
Boston is wicked cool; it offers the best of almost every type of vacation. If you prefer to learn about history, Boston has you covered. If you’re a foodie and want to taste unique cuisines, Boston will satisfy your palette. If you want nightlife and the excitement of a big city, that can be found in Boston too. With so much to do and see, it’s actually quite difficult to do it all in 3 days, and it’s even more difficult to stay on a budget.
Airfare – Thankfully, we had reward miles, so airfare wasn’t a factor in our budget. However, even if it was, I love using the Google Airfare search tool to find great fares. All you have to do is type in “flight from _______________ to Boston” in the Google search bar, and you will be provided a calendar of fare prices for multiple airlines. We used rewards, but it would have only cost us $116 each to fly round-trip from Austin to Boston. Sidenote: Airfare to Boston is a tad bit higher (not outrageous) between April and November, as these are reportedly the best months to travel to New England; in doing a quick google flight search, I just found American Airlines flights in the peak of summer from Austin to Boston for $157 round trip.
*Additional Savings Tip: If you want 3 full days for your trip, book an outbound flight first thing in the morning and a return flight late in the evening. The airfare is usually cheaper at these times, and you get 3 full days while only paying for 2 nights of hotel.
Getting Around the City – Downtown Boston is very walkable, and most tourist attractions, restaurants, parks, and hotels are close to each other. Book a hotel close to Faneuil Hall, and you can walk to most places on your list. The subway and the trolley are also available for distances a little further away or for tired legs. To travel from the airport to your hotel, both Lyft and Uber are available, so you can go on the apps and find the best deal. It cost us less than $18 each way.
As mentioned, there are several hotels in the downtown Boston area that are close to most attractions. Because of all this competition, you can find a deal! Here’s my hotel booking trick… after booking airfare, I check sites like hotels.com and kayak to find a good value. I always use the map function to make sure I understand where a hotel is located before clicking to find out more info. I look for a hotel that is at least 3 stars, has a very high review rating, and is in a safe and convenient location. I also search for additional amenities that will save us money, such as free breakfast, free wifi, and/or free airport shuttle. When I find a great option at a decent price, I book… but only at the free-cancellation rate. Then, I set an alert/reminder in my phone to go back and check hotels again just before the final cancellation date. I usually re-do my hotel search about 3-4 days before we depart.
For this trip to Boston, I ended up cancelling the original hotel I had booked, which was priced at $319 for the trip, and booking one right in the heart of downtown. The location couldn’t be beat, and the last-minute price for 2 nights was $187.16! (I’ve decided not to disclose the name of this hotel because it is undergoing renovations and has a few kinks to work out, but feel free to message me for more details.) There were several additional hotels nearby that would have been less than $200 for the 2-night stay. There are also motel, small apartment, and hostel options in the downtown area that are very affordable. (Sidenote: Traveling during summer will probably double these prices.)
Once these basics are sorted out, then comes the fun stuff! What will you do and eat while there? Based on the money my husband and I had already committed to hotel and transportation, we had $276.84 leftover in the $500 budget for food and entertainment. The options in the Boston area are endless, and we stumbled across many free or low cost ones!
Clam chowder, lobster rolls, wood-fired pizza, Italian meatballs, fresh sushi, colorful gelato, oysters on the half-shell … the delicious offerings on every single block of Boston are incredibly tempting. The food is pricey even if it’s not your top priority, but here are a few ways we tasted the local fare yet kept some costs down.
Peruse the markets – Boston has several indoor markets with enough food options to satisfy every unique taste bud for an entire week. We strolled through Quincy Market and Boston Public Market, both in the financial district/waterfront area of town. These markets offered everything imaginable, from seafood to protein bowls to soup and chowders to sweet treats to Chinese food to made-to-order pasta and so on. We ate at the markets a couple times and spent around $10 each for a meal. Another friend highly recommends Eataly, on the west side of downtown, which seems to be the perfect stop for a foodie with its huge selection of foreign cheeses and specialty wines.
Apps and Drinks with a Side of Tourism – We decided to combine sightseeing with dining. The bar that the favorite 90’s TV show, Cheers, was modeled after is located in the beautiful, historic Beacon Hill neighborhood and right across from the Frog Pond and Duck Crossing at the Boston Common Park. On the walk to the pub/restaurant, you’ll take in unique architecture, people watching, park beauty, and historic sites. Then, once you descend the stairs from the street to the iconic bar, just like in the TV show, you’ll hear the theme song and realize you’re entering the bar “where everybody knows your name”. To save a little money on your tab, present this coupon to your server or bartender.
Another must-see pub is the Bell in Hand Tavern; it claims to be the oldest tavern in the country. While sipping on a beer, wander both sides of the tavern and check out the paintings and other artifacts on the wall. Also, the bartenders are happy to answer questions about the history of the bar. They have yummy craft beers on tap, a full restaurant menu, and live music most evenings.
One more option for dining and sightseeing while also saving money is lunch at the Chipotle in the location of the Old Corner Bookstore on the Freedom Trail.
Ravioli e Tiramisu Por favore – What’s a visit to Boston without a trip to Little Italy? Officially called the North End, it is the oldest neighborhood in the city, and it’s right on the waterfront. With over 80 restaurant options, you can walk and check out menus in the windows to compare prices and choose something within your budget. (Find a list of food and attractions in advance at https://boston.cbslocal.com/guide/a-guide-to-bostons-little-italy-the-north-end/)
Keep snacks on hand – We stopped at a grocery store to stock up on a few munchies to have for late night and mid-morning to save us from eating out more often than our main meals. We also skipped the temptation to buy a coffee or snacks while at the airport and just waited until we got on the plane.
Total amount of money we spent on food, coffee, and delicious craft beers was $215.25. Subtracting this from the $276.84 we had remaining, we were left with only $61.59 for entertainment and activities. We had to kick our resourcefulness into full gear and managed to spend absolutely nothing on visiting historic sites and touring the city.
FREE Things to Do:
Here is a list of my top FREE things to do in Boston (based on our visit).
Freedom Trail – This is a 3-mile walk through the city with 16 historic sites to visit. Some of these sites have admission fees. Here are a few you can enter for free:
- USS Constitution Ship and Visitor Center: You can board the ship for free with a sailor as a guide, which is pretty darn cool, and you can also peruse the visitor center for free. If you venture over to the official USS Constitution Museum, you’ll need to pay (technically a donation) to enter.
- Old North Church: This church is a must-see! Its steeple is the location of the hanging lanterns that prompted Paul Revere’s famous ride, and there is much more history to take in. There is a fee for admission, BUT if you attend service on Sunday morning, which I definitely recommend, you can enter for free, worship in an historic sanctuary, and will be invited to stick around and explore the chapel.
- Faneuil Hall – Multi-story museum, gift shop, and national park visitor info center
- Boston Common Park – America’s oldest city park with walking trails, dozens of historical plaques and memorials, a visitor center, Frog pond (with ice skating in winter), and a very rich history. Follow up this visit with a drink at Cheers right across the street.
- Massachussets State House – Schedule a free tour on a weekday.
- There are several other sites along the trail that are worth passing by or walking through. A few have admission charges, and some may totally be worth the fee based on your interests. Next time we go, we decided that we’ll visit the Paul Revere House, which has a $5 admission fee.
Book Shops and Libraries – If you love rare finds, first editions, and that quintessential old bookstore vibe, check out Commonwealth Books. Another unique and historic bookstore is Brattle Book Shop, known for its large selection and great prices. If a cool library appeals to you more, check out Boston Public Library’s Central Library in Copley Square. In addition to thousands of books and an interesting history, this library offers free art and architecture tours, an adorable children’s library, Saturday afternoon concerts, and three cozy cafes.
Holocaust Memorial – Don’t miss out on your opportunity to walk through this incredibly emotional and moving memorial. It includes quotes and historic accounts shared by survivors of the Holocaust.
Abigail’s Tea Room at the Boston Tea Party Museum – Do you want to visit the site and learn the story of the Boston Tea Party without paying the museum admission price? Here’s a little secret… you can enter the gift shop and check out the interesting selection of souvenirs and collectibles, then cross a bridge right over the Tea Party ships to Abigail’s Tea Room in the back. There are costumed employees willing to answer any question you have, plus 17th and 18th century table games you can play as you sit in the cafe on the water. For a mere $3.50, you can purchase a mug and sip on unlimited amounts of tea, all of which are flavors that were dumped in the Tea Party in 1773, including George Washington’s favorite.
Awesome City Parks and Playgrounds – Believe it or not, kids live in Boston too. And they have incredible parks in which to play carelessly while enjoying the cityscape in the background. Boston Common and the Boston Public Garden are a part of the Freedom Train mentioned above. We also stumbled upon Martin’s Park, which was constructed as a memorial to the youngest victim in the Boston Marathon bombing. This playground is so much fun for the young (and the young-at-heart) with fast slides, plenty of climbing opportunities, and a life-size pirate ship to play make-believe. Local kids like to search for the bunny that calls this park home and hangs out mostly in the garden area. Another unique park is the Lawn on D, an urban escape with architectural play structures and lawn games for all ages. There are daily events, as well as food and drink available on site too.
Boston Harbor Walk – Take a peaceful walk along the waterfront and watch ships sail in and out of the bay. There are also several places to stop along the way for a snack, to read about the city’s history, to take an epic selfie, and even to soar 14 stories up an elevator for a stunning view at Independence Wharf. You can also sneak a peek at the New England Aquarium Harbor Seals right behind the ticket booth and even see the sea lion show through a large window in the back of the aquarium along the harbor walk.
Worth the Splurge:
Car and Coast – We opted to rent a car and drive up the coast for stops in witchy Salem, the fishing town of Gloucester, a cool brewery in New Hampshire, and a lighthouse viewing on the southern coast of Maine. We spent $41 for car rental for a day, $18.11 for gas, $2.65 on parking in Salem for a quick lunch break, and $3.50 on tolls. You could also choose to go south to visit Providence, RI and then continue on to relax on the beach in Cape Cod.
Ferry Ride – Most of the ferries were taking a break for the winter, but when they fire back up again, you can hitch a boat ride to several cool places, including Provincetown/Cape Cod, the Harbor Islands, the USS Constitution, Salem, or just to do some whale watching.
Fenway Park – Catch a game or join a tour. This archetypal and famous ballpark is a must-see, and tickets to a game start as low as $2.50 each.
Whew! That was a lot! Have you been keeping track of our spending? Did we win our budget challenge? If you don’t feel like going back to do the math, I’ll do the hard work for you …
After splurging on the rental car for a trip up the coast, plus spending $10.23 on a souvenir Christmas ornament and a small bag of lobster-shaped gummy candies for the kids, the total amount we spent on 3 days in the Boston area was $514. So, it wasn’t quite under $500, but it was close enough, right? I am really looking forward to visiting wicked cool Beantown sometime in the near future with kids in tow next time, and I’ll be sure to take on yet another budget challenge then too. I hope you get a chance to explore Boston on a budget soon. Happy Savings!