Luxury travel can be experienced in two ways: by paying top dollar or by paying less. Given the choice, wouldn’t you pick the latter?
Of course, the idea of what luxury travel is can differ depending on the person. For some, it means hotels with butlers and fancy sheets and flying first class; for others, it’s about hitting three-Michelin-starred restaurants and hiring the occasional private guide and car with a driver.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you define high-end travel. What matters is that it doesn’t have to be had at a premium price.
Here are 10 destinations where you can save money on an upscale trip without sacrificing a feeling of luxury.
Looking for a luxury vacation to Barcelona without paying top dollar to have one? Done, says Virginia Irurita, the founder of Made for Spain and Portugal, a Madrid-based company that sells upscale trips. “Barcelona has become much more affordable in the last year, and a high-end trip on a limited budget is now attainable,” she said.
When to go: Hotels in Barcelona have the highest prices from April through October. From November through March, rates are at least 25 percent lower. Many five-star hotels offer attractive packages during this low season.
Where to stay: Accommodations in residential neighborhoods offer better value than ones in touristy areas. Les Tres Torres, for example, has a few locally run, upscale properties like Primero Primera, on a quiet, tree-lined street.
Indulge in lunch: Locals make lunch their biggest meal of the day, and visitors should too, because they can take advantage of well-priced set menus at top restaurants. A starter, main course, dessert, wine and coffee is about $23, for example, compared with $58 at dinner. Irurita enthusiastically recommended lunch at the Michelin-starred eatery Caelis, where a three-course meal with wine is $48.
Skip cars and drivers: A car with a driver is an unnecessary expense in Barcelona. Taxis are readily available and reasonably priced, the Metro is clean and efficient, and the city is pedestrian-friendly.
Shawna Owen, president of Huffman Travel, a Chicago travel consultancy, said that compared with other large cities, Chicago is relatively wallet-friendly.
When to go: Chicago’s upscale hotels offer great deals and their lowest rates during the first quarter of the year. In 2018, for example, the Peninsula Chicago had a promotion where guests who paid for two nights got a third night free. Nightly rates during those months started at $399, which is more than a 50 percent savings from peak season rates. Owen said that hotels also tend to offer promotions in August.
Eat affordably: Since the food portions are generous, it’s possible to split dishes and save money, Owen said. Her top picks for reasonably priced eats include Lou Malnati’s for deep-dish pizza, Small Cheval for burgers and Publican Anker, a vibrant gastropub with creative dishes.
Soak up culture: Chicago has a fantastic and affordable culture scene, Owen said. Admission to the Museum of Contemporary Art, which has groundbreaking exhibits from global artists, is only $15, and some theaters have discounted tickets for same-day shows. Steppenwolf, for example, allots 20 tickets priced at $20 each for some performances.
Walk or take the L: Chicagoans love to walk, and Huffman recommended that visitors do the same. The L, the city’s rapid transit system, is an efficient and inexpensive way to get around.
Hong Kong can be a cost-prohibitive vacation destination, according to Brooke Lavery, a Southeast Asia specialist and an owner of the New York City luxury travel company Local Foreigner. “Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities in the world but also offers a great high-low balance, which can be optimized,” she said.
When to go: Hotel rates stay steady in Hong Kong throughout the year with the exception of June, July and August; these are the city’s hottest and most humid months, and hotel prices drop.
Stay in lesser-known hotels: Hong Kong has plenty of upscale independent and small-chain properties that are a fraction of the cost of hotels from well-known luxury brands. Examples include The Pottinger, on a stone slab street, and East HK, in the buzzy Taikoo Shing neighborhood.
Save on food: Lavery recommended a Cantonese fine-dining experience, like Seventh Son in Wan Chai, for lunch because the tab is lower compared with dinner. For dinners, stick to inexpensive, casual joints that serve noodles or curry balls.
Shop for custom clothes: Hong Kong is known for its incredible tailors, and an article of bespoke clothing is a fantastic souvenir; most tailors can turn around a piece in 48 hours. Custom shirts generally cost about $40 while suits can run about $500. The Central area is full of talented tailors like Jantzen Tailor.
Walk and take a boat: The ideal way to see the city is to stroll through its many back alleys and get lost. Or book a walking tour; Little Adventures in Hong Kong, for example, has walks limited to five people that are led by local journalists and chefs and cost $115.
Sailing Victoria Harbor on a traditional Chinese wooden junk is a quintessential Hong Kong experience. Instead of booking an expensive private boat, go for a reasonably priced small-group tour; AquaLuna offers a range of these.
A luxury trip to London on a limited budget isn’t hard to pull off, says Nicola Butler, the owner of NoteWorthy, a London travel company. “The favorable exchange rate between the dollar and the pound make the city an affordable vacation choice,” she said.
When to go: Hotel rates in London soar from May through July. From early September to the end of February, however, they drop slightly. If chilly days don’t bother you, January is the cheapest month to visit. “The hotels have the lowest prices, and restaurants, theaters and museums offer deals to boost business during a quiet time,” Butler said.
Splurge on tea, save on lunch and dinner: Enjoying the famous London tradition of afternoon tea at a luxury hotel like Claridge’s is 50 percent less expensive than dinner in a pricey restaurant but has the same sense of extravagance. For lunch, grab an inexpensive and tasty meal at a food hall such as Bang Bang Oriental, specializing in Asian cuisine, or hit one of the food markets such as Borough Market. Come dinnertime, try a pub to sample hearty British cuisine like fish and chips.
Culture is a bargain: Many of London’s museums, including the Tate Modern, have free admission. Art galleries are also free, while popular attractions such as St. Paul’s Cathedral have inexpensive entry fees, and some theater houses sell discounted tickets for same-day shows.
Skip cars and taxis: Save money and soak up the city by walking. For longer distances, rely on the Tube.
There has never been a better time to take a luxury-for-less vacation to Mexico City, according to Lillian Aviles, the director of business development for Journey Mexico, a travel company that sells upscale trips to the country. Aviles said the peso is weak compared with the dollar, and prices are generally low.
When to go: Mexico City is a corporate-driven market, so weekends are the time to go; weekday hotel rates can be twice as much. Prices also dip between May and September, when the weather is hot.
Eat like a king: High-end dining in Mexico City is a bargain compared with other large cities. Aviles’ tops picks include Limosneros, which uses pre-Hispanic ingredients like the leafy greens called quelites in modern dishes and Los Danzantes, which serves upscale Oaxacan cuisine (the average dinner at both restaurants is about $25).
Dining at a taco bar is another option. Two or three tacos with wine will set you back $5 to $10.
Shop at markets: For the best deals on fantastic shopping, hit Mexico City’s many markets. On Saturday, the San Angel neighborhood has a bazaar where local designers sell wares ranging from ceramics to jewelry, and Mexican painters sell their canvases. The daily artisan market La Ciudadella sells handmade goods from around the country.
Transportation: “Uber is inexpensive and efficient,” Aviles said.
Italy’s fashion and business capital of Milan isn’t necessarily the ideal destination if you’re on a budget. Luca Finardi, the general manager of the Mandarin Oriental Milan, said that the city’s five-star hotels, designer stores and well-known restaurants can be expensive, but there are ways to save.
When to go: Hotel rates in the city are up to 30 percent lower in November and December. “The temperatures are mild, the holiday decorations are up, and the atmosphere is lively,” Finardi said.
Dine smart: Michelin-starred or otherwise pricey restaurants are common in Milan, and travelers who want to experience them should go at lunch, when the cost of a meal is substantially less than at dinner. At the two-Michelin-starred Seta, for example, a three-course lunch with an amuse-bouche and petits fours is about $82, compared with $173 for a similar meal at dinner.
And don’t miss the Milanese tradition of going to a bar for aperitivo hour, usually from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Drink orders are typically accompanied by free food.
Shop local and hit sales: Travelers can find well-priced fashionable ware from local designers in the Isola and Brera neighborhoods. If you’re on the hunt for goods from Italy’s luxury brands, come in January and February when they have their sales.
Walk, bike and use public transportation: Finardi said that the center of Milan is small and walkable, and the public transportation system of metro lines, buses and trams is efficient and clean. To explore more expansive areas such as the scenic Parco Sempione, consider renting a bike from the bike-sharing service BikeMi; daily rates start at $5.25.
A luxury trip to Mumbai, India’s largest city, on a wallet-watcher’s budget isn’t hard to pull off, according to Fiona Caulfield, the founder of the India travel book series Love Travel Guides.
When to go: Mumbai hotel rates are highest from October to mid-April. Prices drop at least 30 percent until the end of September, but Caulfield said that May and June are uncomfortably hot while July and August are in the heart of monsoon season. “The end of April and September are the most value-friendly and ideal times to visit,” she said. Also, many properties offer 10- to 15-percent discounts on stays of three nights or more.
Avoid eating at luxury hotels: Mumbai’s five-star hotels are full of pricey restaurants. Caulfield said travelers can save substantially by sticking to independent places. Her favorite is The Bombay Canteen, which serves regional contemporary Indian food.
Shop at bazaars and markets: The city’s bazaars and markets sell high-quality, unique goods and haggling to get the lowest prices is the way to go. Colaba Causeway has several street stalls that sell fashionable handcrafted leather sandals and Chor Bazaar has vintage finds.
Hire a private guide: Private guides are a manageable expense in Mumbai. No Foot Prints and Bombaywalla are well-regarded tour companies.
Get around like a local: Avoid taking expensive hotel cars. Taxis are safe, inexpensive and easy to hail, and Uber is also popular and affordable.
A luxury vacation to New York City on a budget can be done, according to Eric Gordon, the owner of Beyond Times Square, a company that plans high-end New York City trips.
When to go: Hotel room prices drop by about 20 percent in early November and from January through early March. The city’s hotel industry is driven by business travelers, so nightly weekday rates at upscale hotels are as much as $150 more than weekend rates.
Eat strategically: If high-end dining is a priority for you, Gordon said to plan your visit during a Restaurant Week (usually at the end of January through early February, and at the end of July through early August), when a three-course lunch at some of the city’s finest restaurants is $29 and a three-course dinner is $42. And, at any time of the year, many pricey restaurants like Estiatorio Milos offer comparatively affordable prix fixe lunch and dinner menus.
Culture is a bargain: Some of the best sightseeing in New York is inexpensive. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a $25 admission, and your ticket is also valid that day for the Met Cloisters, in Upper Manhattan, and the Met Breuer, a 10-minute walk away. Central Park and Hudson River Park host free concerts in the summer, spring and fall.
Skip cars: Relying on taxis or car services can add up to $100 a day. Take the subway or walk instead. Gordon also recommended the NYC Ferry: a one-way ride is $2.75, and the boats have Instagram-worthy views of the skyline. If a car is a must, try the ride-sharing app Via, whose rides are usually a moderately priced $5 to $7 a person.
An upscale vacation to Paris can be a pricey proposition, says Barkley Hickox, owner of the New York travel consultancy Local Foreigner, but there are plenty of ways to stretch your dollar.
When to go: Get the best value on hotels by visiting between November and April, when rates are lower.
Choose the right accommodations: Families traveling to Paris should consider booking a luxury apartment through a company such as OneFineStay or Paris Perfect. It’s less expensive than booking multiple rooms at a high-end hotel, and having a kitchen to cook meals on occasion helps cut food costs. The city also has several affordable but upscale boutique properties including Maison 1400, in one of the oldest houses in the Marais district, and Le Roch Hotel & Spa, set in a 19th-century house in the heart of the city.
Eat smart: Dine at one of the city’s renowned restaurants at lunch, when the tab is much lower compared with dinner. Several popular places offer affordable midday prix-fixe menus. For dinner, Hickox recommended going to restaurants in residential neighborhoods such as South Pigalle, the Haut Marais and Montmartre, where a meal with wine runs $40 to $58.
In warmer weather, pick up a baguette, cheese, pastries and wine and head to Luxembourg Gardens or another park for a decadent but wallet-friendly picnic.
Ditch taxis and cars: Hickox’s favorite way to explore Paris is on foot. “You can fully appreciate the city’s beauty by walking, and it’s designed for walkers because there are walking paths and sidewalks everywhere,” she said.
For longer distances, she suggested using the city’s bike-share system, Velib, or the Metro; both are inexpensive.