How to Have a High-End Vacation for Less
Why pay top dollar for a luxury vacation when it’s possible to have it for less? A high-end trip without a premium price tag is possible anywhere in the world, but your approach needs to be tailored to your destination. Here, locals in five famously expensive cities — London, Paris, San Francisco, Singapore and Sydney — share luxury for less tips.
TIME IT RIGHT London has some particularly busy periods with sky-high hotel rates, according to Paula Fitzherbert, a lifelong Londoner and the head of communications for the five-star hotels Claridge’s, Connaught and Berkeley. They include June, during the Chelsea Flower Show, Ascot and Wimbledon, and the fashion weeks in February and September. These times asides, rates are least expensive on Sunday nights when occupancy is at its lowest. “A stay could be half the price, compared with another day of the week and you’re likely to get free amenities,” Ms. Fitzherbert said. The properties she represents try to offer Sunday night guests extras such as a bottle of Champagne, breakfast and a room upgrade.
James Manning, the global projects editor for Time Out London, encourages visiting either at the end of August or anytime in November. Flights and hotels are less expensive, and several noteworthy and free events take place. One of the largest street festivals in Europe, Notting Hill Carnival, is in August.
DINE AND DRINK SMARTLY Skip white tablecloth dining. Mr. Manning said that some of London’s casual and affordable restaurants, such as the Taiwanese spot Xu, outperform many expensive Michelin-recognized joints in atmosphere and flavor. To indulge in decadent cuisine for a bargain, head to a food hall in a luxury department store like Harrods or Selfridges, Ms. Fitzherbert said (she does, too). “You can buy small portions of rare cheeses and handmade chocolates, and the stores often give out free samples on weekends,” she said. She also suggested taking advantage of the widely available and attractively priced pre- and post-theater menus at otherwise expensive restaurants like The Ivy and Savoy Grill and enjoying an evening drink at an upscale bar like the Connaught Bar for less than $20 — an order usually comes with olives, nuts and other snacks.
FIND FREE OR CHEAP CULTURE Admission to most major museums, such as the Tate Modern, is free (special exhibitions usually have a fee), and venues such as Southbank Centre and Royal Opera House have free regular drop-in performances. (Time Out has a weekly update of the best free things to do in London). Most West End theaters release reduced price tickets (usually around $25) each morning for performances that evening. Ms. Fitzherbert also recommended trying an Off West-End show. Tickets can be half the price of the West End.
GO BEHIND THE SCENES At many institutions, you can go behind the scenes and have an exclusive experience without spending a lot. The Natural History Museum offers behind-the-scenes tours of its preserved zoological collection for around $19 a person. You can go backstage at the National Theatre and Royal Opera House for less than $20. And for a slightly higher budget, a guided tour of operational areas at Tower Bridge — including the immense underground bascule chambers, a marvel of Victorian engineering hardly ever open to the public — is around $63 per person.
SHOP THE MARKETS Columbia Road Flower Market, in East London, and Portobello Market, in Notting Hill — are prime destinations to buy one-of-a-kind collector-worthy goods at reasonable prices. “They’re popular with celebrities, and the people watching can be as much fun as the shopping,” Ms. Fitzherbert said.
TIMING MATTERS Avoid visiting during fashion weeks (women’s, men’s and haute couture), The French Open (from the end of May into early June) and the International Contemporary Art Fair, in October. Prices can be lower in winter and in August, when Parisians tend to leave the city, but this is event-dependent, too, so it’s best to research what’s happening in town. The site for the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau lists the city’s major events.
STAY AT AN UNDER-THE-RADAR HIGH-END HOTEL For luxury at a less stratospheric price point than the city’s palace-designated hotels, stay at a lower-key but still luxurious property. Examples include the San Regis, hidden on a quiet street in the 8th arrondissement’s so-called Golden Triangle or the Jacques Garcia-designed Hôtel Bourg Tibourg, in the Marais. Research these lesser-known gems online — the site Paris Boutique Hotels lists several, as does Time Out Paris.
PALACE HOTEL ACCESS WITHOUT THE PRICE TAG With standard doubles often starting at $1,000 or more per night, Paris’s palace hotels are price-prohibitive for most people. But Elsa Bacry, a lifelong Parisian and the director of European partnerships for the luxury travel network Virtuoso, said locals get a taste of them by frequenting their casual bistros and brasseries such as 114 Faubourg, at Le Bristol. “They’re not a deal, but you’re not spending a fortune either,” she said. Parisians also like to have drinks at the hotels’ bars such as the rooftop L’Oiseau Blanc at The Peninsula Paris or Bar Josephine at the Lutetia. Hannah Meltzer, a Paris-based journalist, said that spa treatments, such as a caviar facial at the lavish day spa at the Four Seasons Paris, are another option.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF FREE SIGHTS AND GROUP TOURS Paris has plenty of museums with free entry including the fine arts museum Petit Palais and Musee de la vie Romantique, or museum of romantic life. Admission to many others, including The Pompidou, is free on the first Sunday of the month while the Louvre offers free admission on the first Saturday evening of every month. Some monuments also offer inexpensive small group tours, such as the 90-minute, 10-euro tour at Versailles of Louis XIV and XV’s private apartments.
SHOP SALES AND THE OUTLETS To buy designer goods at a discount, Ms. Bacry suggested checking out My Little Paris, a site that lists private sales. Also, designer stores have sales in July and January, and La Vallée Village, an outdoor designer outlet shopping mall about a 45-minute train ride from central Paris, is full of deals.
AVOID THE CONVENTIONS San Francisco hosts a significant number of conventions all year, according to Teresa Rodriguez, the editor in chief of the San Francisco edition of WhereTraveler magazine. When one is going on, hotel rates can more than triple. Check the calendar for the Moscone Center, the city’s major convention venue, and plan your trip accordingly.
BOOK LESSER-KNOWN HOTELS OR RENT AN APARTMENT Debbie Kessler, who runs the San Francisco office of Protravel International and sells high-end trips to the city, said that travelers could save by staying away from well-known international brands and choosing a luxury boutique property instead. “They are far more reasonably priced than their big-name competitors,” she said. Viceroy Hotels & Resorts, for example, has four design-forward boutique properties in town. Booking an upscale hotel in Southern Marin County, about a 20-minute drive from San Francisco, is another money-saving option her clients use, taking Uber to get back into town. Ms. Rodriguez encourages visitors to rent a home through Airbnb or another rental site — you can stay in a historic Victorian home or sleek high-rise apartment for the fraction of the cost of a hotel.
DON’T SPEND ON HIGH-END MEALS Japantown is home to affordable sushi, ramen and shabu shabu places, while the Mission neighborhood has authentic and favorably priced Mexican. To sample the city’s famous crabs without blowing your food budget, buy them from one of the crab stands on Fisherman’s Wharf, and have them steamed and cracked. Ms. Rodriguez is a regular at a stand called Nick’s Lighthouse and enjoys the crabs, along with sourdough bread and wine with her family at Aquatic Park Cove, a park near the wharf with views of the bay and Alcatraz. Also, oyster specials abound: Woodhouse Fish Co., with two locations, for example, has $1 oyster specials on Tuesdays, and Plouf sells $1 oysters on weekdays at its bar from 6:30 p.m. until closing. Travelers keen on an upscale dining experience should know that some of the fanciest restaurants offer lower-priced menus in their bars. The three Michelin-starred Quince, for example, offers a five-course $180 menu in its bar area. While hardly inexpensive, that is less than the $295 eight to ten-course tasting menu in the main dining room.
SIGHTSEE WITH A TIGHT FIST Both Sigmund Stern Recreation Cove and Golden Gate Park have noteworthy free concerts, performances and events all year. Ms. Rodriguez said that Free Tours by Foot has free high-quality walking tours, including one in Chinatown. Also, the touristy Bay Cruise isn’t worth it. Instead, take an inexpensive ride on the commuter ferry from the well-known Ferry Building. (Ms. Kessler likes the ride to Sausalito.) There’s a bar on board so riders can savor a glass of wine while taking in the views.
WATCH FOR DEALS AT LUXURY HOTELS Singapore has no low or high season and sees consistent tourist traffic throughout the year, according to Howard Oh, the concierge manager at Mandarin Oriental, Singapore, who is also Singaporean. So instead of having off-season rates, the city’s upscale hotels have promotions throughout the year. Mr. Oh recommended comparing rates offered by three luxury hotels you are keen on staying at and seeing which has the most attractive offers. “The deals vary, but you might find a discounted rate for a weekend stay with breakfast and other inclusions or a third night free with two paid nights,” he said.
DINE LIKE A LOCAL The food writer Annette Tan said that eating out in the city is generally expensive but that some neighborhoods are home to excellent and affordable restaurants. Keong Saik Road, in Chinatown, is lined with several, many of which aren’t Chinese. Cure, for one, serves modern European food with Singaporean accents. Another option is Gemmill Lane, a hidden alley off Amoy Street full of buzzy restaurants such as the French-Japanese Le Binchotan. Singaporeans also enjoy decadent high teas at the city’s five-star hotels. Ms. Tan recommended Regent Singapore, where a weekday high tea costs around $33 per adult and includes sandwiches, pastries, scones and cheeses, and the $37 tea at The Clifford Pier, overlooking Marina Bay, at the Fullerton Bay Hotel.
SKIP PRIVATE GUIDES Hiring a private guide costs about $45 an hour, Mr. Oh said, but a small group tour can be equally high-quality and costs around $6 per person, per hour. “The guides leading these tours are very knowledgeable, and you see the same sights you would on a private excursion,” Mr. Oh said. Companies offering such tours include RMG Tours and Tour East. Monster Day Tours also offers free walking tours.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF FREE ART AND CULTURE Public art installations abound in Singapore, and they’re akin to open-air museums, Mr. Oh said. The Marina Bay District, for example, has several, including sculptures by Botero and Dali. Also, the Esplanade Theatres by the Bay holds almost daily free concerts and plays that feature local artists.
DOWNLOAD THE GRAB APP Grab is the Uber equivalent of Singapore (Uber does not operate in the country), and a less expensive way to get around than by taxi. A 10-minute ride costs less than $10, while the trip between the airport and the city center is around $20.
BOOK THE RIGHT ACCOMMODATIONS Carly Rea, the founder of Splendour Tailored Tours, advises staying at a five-star boutique hotel in a residential neighborhood, where nightly rates can be half of what they are in the touristy Central Business District. Ms. Rea recommended Spicers Potts Point, in Potts Point, an area full of homegrown boutiques, cafes and restaurants, and Paramount House Hotel, in Surry Hills. Josh Blake, the assistant chief concierge at Four Seasons Hotel Sydney and a longtime Sydney-sider, as locals are called, said that travelers who want to stay in the heart of town should be aware that several of the luxury hotels in the CBD, including Shangri-La and InterContinental, have club lounges. You pay a fee on top of your room rate, the lounge at the Four Seasons, for example, costs $96 for two people per day. But you get a concierge, a lavish breakfast buffet and a premium open bar with appetizers in the evenings.For longer stays, consider a home rental through Contemporary Hotels or Luxico. “You can find a fantastic two-bedroom apartment for a week for the same price as a standard hotel room in the CBD,” Ms. Rea said.
EAT LIKE A LOCAL Ms. Rea said that the tastiest and most affordable food in town is to be found at neighborhood spots. Bistro Rex, in Potts Point, a vibrant place showcasing seasonal dishes, is an example. She also recommended a meal at one of the city’s many inexpensive and delicious Asian-influenced restaurants where diners can bring their own alcohol. The Darlinghurst and Newtown neighborhoods are full of these. On Bondi Beach. a table at a casual seaside cafe is a less expensive and more authentic way to go than a pricey restaurant, said Mr. Blake. He suggested Speedos Cafe, a local favorite that serves health-focused dishes using seasonal and organic produce. Picnics are a longtime tradition for Sydney-siders, and it’s one that travelers should partake in, too.
BE A SAVVY SIGHTSEER Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge is a mainstay tourist activity, but it costs more than $120 and takes hours. Walking across the bridge is another option. “It’s free, the path is uncrowded and you get the same views,” Mr. Blake said. Also, skip a pricey private boat rental and enjoy Sydney’s skyline from a public ferry or water taxi. A ferry ride, depending on the route, is less than $10, while a 30-minute scenic ride in a taxi around the harbor costs about $70. Mr. Blake recommended the ferry from Circular Quay to Manly, a lively suburb with a scenic beach and a thriving surf community.
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