If you know when to go, you can visit four great towns without paying sky-high prices, using these tips from travel gurus.
Seasonal temperatures don’t vary much in the City by the Bay, so go in winter, when hotel rates are 27% below their fall highs, says Connie Chang Pistilli, San Francisco blogger for social travel site Gogobot.
For a convenient and affordable hotel, bypass those at Fisherman’s Wharf and head for one of the smaller boutique options in Union Square, such as the Mosser or Hotel Triton, where a typical room costs $120 to $180 a night in winter.
Short-term apartment rental site Airbnb was launched in NoCal and has 5,000 listings for the city. The site recently listed a studio apartment with a roof deck in Nob Hill (where hotel rates can top $400) for just $125 a night.
Eat. You can’t leave without trying a San Francisco burrito. Pamela Schroeder, MONEY ad sales director, who has lived in the Bay Area for 10 years, recommends Puerto Alegre, “a fabulous hole in the wall in the Mission.”
For something more upscale, go to the nearby Foreign Cinema and eat on the patio as an international film is projected onto the wall. In SoMa — that’s south of Market Street — visit the StrEAT Food Park, which features different vendors daily and a heated beer garden.
Do. Plan your Golden Gate Park visit for a Sunday, when the busiest roads are closed to cars, or a Thursday, when the California Academy of Sciences natural history museum has $12 admission (typically $30) and a band or deejay from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
For a less crowded nature fix, take a quick drive over the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Headlands for hiking and stunning views of the city and the bay, says MONEY senior writer and San Francisco native Kim Clark. After you come back to the city, explore Hayes Valley for shopping, or go catch a movie at the Art Deco Castro Theatre. Double features are just $11, and you’ll get to hear some tunes on its storied Wurlitzer organ before the evening show starts.
Skip. Don’t take the cable cars that run down Powell Street. Tourists wait a long time on Market Street to ride these cars to the Fisherman’s Wharf area. Instead, take the California line from the Embarcadero past Chinatown to Nob Hill. This line is less crowded and offers a peek into fascinating San Francisco neighborhoods.
If you can take the heat, go in summer, when New Yorkers hit the beach and business travel tapers off, prompting prices to dip about 25% below December’s highs, says hotel researcher STR. Go even lower by shunning Times Square, where rooms often top $400.
Look for small hotels in residential neighborhoods, such as the Chelsea Inn (about $180 a night) in Chelsea, says Robert Reid, U.S. travel editor for Lonely Planet.
Lisa Ritchie of Time Out New York recommends Z NYC, just over the bridge in Queens, which is under $200. It’s in a gritty industrial area, but there’s a free shuttle into Manhattan. In downtown Brooklyn, close to hip nabes like the buzzing Smith Street restaurant row, the new Sheraton is $224 in the summer.
Eat. New York is restaurant central. To get a deal, reporter Anne Lee recommends the weekday prix fixe lunches at chef Mario Batali’s Del Posto and Michael White’s Marea. In summer, though, the new local passion is street food. Use Tweat.it to find food trucks like Luke’s Lobster (a lobster roll with soda and chips for $17) or Moshe’s Falafel. On weekends, try the gourmet food vendors at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn or the Hester Street Fair.
Do. Leave Midtown! The action in New York is downtown, uptown, or, increasingly, in the other boroughs.
In Manhattan, see the Met Museum’s medieval collection ($25) at the Cloisters in uptown Washington Heights. “Take in the view of the Hudson,” says Ryan Mesina, a photo editor who grew up nearby. Downtown, the Tenement Museum ($22) includes a tour of the historic Lower East Side.
The easiest way to check out the now trendy (but vast) borough of Brooklyn is to cross the iconic Brooklyn Bridge on foot, or take the subway F line to York Street and hit the galleries and shops in the funky DUMBO neighborhood by the waterfront. The lively park below the bridge is a huge hit with kids, thanks to Jane’s Carousel, $2 a ride.
Skip. Avoid the lines at the Empire State Building. The 70-story Top of the Rock ($25) offers timed tickets and a majestic view of Central Park.
Hotel prices in April and May are about 15% less than in the fall, at an average $170 a night, says STR. You can do even better at a B&B in one of Chicago’s North Side neighborhoods, such as Andersonville, Old Town, or Wicker Park, where rooms at the Wicker Park Inn start at $139 a night.