Where can you find European charm and style, Canadian warmth, and a "small-world feel" for an entire weekend for under $500? The answer is Montreal; a city that many of you readers said you'd like to know more about. With a strict budget, I set out on a recent three-night, two-day trip to make the travel costs viable, without compromising on quality and pleasure.
What's the deal?
By visiting during spring, I knew I could optimize my $500 budgeted for main travel expenses—including airfare, hotel, and transportation—with shoulder-season pricing and enjoy relatively pleasant weather. Plus, I had the stronger American dollar in my favor.
Montreal is easily in driving distance of much of the northeastern U.S.; however, I decided to fly to maximize my time in the city, while still keeping my expenses down. As I planned the trip somewhat at the last minute, the lowest fares from my home city, Boston, hovered around $300. After comparing fares on several sites, I found the best price on lowestfare.com for $287, including all taxes and fees on Air Canada.
In general, Air Canada offers sales fares to Montreal from many U.S. cities, generally ranging from $270 to $500 round-trip in the spring, including all taxes and fees. Before booking on Air Canada, always check if there are similar fares on American, which tends to match, to avoid paying the exorbitant Canadian taxes. I also highly recommend checking other sites as I did, where you can often find cheaper fares than on the airlines' own websites. SmarterTravel.com also publishes last-minute fares to Montreal on multiple airlines every week.
Where to stay
Because airfare took up nearly 60 percent of my budget, I had to plan everything else very carefully. Most of the nicer tourist-class hotels downtown teetered around $120 to $200 per night, not including taxes, which was too high if I wanted to stay under budget, much less leave a little headroom. Instead, I decided to book a cost-effective B&B, which became more alluring with the promise of free breakfast. Luckily, Montreal has many B&Bs, often with European charm and modern amenities like wireless Internet.
After sifting through the B&Bs on BedandBreakfast.com and comparing user reviews on Trip Advisor, I narrowed my search down to two properties. I chose the slightly cheaper Le Zébre, with a fireplace room, in the trendy and eclectic Plateau de Mont Royal area. The innkeeper also offered me an additional 10-percent discount for staying three nights (which was my intent), making the option hard to refuse. Ultimately, the total came to $118 per person for all three nights, with all taxes and gourmet breakfast included.
I was able to book enough in advance to get my first choice. However, had I waited until the very last minute, I wouldn't have been at a loss. Tourisme Montreal always lists last-minute Internet discount hotel rates, many of which are below $100 per night.
Transfers to and from the airport are very easy, especially because it's located a convenient 20 minutes or so away. Some hotels provide free transfers, which is of course your best bet. If not, you can take a bus downtown for about $12, and then transfer via the Metro for a couple more bucks. Perhaps the easiest, although potentially priciest, way is via taxi. Because I flew in late on Friday and had an early Monday-morning departure, I opted to split a cab and spent a total of $29 including tip for both transfers.
Because Montreal is a relatively small city geographically, I found it to be very walkable. It also has the world's biggest "underground" city, which is basically a network of subterranean shopping malls connected by pedestrian walkways.