Since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, there have been two New Orleans. The first beams with culture and a people who, in their resiliency, embrace visitors. The second remains a scant shadow of its former self hoping to rebuild even after nearly three years. This week and next, I will show you how to visit both sides, starting with a classic Escapes Under $500 in the spirited French Quarter, and then a how-to on volunteering in the outlying areas. With either option, your small $500 budget can go a long way in helping to put the city back together, making it one vibrant whole.
New Orleans is open for business. In the French Quarter, Bourbon Street dances with carousers toting hurricane drinks, cafes bustle with coffee drinkers inhaling mounds of powdered sugar from their accompanying beignets, and the sounds of jazz permeate every street and alley. This small area set on higher ground alongside the Mississippi River has been the cultural center of New Orleans for centuries, and that hasn't changed.
What has changed are the images of hope, where flags displaying the fleur de lys, the now ubiquitous symbol for rebirth, proudly fly on businesses and residences. While the French Quarter mostly escaped flood damage, even it has yet to return completely, as not all locals have been able to come back. However, each and every dollar you spend as a tourist helps boost the economy, and you won't have to spend a lot to make a difference.
Getting to New Orleans
Although airline service to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY) is only at 70 percent of pre-Katrina levels, and there are fewer direct flights, you can still find affordable airfare from many U.S. departure points. Here's a sampling of round-trip fares, including taxes and fees, for May travel:
- Pittsburgh: $166 (Delta)
- Columbus, OH: $176 (American)
- Baltimore: $184 (Delta)
- Kansas City: $200 (American)
- Hartford: $202 (Delta)
- New York: $207 (US Airways)
- Minneapolis: $224 (American)
- Amarillo: $236 (American)
- Philadelphia: $241 (Continental)
- Boston: $247 (US Airways)
- Phoenix: $247 (Continental)
- Seattle: $251 (Continental)
As always, don't limit yourself to the cities I've selected. Flights to NOLA are generally affordable across the board, so chances are you'll find a decent fare from your city. Plus, airlines are slowly adding routes back, so there should be more options as time goes on.
Once you're there, you can take a taxi from the airport to your hotel for $28 each way, or $56 round-trip. To save money, split the fare with another person and you'll each pay just $14 one way or $28 round-trip. If you have to go solo, the airport shuttle can be a more economical option with $15 fares per person, each way, or $30 round-trip.
Finding accommodations in the French Quarter
According to data from Smith Travel Research, citywide prices for large hotels averaged about $130 per night in 2007, with similar rates so far in 2008, making it relatively easy to stay within budget. But, if you know where to look, you can find even lower rates.
For a classic French Quarter experience, head to the cluster of small hotels on Royal Street near Dumaine Street. Here, three properties virtually lined up in a row all offer people-watching balconies, 19th-century architecture, history, and Southern hospitality. The Cornstalk Hotel, known for its famous "cornstalk" cast-iron fence, has rates from just $75 per night, plus it was once visited by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Next door, the Andrew Jackson Hotel is a little more expensive, with rates from $79 per night, and further down lies the Nine-O-Five Royal Hotel starting at $95. All hotels in this class will add on a 13 percent tax and $1 occupancy charge per night on top of the room rate. For three nights at the Nine-O-Five, for example, you'd pay a total of $325.05 with taxes and fees, or $162.53 per person if you share.
Here's the breakdown:
$251 (airfare from Seattle, the most expensive departure city on my list) + $28 (airport taxi) + $162.53 (accommodations at Nine-O-Five) = $441.53 per person
With the remaining $60 or so, you can either splurge on a fancier hotel or hit the town with your extra cash. If you prefer to upgrade to a full-service hotel, look on websites like Hotels.com, where I found rates at the lavish Le Pavillon, located a few easy walking blocks from the French Quarter, for $129 per night in June. I also like the Le Richelieu Hotel, a veritable French Quarter luxury bargain for just $89 per night.
There are still many dining values to be had in the area, including cafe au lait and beignets from Cafe Du Monde ($4), Italian muffuletta at Napoleon House ($3.75 for a quarter sandwich), a half-pound hamburger and baked potato at Port of Call ($9), and the "world's largest" crepes at Petunia's ($15). You'll find more if you walk the streets, letting the wafts of crawfish etouffee and gumbo lure you inside casual cafes and restaurants.
No matter what, almost three years have passed since Katrina and there's still a long way to go. For just $500, you can make a difference while you celebrate the city's rebirth and everything that makes it so special: world-class jazz, Creole cooking, a year-round Mardi Gras atmosphere, and so much more.
Have more to add? Email me your favorite money-saving tips for New Orleans, and I might publish them in a future article. Or, feel free to comment or suggest a new Escapes Under $500 destination.
(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Hotels.com.)