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.
The Metro provides a convenient alternative for when feet get tired or you need a quick ride. This subway service has many options, including cost-efficient one- and three-day tourist cards for about $6 or $12. Not planning to use the trains too often, I opted to split a pack of six tickets with a friend for $4 per person.
With my main travel expenses coming in way under budget at $438, I could then roll over the remaining money into my food and entertainment costs. But with Montreal being loaded with my two biggest guilty pleasures, food and boutiques, restraint would not be easy. However, depending on your budget, you can spend as much or as little as you want. Here are some strategies for keeping the remaining costs down.
Exploring the many bistros, cafes, boulangeries, creperies, foundueries, fruitieres, patisseries, resto bars, trattorias, delicatessens—yes, I’m getting tired too—fill more than a weekend as well as fill you up more than you might prefer. Here are a few good bets that I enjoyed (and still stayed under my $500 budget), with one must-experience splurge:
- FondueMentale: Although not a “cheap” eatery, I maximized my spending by ordering the table d’hote option, which simplified my meal into three cost-effective fondue courses: cheese, meat, and chocolate. I spent $29 total, including tip.
- Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen: With the Atkin’s diet en vogue, this Hebrew deli’s hearty and famous smoked meat sandwiches will satisfy hunger pangs for days. And for under $5 (about $5.75 with fries), who needs carbs—or vegetables for that matter? Lean, medium, and fatty, take your pick.
- Boris Bistro: With sleek decor and an enticing menu, I opted for a light pasta dish and a memorable iced chocolate dessert at this bistro, costing me no more than about $15.
Splurge option, off the record:
Because food had only come to $50, I decided to treat myself to one souvenir on my last night: a meal I could never forget at Chez L’Épicier (literally translated as “at the grocer’s”).
While I was outside peering at the menu of this Old Quebec restaurant/trendy grocer, a local woman empathically pleaded with me to go inside for dinner, citing it as the best place to eat in all of Montreal. She might have been right. I sampled four of the six-plus courses, from a cleverly original maple kir aperitif to local Quebecois cheeses. It certainly wasn’t cheap, but the value was high considering the great food, service, and non-pretentious atmosphere (the menu was written on blackboards and grocery bags), not to mention the cost relative to higher-price establishments in the neighborhood. Most entrees (course three) were in the $15 to $20 range.
With the splurge included, I spent more on food than I would at most destinations, but I was able to ease my guilt in several ways. First, I didn’t have to pay extra for breakfast, which was masterfully prepared by Belgian-born B&B co-owner Jerome, who started with appetizers like creme brulee and baked apples before dishing out the main morning fare. Second, because breakfast was so filling, I could skip lunch (with maybe sneaking in a cheap coffee break or a chocolate croissant at a bakery like Premiere Moisson, introduced to me by a friend I was visiting). Finally, I considered dining out an activity in itself, so I avoided spending extra on nightly entertainment. Locals dine late, eat well, and linger long. Most evenings, I didn’t leave the restaurant until midnight.
Couture and more
Other affordable must-dos include visiting a club on the trendy Boulevard Saint-Laurent. I caught a show at the moderately upscale club/pool hall Le Swimming for about $7 (The singer/guitarist from the opening act showed up at the B&B the next morning, a testament to the small-world feel of the city). There are also many noteworthy museums scattered about the city, and entrance fees won’t weigh you down either. I saw an IMAX film at the Montreal Science Center for another $7. The best part for me was that it had the novelty of being in French (there are limited showings in English, too).
The best activities are always the free ones. I climbed Mount Royal, a hill in the middle of the city, and explored the surrounding park; it’s free and I got a great view of the city from the chalet at the top. Another rewarding and free option is walking. Not only did it allow me to see the sites, but it also offered me the peace of mind about all the food I ate. Last, but not least, one of my favorite activities was shopping on rue St-Denis, which is lined with numerous affordable boutiques featuring local and European-influenced designers. Window-shopping is also free, but as far as making purchases, I won’t tell if you won’t.
To fully maximize your budget when traveling to Montreal or other parts of Canada, always save your receipts for purchases and even your hotel bill. Often, you can get the federal portion of your tax (about seven percent) back if you fill out the rebate forms available at the airport or online. Just remember to get to the airport early, as you will have to go though security and U.S. customs. Also, be sure to ask for the tax forms before you check in; otherwise, officials won’t let you proceed once you have checked baggage tags.
With all said and done, my trip came to $438, plus what I spent on food and activities. Although many of the choices I made were personal ones, the strategies I’ve presented are universal. Spending under $500 was not only an exciting challenge, but it also afforded me a guilt-free weekend to remember, or as the Quebecois say on their license plates, Je me souviens.