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Seattle savings: Exploring the ‘Emerald City’ at a semi-precious price

To me, there is no better celebration than taking a vacation. So, as my boyfriend’s birthday approached, we decided to go away for the big day. “It’s your birthday, so you should pick the location,” I said one evening over dinner.

He sat back for a moment, deep in thought. “I would like to go to Seattle or Paris,” he replied.

As both of these locales were significantly different—and significant hikes from our home in Boston—I set to work researching which would be the better option. Did we want a green American city, with plenty of bookstores, coffeehouses, rock music, and outdoor recreation? Or, did we want to visit a cosmopolitan and artsy city, and put my rusty French skills to work for a few days? As both cities had strong appeal, our main deciding factor became the quality of our time away: We would only have five days of vacation, bookending a weekend in September, and a budget of approximately $500 to $800 per person for the trip.

Seattle won out, for a variety of reasons. One, the flight from the East Coast to the West Coast would give us added hours once we arrived because of the time difference—a boon since we would not have the luxury of a full week away. Two, September is one of the best times of year to visit Seattle, as the city experiences comfortable temperatures and few rainy days this month. Third, it was considerably less expensive than a trip to Paris, and we could get more value for our money.

Planning the trip

  • Air-and-hotel package: When I researched our trip a few months prior to leaving, I found fares from Boston to Seattle ranging from $250 to $300, not including taxes. Hotel prices varied, depending on property class, neighborhood location, and taxes. Curious to see if bundling our air and hotel would give us a better deal, I did a quick scan on Travelocity and Expedia for Seattle packages and found prices starting at $300 per person for air and one-star hotels, including taxes. We chose the bundling option because it cost less, almost as much as airfare alone, and put the extra savings toward a higher-class hotel.

    Travelocity had the best options, and we booked an air-and-hotel package for $571 per person, including all taxes. Our package included a three-star hotel, located just a few blocks away from the Space Needle, that had free garage parking. As parking in downtown Seattle is scarce, and free spaces are a hot commodity, our hotel saved us at least $10 to $20 per day in parking charges.

  • Be prepared for extra charges, especially with rental cars: I’ve long been a fan of using opaque sites for car rentals, as renters can often get deeply discounted rates. We chose to book a car through Hotwire, and got a great base rate of $20 per day. I compared this rate against Hertz’s online prices and found Hotwire would save me $36 per day.

    However, even the savviest of consumers can sometimes be taken for a ride. Although our base rate was low, it did not cover add-on insurance (collision, loss/damage, etc.). During a recent trip to Los Angeles, we had opted for extra loss/damage insurance and paid an extra rate of $10 per day to cover any damages, and thus budgeted a similar amount for our Seattle trip. However, in Seattle, this bare-bones extra insurance cost $22 day, a significantly higher rate. As we had forgotten to check if our credit card’s insurance protection covered us, we opted to be safe and paid the $130 extra (including taxes) for this insurance.

    Bottom line: Weigh your options and find out if you’re already covered before deciding to purchase extra rental car insurance. For additional recommendations on hidden rental car charges, read our feature.

  • Other ways to save: Check last-minute airfares to Seattle on, or view specials on Alaska Airlines, one of the area’s largest carriers. For accommodations, the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau offers exclusive lodging sales, plus discount coupons, value packages, and more.

Affordable excursions

Whether it’s going for a hike, ogling the wares at Pike Place Market, or taking in a rock show, Seattle is full of fun things to do, with quite a few options costing nothing at all. Here are some must-sees in the city proper and beyond.

  • Buy a multi-venue pass: During our visit, we purchased two “3 for $33” passes, which gave us admission to the observation deck at the Space Needle, the Experience Music Project, and the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. We could use the passes anytime within a week of their purchase date. With a la carte prices to the three museums totaling $46, we each saved $13. And the price was well worth it: We got a birds-eye view of the city from the Space Needle, plus saw local history exhibits throughout its Observation Gallery. At the Experience Music Project, we played with interactive hands-on exhibits, and saw classic rock artifacts and memorabilia up-close. And at the Science Fiction Museum, we gawked at spectacles both famous (Ripley’s fighting machine from the movie Alien 2) and obscure (the many artists on the Hall of Fame). The “3 for 33” pass is offered in limited durations throughout the year; visit each museum’s website to learn when the next promotion period is scheduled.

    Seattle also participates in the CityPass program, which offers discounted admission to the Woodland Park Zoo, Space Needle, Pacific Science Center, Seattle Aquarium, Argosy Cruises Seattle Harbor Tour, and the Museum of Flight, for $40 per person. As you’d pay $79 if you bought tickets to each of these separately, the CityPass saves you $39.

  • Take in a game: If you happen to visit during baseball season, Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners, is one of the nation’s newest ballparks and a great place to see a game, with inexpensive seats, friendly fans, and (if you’re sitting high enough) views of the Seattle skyline. Two upper-deck tickets for a Saturday night game, purchased that afternoon, put us back just $17 apiece.
  • Have a meal (or several) at Pike Place Market: Pike Place Market is a feast for all the senses: We saw fishmongers toss the day’s (large) catch onto beds of ice, and pondered whether to buy and ship baseball-sized scallops and banana shrimp (literally the size of the fruit) back home. We also tasted breads and pastries right out of the oven from the market’s many bakeries, and sampled the wares from local cheese producers. For $5 to $10, we got a mini-loaf of bread at the Three Girls Bakery and Luncheonette, a dish of curds at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, and some fresh fruits and veggies, for a cheap, healthy snack (or a good option for a picnic on the nearby waterfront).

    We also had a more formal dining experience at the market, as it has no shortage of restaurants. We lunched at Lowell’s, which has great chowder, plus sweeping views of the Puget Sound. Afterward, we strolled the shops for great antique, kitsch, arts and crafts, and boutique shopping. And rather than eat stale, expensive airplane food on our long flight back home, we reserved some time to stop by the market before going to the airport: We saved a lot by loading up on delicious, fresh market foods to eat on the plane (airline meals cost approximately $10 just for a sandwich or a snack plate).

  • Visit the Ballard Locks: One of my favorite excursions was a short drive from downtown, at the Ballard Locks, and was absolutely free to visitors. There, we saw waterway engineering up close, as boats passed between the saltwater Puget Sound and freshwater Lake Washington and Lake Union. We also stopped by the fish ladder to see how salmon migrate through the region, and then rounded out our visit by touring the Locks’ botanical gardens.

    Afterwards, we headed to funky Fremont, where we saw eclectic art, including the city’s famous Lenin statue and the Fremont troll. We also sampled international cuisine from the neighborhood’s ethnic restaurants and browsed a variety of independently owned stores for unique souvenirs.

  • Wine (and dine): Washington wines are growing in prominence, rivaling their California counterparts in quality, taste, and prestige. We liked the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery, located just outside Seattle in Woodinville, which offers 40-minute tours and tastings each day for free, or premium tastings (additional wines not covered in the tour) for $5 per person. As the chateau also allows guests to explore its extensive grounds, we wandered the winery’s wooded groves and a pond, at no charge.

Although we had an active vacation, Seattle’s laid-back pace gave us a relaxing, as well as affordable, getaway. And with the extra money we pocketed…maybe we’ll save that for a future trip to Paris.

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