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New Orleans on a Budget

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Jackson Square, New Orleans

Jackson Square, New Orleans

Welcome to New Orleans:

This is not really a story about what to see and do in New Orleans. It is an attempt at getting you around this captivating city without destroying your budget. As with most tourist meccas, New Orleans offers plenty of easy ways to pay big money for things that won't really enhance your experience. Get a National Geographic Destination map for New Orleans.

When to Visit:

Spring and fall are great choices for a New Orleans visit, although early fall can bring the threat of hurricanes and tropical storms. Summers tend to be very hot and muggy. Dress accordingly if you'll be spending your summer days outside. Most visitors here would find winters rather mild, but you'll need some cold-weather gear for many days in January-March. Busy times of year are Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), spring break, summer and the days prior the Sugar Bowl football game.

Where to Eat:

A po'boy shrimp sandwich, a bowl of seafood gumbo, a muffuletta sub, red beans and rice or a breakfast beignet are all part of the eating experience. As a rule, restaurants in touristed areas offer these delicacies at higher prices than you'll find elsewhere, but sometimes you're paying for quality ingredients and convenience. World-famous restaurants such as Brennan's, New Orleans Grill and Emeril's are big splurges for budget travelers. There are other places that are memorable and cheap. You can find local specialties at your price by consulting New Orleans Dining Guide from the Times-Picayune.

Where to Stay:

New Orleans hotels were forever altered by Hurricane Katrina. The popular Central Business District (CBD) and French Quarter hotels recovered first. Priceline can help in those areas, but parking is costly. City parking garages can save money on expensive valet services. Metarie and the area near the International Airport (MSY) offer budget lodgings. Expect to pay top rates during Mardi Gras, when rooms often come with a five-night minimum stay. Some veterans of the celebration advise getting room reservations eight months in advance. Four-star hotel for under $150/night: Dauphine Orleans Hotel in the CBD.

Getting Around:

Katrina did extensive damage to New Orleans' famous streetcar system, but in late 2006, cars started running again on the Central Business District loop of the St. Charles Line. It's a great New Orleans experience for $1.25, the same cost as a bus ride. Check in with the Regional Transit Authority for updates on rebuilding the system. Cabs are a good idea after dark. You'll pay a minimum $3.50 for two passengers, plus $2 per mile.

New Orleans Area Attractions:

The French Quarter ranks among America's best-known tourist areas. Damage from Katrina was relatively limited, and Bourbon Street was back in business far earlier than other parts of the city. There are other areas of New Orleans that deserve attention: the Garden District between St. Charles Avenue and Magazine Street features antebellum homes and lush landscaping. The Warehouse District just outside downtown features fine dining, museums and Riverwalk, a half-mile stretch of more than 200 shops.

Voluntourism:

Many visitors choose to combine sightseeing with voluntourism efforts designed to aid in the region's recovery. There are plenty of agencies in the area who will give you an assignment, even if you only have a few hours available. There are also bus tours of the ravaged areas. Be aware that these have been the source of much controversy, and some people here find the concept offensive. Others say it is important to understand the remaining devastation, and that the companies conducting the tours are donating some of the proceeds to reconstruction.

More New Orleans Tips:

  • For a great view of New Orleans, take a ferry ride: The ferry at the base of Canal St. to Algiers Point is free for pedestrians and offers great views of the skyline and the harbor.

  • Small splurge -- a Beignet Breakfast: Cafe du Monde is across Decatur St. from Jackson Square and a favorite of tourists seeking a creole breakfast of beignets (pronounced ben-YEA) and cafe au lait. This can be had for less than $4, but the waits are often long. Beignets are deep-fried pastries sprinkled with powdered sugar and can be had at all hours of the day in a variety of restaurants.

  • A word about crime: As in any large city, there are areas that should be avoided, especially after dark. Police presence is strong in heavily touristed areas such as the French Quarter, but be careful not to wander alone into unfamiliar areas. Don't display expensive jewelry or wads of cash, and don't hesitate to spend a few extra dollars on a cab.

  • More Mardi Gras tips: Park/ride to the parades, because space is limited and drivers of towed cars pay at least $200; Choice viewing spots often require arrival four hours before start time. Time is money; Many places require cash payments. Consider wearing a money belt. Find more tips here.

  • International travelers can get a sales tax rebate: Louisiana is the only U.S. state that allows non-U.S. citizens to recoup sales taxes. Present receipts and you can receive a refund check of up to $500 USD on the spot, with any additional money you're owed mailed home. The exemption only applies to people in the U.S. for less than 90 days. There are refund offices on the Riverwalk and at MSY.

  • Attractions beyond New Orleans: Swamp tours south of New Orleans are popular for day trips. Shop the variety of prices and services carefully. If you have a car, it's fun to visit Cajun Country (Lafayette is the main city, about 140 miles west of New Orleans). Westbound routes 44, U.S. 61 or even I-10 will take you past a series of plantations. This tour is a must for history buffs or antique lovers. Baton Rouge (80 miles west) boasts top museums, the tallest capitol building in the U.S., and Louisiana State University.

  • Drive to New Orleans via the Natchez Trace Parkway: If you're driving here from Memphis, Nashville or Birmingham, consider connecting with the Natchez Trace Parkway. It's a slow but pleasant drive that connects you with Natchez, a beautiful and historic city about two hours north of Baton Rouge.

    Step by step tips for visiting any large city on a budget

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