Updated in 2022! Boston on a budget... With lobster? Yes! Here's what to see in Boston when you're on a really tight budget.
When I first conceived the $200 Challenge two years ago, the premise was fairly simple. Can two people travel for two days spending just $200, and can that travel actually be an enjoyable, quality experience? No dumpster diving, no sleeping on park benches - this had to be safe and fun!
Our first $200 Challenge took us to northern Vermont, where we enjoyed a beautiful campground, surrounded by the brilliant autumn foliage. Ever since, we've been challenging ourselves to make that $200 go even further. Campgrounds have given way to hostels and even hotels, while groceries and picnics rub shoulders with diners, bakeries, and cafes.
But are we ready for Boston - and can we really eat lobster? Here's our best take on what to see in Boston when you're on a budget, plus key info on where to stay in Boston that's affordable.
Starting the challenge
Boston was a pricey location to pick for the $200 Challenge and adding fresh seafood wasn't going to make things any easier! On this particular challenge, I was travelling solo and so I have calculated the costs as if it were for two people (fully understanding that sometimes two people will experience extra savings and sometimes they will spend more - let's assume for the sake of my sanity that it all works out!).
Where To Stay In Boston: Your Best Budget Boston Accommodations
Hostelling International Boston (part of HI USA) has a phenomenal new building (tremendously eco-friendly, with a heavy dose of style), a great new location (between Chinatown and the Theater District), and is offering the best budget beds in the city. If you book your spot in an 8 bed dorm on a week night, you'll only pay $37. And you get a whole lot for that money.
For starters, each floor has a different brightly painted color pallet, each an homage to the Boston “T” subway system. Oversized art prints adorn the walls, bookending gigantic sofas. Every time the elevator doors opened (yes, an elevator! A real one!), I was hit with a burst of color and style. The designer touches were evident through the lobby as well. The exposed beams and pipes highlighted the soaring ceiling and complimented the low couches and cushions. An art patterned piano sat one corner of the café and on several occasions, I was treated to impromptu concerts by some of the talented guests.
Not every corner is filled with a modern and edgy style. There are vintage touches all over the property, including reproductions of decades-old hostelling posters, shadow boxes with memorabilia, and touching tributes to those who have made major contributions to the hostelling community over the years. Together, these throwbacks to yesteryear really highlight how Hostelling International is very much a network of communities and not just a network of accommodations.
Dorm rooms have built in privacy, with mini-closet lockers separating each bunk. Comfy mattresses, clean white linens and duvets, complimentary towels, and TWO pillows make for a very snug bed and a great sleep. And my favorite thing of all? Each bed has a private little nook in the headboard with 4 plugs and a reading light. I slept easy knowing all of my devices were being charged securely while I slept.
Features like double wide lockers that are actually more akin to mini closets and offer plenty of storage space. Many of these are personalized, named in honor of a HI supporter. There are numbered hooks, full length mirrors, extra blankets, and complimentary towels too.
Not having to pay for a fresh towel is unique among hostels, but having fresh terry cloth bath mats was an utter rarity! Instead of one large communal bathroom, HI Boston has dozens private individual rooms, each with a large shower stall, sink, toilet, shower gel, hair dryer and, yes, a large stack of fresh, clean bath mats and a hamper to discard the used ones. Between the dorms and the bathrooms, it felt like I was close to being in my own private room.
It would be tempting to spend the entire day inside the hostel and forgo exploring the surrounding city. There's a lounge and cafe, a library room, laundry, a pool table, a TV area, and a massive kitchen and dining room. The kitchen is host to a generous self serve breakfast every morning that includes bagels, toast, cream cheese, peanut butter, honey, jam, hard boiled eggs, two kinds of yogurt, porridge, cereal, fruit, cocoa, milk, juice, tea, and coffee. And on Sunday mornings there's even waffles and whipped cream!!! For budget travellers, this is the place to really start your morning off right and load up on a hearty meal. But I might recommend a little more restraint than the guy I saw eating 6 hard boiled eggs and two bagels -though I do applaud him for getting his money's worth!
The free treats don't end with breakfast. Throughout the week there are daily free or low-cost activities including tours of the city or of the Harvard campus. There are also movie nights and special events like Sleep For Peace, where the hostel staff hosted a free community celebration dinner. As my plate was loaded down with salmon, chicken, and veggies, I was reminded once again why hostels represent such an amazing value- and such an amazingly good travel experience.
For long term backpackers who’ve seen the more hostile side of hostels, HI Boston will be like a little slice of heaven, but I think the property actually offers even more to the non-backpacking crowd. Staying in a hostel, being surrounded by inspiring, like-minded travellers is a great way to get the best bang for the conference buck. You immerse yourself in the world of travel 24/7. You can connect with other conference attendees after hours and extend your unofficial networking. You can of course also connect with lots of travellers who aren’t a part of the conference and have the chance to connect with people from all around the world.
Accommodation Costs: $37 per person, per night: $148 total.
(Editor's note: While updating this post in 2022, I've noted that prices at the hostel have increased, which would impact your $200 Challenge budget goals but the hostel is still an exceptional value in downtown Boston. The best price for a dorm room when you book well ahead is $40.00. But if you book last minute and in peak season, you can expect to pay $50 or more a night)
The best affordable restaurants in Boston- Lunch
I thought eating out in Boston would mean a lot of Italian and Irish fare - and that sounded great to me! But it turns out that the city offers tremendous food diversity and I was anxious to try it all.
LUNCH # 1
Boston Kitchen Pizza, right next door to the hostel, sells a wide variety of huge thin crust slices starting at $3. They are so big they could easily be two regular slices. If you've made a few friends, it's an even better deal to share a medium pizza, which has 6 of these giant slices. At $12-$13 a pizza, you're only paying about $2 a slice and there are a ton of creative combos to choose from. Vegetarians will love having 10 different meat-free pizzas to enjoy.
Total cost for lunch: $7 for two slices (budget busters could save more by sharing a slice or sharing a pizza with friends). Update for 2022: The cost is closer to $8 now for two slices when you take into account the tax. Still a great deal!
Lunch # 2
Ryan doesn't eat lobster so a solo trip to Boston seemed like the perfect opportunity for this ocean-reared gal to get a lobster fix. I was determined to work some shellfish into the $200 Challenge and track down cheap lobster in Boston but I also knew that this was no place to cut corners - it needed to be fresh and high quality.
A little internet research brought me to the Thrillist's list of the 8 essential lobster rolls in Boston. They described James Hook & Company as the "steadiest lobster bargain in Boston" with classic, generous rolls. And the accompanying picture showed an overstuffed lobster roll with a serving of potato chips on the side. This was it! I was ready to recommend splitting the large lobster roll and side of chips for an $18 lunch - just $9 per person.
Much to my dismay, the lobster rolls were served sans chips! Armed with the authority of my Nova Scotia lobster eating heritage, I can firmly say that there is no excuse for serving a lobster sandwich solo. You always put something on the side - potato salad, pickles, chips - SOMETHING! But I digress! It was time to rethink the lunch strategy.
Of course, you could just buy chips elsewhere but I was already thinking far beyond that. I would recommend one of two things for budget travellers to get their lobster fix on in Boston. They could get a regular size lobster roll to go for $15 and augment their lunch with sides from a market -maybe some salad or potato wedges for an extra $5. Each person would still get a generous amount of lobster but to make the food stretch further it wouldn't be the only part of their lunch. Not bad for $20.
But since you're staying in a hostel with a huge, modern kitchen, you can also make your own lobster based meals. Fresh, live lobsters were being sold for approximately $11 a pound for the smallest (and hence sweetest) size.
If you're up for braving the pinchers and cooking a live lobster in a hostel, your dinner could consist of boiled lobster, drawn butter, salad, mashed potatoes, and dessert for about $20 - or just $10 a head. Not a bad deal at all!
But if this all sounds like a bit too much, James Hook and Co also sell freshly cooked and shelled lobster tail and claw meat for $40-$45 a pound. While this sounds expensive, keep in mind that there is zero wasted weight as you aren't paying for the heavy shell. Travelers on a tight budget could ask for $5 dollars of lobster meat and use this small portion to make some incredible BLT's or grilled cheese sandwiches back at the hostel. If your budget stretched a bit further, you could get $10-$15 of fresh lobster, buy a few extra ingredients for $5-$10 and make your own incredible lobster rolls (with plenty of sides!), or maybe a lobster Alfredo pasta, or an incredible pot of chowder. You'll end up with more lobster than if you had just split a roll and the price remains reasonable.
Total cost for a lobster lunch: $20 (but budget busters could manage on $10)
2022 Update: Prices have increased here! Fresh lobster meat is now $70 for a pound and I see that they now advertise it as being sold by the pound. I'm guessing that you can't ask for just $5 or $10 worth - but I guess you could try. I think your best bet for affordability is to split a large lobster roll and some chips or potato salad and call it $40.
The best affordable restaurants in Boston - Dinner
Splurging out on lobster (be it a sandwich or a more elaborate meal) takes a big chunk out of a tiny budget, so dinners will have to be kept simple. I went to the Hong Kong Eatery (79 Harrison Street) and picked up a heaping container of ginger-scallion lo mein for only $6. Warm, friendly, patient - the staff were none of those things. But I was starving and they delivered- and I only managed to eat through half of the portion! Two people could easily share and be satisfied but if you're looking for a little more variety, you could also order a slightly more pricey chicken or beef dish to go on the side and enjoy some leftovers as a snack later on.
Total cost for dinner: $15 (but budget busters could manage on $6-$10)
2022 Update: The ginger-scallion lo mein is STILL just $5.95! Add two spring rolls for $3 and maybe a fried shrimp appetizer for $4.75 and you will have a huge meal for two at just $13.79. The original price estimate for this dinner still stands!
Dinner # 2
If you do an internet search for cheap eats in Boston, you'll be rewarded with a lengthy list of choices. Some that stood out for me included Vietnamese subs at Banh Mi Ba Le on Dorchester Ave for $3.50, squares of Sicilian pizza and panzarotti for $1.65 each at Galleria Umberto (289 Hanover), and pupusa revuelta, corn tortillas stuffed with pork and cheese for $2.25 at Mi Pueblito (333 Border St). But I think it would be a shame to not take advantage of HI Boston's amazing kitchen.
For $10 or less, you could whip up a delectable dinner for two and it's made all the more easy by large, labelled jars of communal spices in the hostel kitchen. Spaghetti and meatballs, roast chicken and root vegetables, or a big pot of spicy curry and rice are perfect meals for reviving tired travellers and making new friends.
Total cost for dinner: $10 (budget busters could probably save even more by raiding the hostel's 'free' bin and using leftovers from their lobster dinner).
2022 Update: The growing cost of food makes doing dinner for 2 at just $10 tough - not impossible, but tough. I think it would be reasonable to set this price at $20.
Cheap things to do in Boston: Seeing the sights for free
If you've been adding up costs as you go, you'll realize we're out of money! But never fear because Boston has a great selection of things to do for free. There are tons of free and cheap things to do in Boston to help out any budget traveler.
Take advantage of any free tours being offered by the hostel. They're a great way to get to know the city and they're a lot of fun to participate in. Chances are, you'll meet some new friends who'll be up for participating in your lobster-thon!
Take a trip along the Freedom trail. Most travel offices and guidebooks offer free do-it-yourself guided walking tours of Boston's most famous sites. And a lot of them offer free admission! The Massachusetts State House, the Old North Church, the Park Street, and the King's Chapel are just some of the attractions offering free admission for curious visitors.
My favourite stop was the Granary Burying Ground, one of the oldest cemeteries in Boston and the final resting place of a who's who of American history - John Hancock and Paul Revere now call the Granary 'home'. But the graves of ordinary folks - some who lived in Boston in the mid-1600s - were the most interesting to me.
If you've been following the budget buster's version of the food guide, you may just have a few bucks left to pay around with. If so, I recommend heading to the North End and taking a tour of Paul Revere's house ($3.50 each). It's a unique example of centuries-old architecture that preserves not only Revere's story but that of early Boston as well.
Once you're done, stroll along Hanover Street and ask anyone who passes for a recommendation on the best cannoli shop. This is a matter of hot debate in the area but it's hard to go wrong no matter the answer. The large shells, generous filling, and rich flavor means you can easily get away with sharing one ($3) and still satisfy your sweet tooth.
Total cost: Free! (Or about $10 if you spend time in the North End).
2022 Update: The cost of the Paul Revere home is now $6. I cannot confirm but I imagine that cannolis are more expensive now as well - maybe $5 or more?
Overall Total: $200!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Update in 2022: Okay, so this $200 Challenge is a little bit more pricey but I think that's reasonable after so many years have passed. If you spent the higher end of the pricing today, you can expect to pay $293. That's not terrible for two people to spend two days in Boston, eating lobster. If you skip the lobster rolls in favour of a less expensive lunch and if you booked the hostel in the off season, you might be able to come in at just under $240. That's not half bad!
Are there any Boston bargains that I've missed? Let me know!
Has the $200 Challenge inspired you? Here's where else it's taken us.
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