One of Charleston’s greatest accomplishments—doing a lot with a very little bit of space—is also one of its most notable shortcomings. When you’re one of America’s favorite small cities, things can get pretty busy, and, well—there’s only so much room for guests. This can drive the cost of a visit far higher than it ought to be, even in a place as special as South Carolina’s characterful Lowcountry.
Don’t get sucked into spending the college fund: The truth about Charleston is that one of the best things is just being there, soaking it all in—how much you spend or where you stay isn’t quite as important as you might think. Ready to jump in but don’t want to break the bank? Here’s a handy guide that should help you keep costs down.
Affordable hotels in Charleston? That’s a laugh—mostly.
Charleston’s best hotels win all sorts of awards for good reason—they’re wonderful and charming and often quite luxurious. It’s best, however—take it from someone who’s stayed in these hotels, over the years—to think of the city as Manhattan in miniature—here too, the rates mostly reflect demand. If you’re pricing out a weekend in the fall and are impressed by the number of options going for $400, $500 a night—it’s not that these are the world’s most opulent and amazing hotels, it’s just that everyone else wants to go too. You can fight to find a budget bed in the historic district, but unless it’s the depths of low season, when everything’s on sale, apart from a couple of less than thrilling options (the basic, if very central Days Inn Charleston Historic District comes to mind), you’re going to get a lot more for your money across the Ashley River. This brings you to a part of Charleston that’s not quite so famous, one with a ton of affordable hotels, quite literally minutes from the action. Here, recognizable chain properties, some offering rates of less than $99 a night at certain times of the year, mix it up with great indies like the Town & Country Inn and Suites Charleston, starting around $150, even on some very busy weekends. And there’s no need to cross the river every time you want to eat—this part of Charleston has its fair share of good restaurants, too. (Try Swig & Swine for BBQ and beers, Early Bird Diner for great regional breakfasts, Boxcar Betty’s for famous fried chicken sandwiches.) Value hunters will have similar luck on the other side of the historic district in Mount Pleasant, an upscale suburb with easy access to the beach; in the old town, the charming Old Village Post House Inn is a great find, with starting rates of $99 (book this one at BedandBreakfast.com). If price is the only concern, look no further than the area of North Charleston surrounding the airport—here, smart chains like Aloft Charleston Airport & Convention Center and Hyatt Place Charleston Airport/Convention Center can be booked quite cheaply for much of the year. From all of these areas, the historic core is between 10-20 minutes by car, tops. Bonus: Charleston has Uber, so those flying in don’t have to feel pressured to rent wheels to get around—you can get downtown from the airport and most places in the ‘burbs for about $15. (More on that below.)
See the city without spending a penny.
The great pleasure of Charleston is to explore a place that probably looks nothing like where you come from—if you’ve never been, the main thing to do is to see as much of it as you can on foot. (For sure, bring comfortable walking shoes.) From the historic City Market to the nearly-ancient architecture that surrounds it, the famous pineapple fountain at Waterfront Park and the miles of seawall wrapping around the city’s historic core, there’s a lot to take in without going very far. Then there are the terrific shopping areas along the likes of King Street, which deserve to be walked end to end—stop at Marion Square, a hub of local social life and home to both Thursday night movies (Apr-May) and a great Saturday morning market in season (Apr-Nov). One of the most impressive pieces of local architecture is one of the newest—the stunning Ravenel Bridge soars above and over the Cooper River, connecting Charleston to suburban Mount Pleasant. It’s not just for cars, either—a path at the top of Bay Street takes you up and over for a thrilling if lengthy round-trip, offering views for days. Temperatures rising? Charleston is surrounded by water—make like a local and hit the beaches, which are everywhere. (Not to play favorites, but laid-back Sullivan’s Island is kind of the best.) At the very least, head near water—at the Mount Pleasant end of the big bridge, you have two excellent open spaces—Memorial Waterfront Park, which includes the remnants of the old bridge, and Shem Creek Park with its boardwalk offering views of both the natural surroundings and Charleston’s handsome little skyline.
Cheap eats, Charleston style.
Charleston is one of those towns where food is almost as important as politics and maybe even a little more important than religion. It can also be quite expensive. From the first meal to day’s end, it really does pay to watch your wallet when eating out. Skip the better-known breakfast spots – some of them are absurdly overpriced anyway—and instead drop by the Marina Variety Store, looking out to the Ashley River; in their restaurant, good breakfast combos start at a mere $5.99. For lunch, classics like Gaulart & Maliclet on Broad Street—it’s French, if you didn’t catch that—serve up terrific lunch sets from $9 that include a main, soup or salad and a glass of house wine. Want something more mod? The chic Le Farfalle does a pasta, salad and garlic bread combo for lunch—a steal at $12, though downright pricey when compared to the sturdy old Dave’s Carry-Out over on Morris Street—their seafood platters (get the lima beans and rice!) start at well under $10. Moving on to the happiest hour, top dinner spot The Ordinary is far from on the budget, but would it hurt to stop in for their weekday oyster party ($1.50/each, Tues-Fri, 5-6:30pm)? No. No it wouldn’t. If you’re not the shellfish type, don’t worry, you’re covered at fine-dining fave The Macintosh, where their Bacon Happy Hour menu (offered Mon-Fri 5-7) includes, among other great deals, a rotating bacon-related special for just $5. Sit-down evening meals don’t have to break the bank—celeb chef Sean Brock’s known for the high-end Husk, but budget-watchers might instead try Minero, Brock’s curious, Lowcountry-influenced Mexican joint that gets raves for the catfish taco (no, really!), served with green tomato tartar and crisp cabbage, a good deal at $4 each. (There’s also a glammed-up burrito for $10.) Way, way up King Street in the hippest part of town, much of the buzz these days is on Lewis Barbecue, a great space for some rather attractively-priced smoked meats—a terrific little sandwich menu and individual sides make it possible to eat here for less than $15, before drink, tax and tip. Not trying to turn your evening into a whole thing? The divey and much-liked Griffon, a relaxed, English-style pub near most popular downtown hotels, does a good fish and chips for around $10—try the soups, too.
To car or not to car?
Unless you’ve got designs on a Lowcountry road trip (those who have the time really ought to twin a Charleston visit with some time in Savannah, Georgia, the other historic gem in the region), Charleston’s a very small town, not to mention a relatively safe and walkable one. With Uber making it easy to navigate the bridges after a fun night out and a handful of Zipcars available downtown should you feel the beaches calling your name, there’s really no need to burden yourself with a car here, at all. For those staying in the city, what you’ll save on hotel overnight parking charges alone makes this a smart move. If you’re stuck with wheels and can’t get rid of them, the city maintains a series of parking structures with a daily maximum of $16—some, such as the clean, modern garage located next to Marion Square, are manned 24/7.
Ready to book?
If you’re looking for the cheapest fares to Charleston, start your search at CheapFlights, or compare multiple sites at once with BookingBuddy. Don’t forget that bundling your flight and hotel together can save you a lot of money; give it a try at either Orbitz or Expedia—both are great places to start a simple airfare search, too. If you’re just after the best Charleston hotel deals, start your search at Hotels.com or Priceline, where you can save up to 60 percent on any given night by taking advantage of their Express Deals feature. (This simple tool has probably saved us—no joke—thousands of dollars over the years.) Don’t forget, you can also cross-reference a ton of hotel user reviews with the best rates available from more than 200 web sites at TripAdvisor. If you need a rental car, begin your search by swinging wide to get a sense of the market—a site like Booking Buddy lets you check pretty much every site worth knowing in just a couple of clicks.