I Want to Travel the World for Cheap, So I Started With Montreal (Success)

This summer, inspired largely by Pinterest vision boards, I vowed to be more proactive about whale-watching, organizing spice jars in unexpected ways, and making terrariums with tiny people in them—and also about travel. I’d spent hours at my computer perusing Kayak and plotting imaginary trips to Ireland and Alaska and Costa Rica and Japan. But my globe-trotting ambitions faced two big obstacles. First, I didn’t have a lot of extra dollars to spare. Second, the logistics of finding a travel companion with a compatible schedule, budget, and level of passport validity seemed daunting.

Tired of putting off adventures, I decided to take the solo budget travel plunge. I settled on Montreal for my first run over Columbus Day weekend. It was close enough to New England for a quick jaunt north, had a big blue river and a killer arts scene, and offered opportunities aplenty to eat frites and practice limited French. Going in, I had two big goals: Keep costs down and meet some peeps. I did both! And in the process I added the city of Arcade Fire (but, confusingly, not the city of Of Montreal) to my mental Pinterest dreams. In the end I spent about $345 USD on four nights and three days’ worth of transportation, lodging, food, and good times. For my fellow solo thrifty travelers out there, here’s what I learned. 

If you’ve got a car and it’s not too far: Maybe drive it?
Driving to Montreal and back from Western Massachusetts (a five-hour trip) cost me about $96—a quarter of how much I would have had to pay for a plane ticket. The one downside of traveling by car was dealing with a scary border patrol agent on the return trip. My claim that I had gone to Montreal for fun turned out to be a wild red flag for the agent, who began blitzing me with questions about my personal and professional history. It all reached an apex when she asked about the last time I’d been to Canada.

I thought back. “I went to Vancouver a couple Thanksgivings ago with my family?”
“Why’d you do that? Do you have relatives there?” she said, wrinkling her nose to indicate that nobody in their right mind would venture across the border unless absolutely necessary.
“No,” I said apologetically.
“So why’d you go?”
I knew she wouldn’t like the answer, but there was no way around it. “For fun,” I said.
Then she ordered me to pop the trunk.

Using AirBnB can save a bundle.
This was my first time using AirBnB, and I picked my room based on the following criteria:

• It was cheap: $119 for three nights, including the AirBnB fee, plus a $100 security deposit.
• It was a two-minute walk to the Vendôme subway station, and the reviews said that it was in a safe neighborhood.
• Many previous visitors had showered host P. with praise, which persuaded me that staying with him would be a good way to not get murdered. Clearly I was still a little nervous about getting murdered, however, because searching for “murder” and “Montreal” in my Gchat history brings up seven results.

Spoiler: I did not get murdered! P. was out of town the whole time I was there, so I had the apartment to myself—a clean, spare place with sloping hardwood floors and chipped paint. The guest bedroom had a daybed, brightly colored Haitian art on the walls, paper Ikea lamps, and a little computer station. The neighborhood was nothing special (my block had a Subway, a gas station, and several cell phone stores), but it was well-lit with plenty of foot traffic, so I felt secure walking home alone at night.

Make a meal plan.
I knew I wanted to try some of Montreal’s cuisine—but I also wanted to make sure that eating out didn’t swallow my wallet whole. So before I headed to Montreal, I stocked up on $25 worth of supplies: MacIntosh apples, crunchy peanut butter, a loaf of mysteriously named yoga bread, bananas, a variety pack of instant oatmeal, almonds, and a bag of cheddar soy chips that I devoured in the first 10 minutes of the road trip.

In Montreal, I’d make myself oatmeal for breakfast and pack a sandwich for a lunch-on-the-go. I also carried almonds for emergency snacking. This worked great! Then I just followed my heart (within reason) after 5 pm. Among the good eats I had over four days, for under $70 total: a delicious, life-restoring $2 latte from Casa del Popolo; french fries in a paper cone with little cups of aioli and cauliflower-onion-cornichon mustard sauce; a Brasseurs De Montréal beer packed with ginger and lime; multiple hard apple ciders; a homey bowl of ratatouille with French bread and olive tapenade; a giant plate of Brie, pears, arugula, and baguette slices; a veggie gyro from a hole-in-the-wall Greek restaurant; and a farewell asparagus-and-cheese crepe.

Take advantage of the city’s public transportation.
Cabs are for Carrie Bradshaw and the Grey Poupon man (post-financial meltdown I bet he ditched the limo), and driving is for people who understand where they are going. A trusty public transportation system, on the other hand, can’t be beat. With just four clearly color-coded subway lines, Montreal is a breeze to navigate. I paid $16 for a 3-day pass and zipped all over the city on Montreal’s rail. My feet got some decent pavement-pounding in, too.

Find the free stuff.
Montreal is super-walkable, and I spent a lot of time just wandering around, especially in Mile End. The neighborhood has tons of cool street art—telephone poles papered with Uncle Sam “I want you ignorant” posters; a parking garage covered in black-and-white cartoons of gnomes and dragons; the face of a beaming 1940s-era woman splashed across a brick wall. Mile End also has many cool stores that I could not afford. In one, I admired a ring topped with a lion. When you slid it on, the lion stretched across three of your fingers–the jungle king of brass knuckles. It was $20. I did not buy it, but I can still hear it roaring sometimes.

I got a good fixing of free cultural and historical landmarks, too. One afternoon I visited the enormous, friendly Musee des Beaux Arts, which charges no admission, and ogled paintings by Picasso and Basquiat. Afterward I climbed to the top of Mont Royal, a park created by All the Coolest Parks designer Fredrick Law Olmsted. The summit was like a UN meeting: tourists speaking Spanish and Mandarin and German and English in various accents snapped pictures of the city beneath a powder-blue sky. I also paid $5 for admission to Basilique Notre Dame and sat for a while in a pew, eavesdropping on tour guides and gazing up at the ceiling, deep blue and scattered with stars.

Say yes to strangers.
AirBnB turned out to be not just a frugal choice but a great way to meet people. Since my host P. was out of town, he arranged for his friend M.—a pretty, dark-haired software engineer in her early thirties—to let me into the building. M. showed me where the towels were and gave me the wireless password. Then she paused. “My friends and I going to a bar,” she said. “Want to come?”

It was 11:30 at night, and I was beat after a full day of work and five hours’ drive north. But was I in Montreal for sleeping? “Sure,” I said.

Thanks to M., I had an unforgettable first night in the city: I got to meet a bunch of awesome Montrealers, along with a few Moroccans, one Colombian, and a smattering of French persons. We headed first to Baldwin Barmacie, a pharmacy-themed bar with skinny-jeaned men and women in draped tanks dancing under the glow of little illuminated vials. Later, we relocated to a low-key bar with wood tables shaped like T’s–a genius way to enable large-group conversations. I learned about Quebec politics (contentious) and potholes (the size of your car, sometimes!). Around 3 a.m., the women piled into M.’s car and headed home—but not before stopping on a hill that overlooked the city sprawled large, twinkling in the dark. C., a Colombian fashion designer, pointed out the doughnut-shaped Olympic stadium, the Jacques Cartier bridge, and the dark patch where her apartment was. A., a law student, asked a teenage girl with eyebrow piercings to take our picture. The girl swore as she fiddled with the flash on A.’s smartphone. When it finally went off, capturing the four of us with our arms slung around each other’s shoulders, I thought about how I was just making a cameo in these womens’ lives–but for that night, they made me feel like a regular.

Look up an old pal.
I sometimes feel paranoid about getting in touch with casual friends when I pass through their cities—what if secretly we have become enemies since the last time we talked, and I just didn’t get the notification? Nonetheless, I did a quick search on Facebook to see if I knew anyone in Montreal and found that a friend from my high school French class, M.F., was currently a PhD student at McGill. We met up for dinner on Saturday. After all those speaking scenarios asking for invisible croque monsieurs at pretend cafes, ordering food together at a bistro on St. Laurent felt totally natural. (The bistro also happened to be celebrating its anniversary–every so often our reminiscing was interrupted by a waiter bearing a platter of (free!) mini-pizzas or a magician with a little green card table in tow.) Much to my relief, M.F. and I were not enemies. We were amis, still.

Sit at the bar.
I ate at a bar on my last night in Montreal, planning to take advantage of the cheaper bar menu and read The Tipping Point. Instead, I ended up chatting with the bartender and the motley crew of people sitting alongside me (anarchist guy with his hair in a topknot; businessman working on his laptop; a group of students celebrating a birthday). The students bought a round of shots for everyone perched at the bar, which I’m sure helped increase the chances of camaraderie. The shots were golden and sweet–the kind you can sip if you need to.

Have a project.
If you’re shy but social (much like a hobbit), having a purpose in mind–a web comic, a photo series, a list of your favorite murals or cafes in a city–can inspire you to reach out to new people. I decided that I would write about the trip, which gave me a little extra courage to strike up random conversations. After all, I needed material.


Sarah Todd blogs about feminism and popular culture over at Girls Like Giants


30 Comments / Post A Comment

WaityKatie (#1,696)

This is relevant to my interests! As I just booked a 5-night solo trip there between x-mas and new year’s. I’m taking Amtrak from NYC!

@WaityKatie I love everything about your comment; your username, your first sentence, and your plan. Montreal is the best! Bring warm clothes (layers are your friend), and then forget about the cold, it’s the least interesting thing about Montreal, and shouldn’t stop you from taking advantage of the many fun things to do in the city. Have a blast, it’s a great place to spend 5 days.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@She was a retail whore This is my Rescheduled Trip (the first one was cancelled at the literal last minute in Aug. 2011 by Hurricane Irene). I lost one night’s hotel deposit due to that bastard hurricane and everything shutting down 2 days before it even came. But this time I had a hotels.com coupon for 40 percent off (!) plus I get hotels.com points so after this I will have 2 free hotel days to use on my next trip. (Amtrak had better not let me down again this time…)

kellyography (#250)

@WaityKatie Your comments are relevant to my interests! I thought this article was great, too, as I have also thought about going solo to Montreal via NY Penn Amtrak, but have not gone so far as to actually take the plunge. You’ll have to let us know how it went!

OllyOlly (#669)

If it makes you feel any better, during my roadtrip to Montreal last June the border agent also spewed out a lot of questions, including what were our professions. I was petrified. Then suddenly she smiled and said, “Have a great trip.” We didn’t have to open the trunk however.

On the way back, about an hour into NY there was a highway stop where a border patrol man asked “ARE YOU CITIZENS?” And we were like, “yes.” And then he let us go after peering into the back seat where we had trash from Olive et Gormando and a bottle of black currant liquor.

ghechr (#596)

@OllyOlly Yeah I also had a weird encounter with Canadian customs. I was on my way back to the US after attending a wedding in Montreal. (Im a US citizen.) For whatever reason I was flagged or something at the airport and I had to go into this little side room and answer questions about my stay and what I did in the US. I was nervous and was like, “I went to a wedding but it wasn’t my wedding I swear!” Anyway after about 10 mins they let me board my plane. It’s never happened to me before or since.

oiseau (#1,830)

I really liked the way this was written. You are a good writer, Sarah!

@oiseau Merci oh beautiful bird!

This was great and I hope you write more! I’m always trying to figure out cheap solo vacations. Maybe some more tips for socializing and meeting new people for us shy-but-social hobbit-types?

inspector_tiger (#2,651)

@Sandra Boiteau@facebook Oh, I always liked to travel alone, but I’m a shy but social hobbit and making friends on the road is rather hard for me, so I kinda stopped doing the solothing. I’d like to second the need for more tipps! :)

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

I really enjoyed this as well! I haven’t been to Montreal in nine years so I need to go again soon! Thanks for the encouragement.
I have been pretty lucky at border crossings I guess but it’s always the U.S. agents who will give you trouble, not the Canadians. One time I took a boat from British Colombia back into the U.S. and the U.S. agent wanted to know why I was so far from home. I was like “uhhhh I’m on vacation?”

Megano! (#124)

I am offended that that border crossing agent doesn’t think people would ever travel to Canada for fun.

EM (#1,012)

@Megano! I assumed he thought she was traveling to Montreal and Vancouver for drug-related fun.

Megano! (#124)

@Michelle More like drug running fun. But some people come here for not that!!

EM (#1,012)

In an unfortunate way, it’s nice to know that Canadian border guards give Americans a hard time. American border guards always make me very anxious.

Worker Parasite (#2,292)

@Michelle It sounds like it was the guard on her return trip to the US, so it would’ve been the American border guard hassling her.

As a Canadian I rarely have had any issues with US border guards, but Canadian border guards make me nervous. “Why would you ever leave our country?! Don’t you know buying American is bad for the Canadian economy?!” etc.

EM (#1,012)

@Worker Parasite Ooh, I’ve never experienced that! Although maybe now they will be suspicious of trips to Trader Joe’s and accuse us of cheese smuggling!

Worker Parasite (#2,292)

@Michelle I think there’s officially a limit of $20 for dairy products, which I usually triple on my trips to Trader Joe’s. Thankfully haven’t been asked how much dairy I have yet.

Worker Parasite (#2,292)

Thanks for a good read. I used to live 2 minutes from Vendome and quite liked the neighbourhood.

One thing: So before I headed to Montreal, I stocked up on $25 worth of supplies: MacIntosh apples, crunchy peanut butter, a loaf of mysteriously named yoga bread, bananas…” If you fear scary border guards (and who doesn’t) don’t try to bring fruit across the border. Some’s ok, some isn’t, it varies based on phases of the moon or some such nonsense, but as a rule of thumb I never bring fresh fruit or veggies across the Canada-US border as it always causes hassles for me.

@Worker Parasite Ahh thanks, that is a good tip! For some reason I thought this applied only to plants (?), but that is a rule I probably made up in my head. Swearing off the fruits and veggies for future border-crossings.

zou bisou (#1,637)

This was awesome! Bravo to you for being gutsy- sounds like it was a lot of fun.

megsy (#1,565)

I would avoid taking any produce over the border – you said you had a bag of apples and bananas. This can occasionally lead to headaches if the border guards know what you have on you.

blair (#1,962)

MONTREAL! YES! I moved here for an extended funemploycation and it is THE BEST.

question: where is this place with the chatty bartender and the shots-buying students? As a fellow lone person in this city this is Relevant To My Interests

@blair Funemploycation = Vocab word I am adding to my dictionary immediately.

I wish I remembered the name of the bar! But I know it was on Rue St. Denis, close to the Mont Royal stop. I’m gonna try and retrace my footsteps via Google maps–if I can figure it out I’ll let you know :-)

cinoyter (#2,726)

@Sarah Todd@twitter I’m from here. L’esco Bar? Quai des brumes? It might also be Diable vert but for everyone’s sake I hope not.

Dancercise (#94)

I’ve been thinking about taking a short trip somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s, and this has encouraged me to go a-lookin’ for cool places I can drive to.

Fig. 1 (#632)

If you guys go to Montreal you must, must have a meal at L’Express. I still have inappropriate daydreams about their lentil octopus salad. Also, best service ever. Impeccable.

thenotestaken (#542)

Salut from Montreal! Billfold cheap vacation meetup, anyone?
PS. everything the author says about it being the best is absolutely true. And the rent is very cheap too–I always thought it would be a great option to come sublet in for a couple months if you need a change/telecommute or whatever. I had a subletter at one point who had never been before but chose to get an apartment in a new city for the summer months to work on his thesis, and he loved it despite not knowing a soul upon arrival.

@thenotestaken I miss my Montreal apartment every day. I paid $520 for a huge one bedroom with a new kitchen and updated bathroom. That same apartment would be like $2200 here, if not more. I miss my place!!!!! But I never thought of subletting and staying in Montreal for a bit. Maybe I can swing that this summer. Thanks for the idea!

ghechr (#596)

@thenotestaken I had the good fortune of visiting Montreal a few years ago and I LOVED IT. It was easy to get to (I was living in Pennsylvania at the time) but yet it felt like I was worlds away.

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