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.