Regaled with tales of $28 dinner checks, no sales tax, epic happy hours and reasonably priced bike rentals, chances are you've come to Portland to find cool on a budget. It's not an urban myth – Portland can be remarkably affordable, once you're actually there and situated. First, however, you'll have to get past the sticker shock of that airfare from most places not on the West Coast (and sometimes even then). Then there's the lodging question – rarely, if ever, is spending a night in Portland a bargain. And why, in a city where everyone is supposedly post-car, does a pricey rental car feel like such a necessity? (Portland, you will discover, sprawls far more than it likes to admit.) Furthermore, as you'll find, the city is becoming more expensive as it changes and grows, with the food scene far from immune to the same price creep now affecting the housing market. Still, for any of the blind corners faced here by the budget-conscious, it's still actually fairly easy to keep costs down. You just have to know how. Ready to see more and spend less on your next visit? Great – let's do this.
Looking for the lowest available airfares to Portland (PDX) right now? They're here.
Portland paints itself as a sort of pedestrian / cyclist / transit-user utopia. It is, very much so – at least for residents. The visitor, particularly those here to eat and drink (and, let's face it, that's why many of you are coming here), will quickly discover most of what's on their wish list to be scattered far and wide across a city where everything always seems to be fifteen, twenty minutes away from where you're standing. (That's by car.) When Portland's dastardly traffic picks up around 2:30pm most afternoons, forget it – you'll feel like you're in Los Angeles, but with the added joy of driving rain (from now until next spring, anyway). If you're only in town for a short while, you'll enjoy your time here a great deal more if you don't try to do everything at once. Pick a side of town and stick with it. That, or become a pro at getting around without a car.
Which brings us to the trains.
A west coast city with real transit? You bet. Portland's MAX light rail network is nearly as vast as the metropolitan region itself. Fast it's not – in fact, it can be downright pokey. This is Portland, however – you'll soon find that being in a hurry is relatively pointless. Besides, a day pass is a mere $5 – that's less than in some American cities with inferior transit networks. From the Red Line station immediately adjacent to Portland's award-winning airport to the wilds of Delta Park in North Portland and many more interesting places and neighborhoods than you could get to in one short visit, the MAX goes places. Sure, a car can often do it faster. Happily, the less time you spend driving here, the more you'll end up loving Portland – even if you see a little bit less of the city during your visit. Recent improvements to transit now allow for the Portland Streetcar to run in a loop that can take you from the Pearl District, through Downtown and past the booming South Waterfront, over the wondrous, no-cars-allowed Tilikum Crossing bridge and up through the raggedy (and really cool) Central Eastside, heading back over the Broadway Bridge and back into the Pearl, where you can transfer to another line that'll get you all the way over to perennially happening Northwest 23rd Street. That's a lot of Portland, right there. Sticking around for a while? Snap up a weekly pass for $26 – pretty much a steal.
Like to bike? You'll love it here.
Widespread improvements in other cities have stolen Portland's thunder somewhat, but the fact remains that a lot of Portlanders commute by bike year-round on a very good network, both on and off streets where drivers are far more accustomed now to sharing the road than in other top-rated cities like Chicago (which, incidentally, also has that six months of winter thing as a strike against it – in Portland, all you need to survive winter is a few pieces of waterproof gear from REI). Visitors can join the fun, no sweat – just look for the bright orange Biketown racks (and the brightly colored bikes that live there). For $12 a day, you get 180 minutes of ride time with an overage charge that comes out to about $6/hour, if you need that much ride time in a 24 hour period. The coverage area's fairly large by a visitor's standards – as in other cities, you return the bike wherever you find a rack. (More information at biketownpdx.com.)
There's also car share. (And Uber. And Lyft). Portland is a Car2Go city – if you're not yet a member, check out their list of North American cities and sign up to save big on transport on your next trip. Once you've been cleared and have the app fired up on your phone, you'll typically be able to pick up one of its blue and white colored Mini vehicles within a short walk of where you're standing in the coverage zone. Unlike in some cities, Portland's coverage zone doesn't extend to city limits, but as with the bikeshare program, for visitors, it's plenty. Currently, Car2Go rates in Portland start at $0.35 a minute – pick up, drive, then park and lock anywhere within the coverage zone and you're done. Prefer to let someone else drive? Lyft and Uber are not only here – they're practically a way of life for some (just witness the crowds at the designated pick-up zone at PDX, when you arrive). Again, Portland's size can be an issue here, as can the absence of UberPool or LyftLine capabilities – crosstown journeys will rarely be as cheap as you're hoping. Budget watchers are better off taking the train.
You can walk anywhere in Portland. There are no guarantees you're going to like it.
If you're focused on, say, Downtown, the Pearl District, Northwest 23rd Street and Forest Park (and for many visitors, that is Portland), you can walk pretty much everywhere, no problem – just wear the right shoes. Only problem is, the rest of Portland is so darned interesting these days. For maximum cool, you will often be leaving the old city core behind, heading North, East and Northeast. Out here, the city behaves more like your typical, suburban-in-scale Western town – pockets of commercial life buffered by block after block of single family homes and the occasional blank and/or gritty light industrial area. Can it all be walked? Sure, if you've a mind to. Idyllic, however, it is often not so much. On this side of town, a bike, a knowledge of the MAX system and those rideshare apps downloaded to your phone in case of too much rain will be key.
Downtown hotels are almost always overpriced. Look elsewhere.
Fact: You will nearly always pay too much for your hotel in Portland and will nearly always experience just okay service. This isn't a great hotel town, no matter what the people running hotels here believe. It's one of many reasons why Airbnb has had such great success in these parts – unfortunately, anyone with experience can tell you that most of the good short-term rentals are now just as overpriced as the hotels. (To boot, you're paying hefty occupancy taxes, whether you avoid hotels or not.) Long story short: Anyone looking to pay less than $100 a night for good lodging will need to be creative, at least outside of the darkest months. One of the quickest solutions: Take a look at the MAX system and look for hotels located within walking distance of the more far-flung stations. North Harbour, for example, up along the Columbia River, has a variety of low-key, often reasonably priced options. Best of all, they're a decidedly non-scenic but simple five-minute walk from the end of the Yellow Line, which rumbles through super-cool North Portland, over the Steel Bridge and into town. Closer to the airport, a couple of stops from the terminals and its pricey neighbor hotels, decent budget options like the Best Western Pony Soldier Inn are often going for around $99 a night. Again, not a pretty walk, but a very short one to the nearest Red Line station. Point is, with a little creativity, your hotel costs can be reduced to a much smaller part of your trip budget. Do your research.
Don't like spending more than $10 on a meal? In Portland, you really don't have to.
Portland's greatest strength remains its ability to serve up unforgettable experiences at some of the lowest price points you could hope to find in a city this popular – just look at the now-ubiquitous food cart pods that appear to be here to stay in neighborhood after neighborhood. Whatever you're thinking of eating, someone's making it in a cart for around or less than $10, somewhere in town – that's a near guarantee. Not that you have to stand around in the rain for your cheap (and very good) meal –Nong's Khao Man Gai is just one of many carts that's eventually gone brick and mortar – drop into their Central Eastside storefront for some of the continent's best Thai chicken rice (organic, naturally) – it's one of Portland's better meals but it'll still only run you $8.75