For travelers headed to any number of major U.S. cities, it's a tempting offer: a hotel room for up to 40% off the regular rate, no coupon or loyalty-club membership required.
The only catch? The room isn't exactly in the heart of the city. In fact, it's not in the city at all. Think Marietta, Ga., instead of Atlanta. Or Tacoma, Wa., instead of Seattle. Even New Jersey in place of New York.
Call it the "second city" strategy (with all apologies to Chicago), which tourism pros say is gaining in popularity for a likely reason: At a time when travel is starting to boom once again and costs are rising in tandem with demand -- hotel prices increased by 5% in mid 2012 versus a year earlier, according to online reservation service Hotels.com -- vacationers and business travelers alike are getting creative when seeking savings. Bunking in a nearby town is one such solution, and it may also make for a more meaningful, live-like-a-local travel experience, argue the pros.
Either way, the movement seems to be helping fuel a rise in tourism in many second cities, according to local convention and visitor bureaus. For example, in Alexandria, Va., a popular base for a Washington, D.C., vacation, visitor spending is up 22% over the past five years. "We are thrilled," says Claire Mouledoux, a spokeswoman for the Alexandria Convention & Visitors Association.
Of course, staying outside a major destination comes with a price of another sort: the time it takes to travel into the big city. And there may be hard expenses that need to be considered too. A $50 savings on a hotel doesn't represent a value if you'll spend an extra $50 on cab rides or renting a car. "You have to consider the entire costs of the trip," says Mike Hilton, an executive vice president with Concur, a company that provides travel-management services.
Then again, the cost could be worth it if that second-city experience gives you that opportunity to, say, play New Yorker for a week. Which could indeed mean sleeping in New Jersey. After all, says Hotels.com spokeswoman Taylor Cole, "staying in the middle of Times Square is not a good indication of what it's like to live in New York City."
With that in mind, we decided to look at five second cities, both in terms of the true savings they represent (prices quoted are provided by Hotels.com) and the experience they offer. Is staying second a first-rate choice? You be the judge.
Jersey City, N.J. (New York)
- Average room rate in Jersey City: $194 a night
- Average room rate in New York: $247 a night
Frank Sinatra may have sung the praises of "New York, New York," but he was a Jersey boy, born and raised across the Hudson River. And while Sinatra called Hoboken home, the commuter hub of Jersey City is perhaps the best bet for New York visitors. It has more than a dozen hotels, including a recently refurbished Courtyard by Marriott, and offers a variety of quick ways (30 minutes or less) to get to the Big Apple, such as the PATH rail system (up to $2.25 one-way) or ferry (up to $10 one-way).
Jersey City also happens to be a gateway to one of America's most enduring tourist attractions -- the Statue of Liberty, accessible via ferry. In fact, the city's boosters like to point out that the statue is a mere 2,000 feet from its shoreline -- compared with two miles from New York City. Other attractions include the Liberty Science Center, home to the nation's largest IMax theater, and the newly opened Cake Factory, the culinary production facility and cooking school headed by Buddy Valastro (star of TV's "Cake Boss"). All that said, one of the big knocks on Jersey City is that it's not particularly practical for those who want to cab it from New York -- fares can easily run upwards of $30 or more, and travel time can be unpredictable."There's no guarantee you won't be sitting in traffic," warns Mark Drusch, a spokesman for the budget travel site CheapOair.com.
Slidell, La. (New Orleans)
- Average room rate in Slidell: $95 a night
- Average room rate in New Orleans: $166 a night
If New Orleans is the Big Easy, Slidell and the surrounding region of St. Tammany Parish is the Big Value: Room rates can go as low as $50 a night at this modest-size city (population 27,419) that's about a 30-minute drive from its far more famous neighbor on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain. As the rates might attest, this isn't a place for those looking for luxury: Value-priced chain hotels dominate Slidell's list of a dozen or so lodgings. (At the higher end is a Homewood Suites by Hilton, which opened in 2010.)
Aside from the value proposition, Slidell can be a convenient option for those looking to travel to various parts of Louisiana -- not just New Orleans, but also the Gulf Coast casinos and the plantation country of Baton Rouge, both less than an hour away. And while Slidell won't rival New Orleans in terms of nightlife, it does boast its share of swamp life: The city has three eco-tour operators, including Honey Island Swamp Tours, which advises guests to keep an eye out for the ever-elusive Big Foot (the mythical creature has supposedly been seen in the area). Slidell is also sure to be one of the spillover destinations for travelers making their way to next year's Super Bowl, which is being held in New Orleans. Slidell officials say they're already fielding calls about lodging for the big weekend. But the proximity won't mean much to visitors without a car: Public transportation options between Slidell and New Orleans are essentially nonexistent.
Oakland, Calif. (San Francisco)
- Average room rate in Oakland: $112 a night
- Average room rate in San Francisco: $175 a night
Oakland doesn't just live in the shadow of San Francisco, it's become almost a national punch line because of its lack of identity. This is the city of which former resident and prominent American author Gertrude B. Stein memorably said, "There's no there, there." (Some Oakland loyalists have insisted the quote was taken out of context.) Despite all the negative publicity, this city, which is already among the 50 largest in the country, is emerging as a hotbed of hipster culture (think bars with bocce ball courts) and a place where history is prized (two of the city's Art Deco theaters have undergone major renovations of late).
Another signpost of the city's revival: the recent $17 million refurbishment of the Oakland Marriott City Center. What's constant about Oakland, however, is that it remains an affordable gateway to San Francisco, especially when factoring in the relatively low-cost public transportation options linking the two cities, such as the Bart rail system (a one-way trip can take 15 minutes and run as little as $3.15) and ferry. Oakland can also be a logical gateway to other California locales, from Yosemite National Park to the wine country of Napa and Sonoma.
Alexandria, Va. (Washington, D.C.)
- Average room rate in Alexandria: $131 a night
- Average room rate in Washington: $161 a night
Washington, D.C., is named after our nation's first president, but George Washington arguably had much closer ties to Alexandria (and nearby Mount Vernon), where he lived and worked for a good portion of his life. Today, the two cities have something of a city-to-suburb relationship -- Alexandria is a 15-minute ride away on the D.C. Metrorail (up to $5.75 one way) and is home to many federal government employees. As a tourist base, Alexandria isn't vastly cheaper than Washington, but that's partly because it's a fairly popular (and often decidedly upscale) locale in its own right. Indeed, it's "no ordinary Beltway 'burb," as one travel survey noted -- with dozens of lodging choices, from boutique hotels to major chains.
Make no mistake: Visitors to this northern Virginia city do the day-trip thing into D.C., but they also spend time wandering Alexandria's cobblestone-lined historic district (Old Town), dining in one of its award-winning eateries (the recently opened Virtue Feed & Grain was named one of America's 50 best new restaurants by Bon App tit magazine this past August) or taking in a little culture (the waterfront Torpedo Factory Art Center showcases more than 150 artists). And naturally, they head to nearby Mount Vernon as well -- to see the estate where Washington really slept.
Fort Lauderdale (Miami)
- Average room rate Fort Lauderdale: $141 a night
- Average room rate in Miami: $186 a night
It's perhaps unfair to categorize Fort Lauderdale as a mere place to rest your head while you focus on the sights, sounds and other sensations of the American Riviera that is Miami in general and South Beach in particular. While it's indeed a relatively close 30 miles away, Fort Lauderdale has long been its own fun-in-the-sun destination, the city that started the spring-break tradition and that's home to everything from the International Swimming Hall of Fame to the lively Las Olas shopping-and-dining district. (And in the broader Broward County region, there's the fairly new Village at Gulfstream Park -- a $100 million-plus entertainment-and-more complex connected to the famed thoroughbred track.)
Ultimately, say travel pros, the "stay in Fort Lauderdale, party in Miami strategy" is like getting two great cities in one: "A 30- to 45-minute drive lets you sample the scene of South Beach when you want and enjoy the more casual, low-cost vibe of Fort Lauderdale as home base," says Emily Fisher, a spokeswoman for the budget travel site Cheapflights.com. (Fisher also makes the point that it's often cheaper to fly into Fort Lauderdale than into Miami.) But it's an option that may not make much sense, travel pros warn, unless you're planning on traveling to and from the two cities by car: Otherwise, the best public transportation option is the Tri-Rail commuter line (up to $5 one-way), but it doesn't go directly into the heart of Miami (or Miami Beach/South Beach, which is on the other side of the Intracoastal Waterway from Miami).