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Tourists say Seattle is too expensive, but are they doing it wrong?

View from Kerry Park, in Seattle's Queen Anne neighborhood. Totally free! (Photo by Tiffany Von Arnim, CC Images)
LISTEN: Tourists say Seattle is too expensive. But Rachel Belle says: you're doing it wrong.

The sun is out which means tourists are starting to descend upon Seattle. But back in March, a JD Power tourism survey revealed that Seattle isn’t an ideal destination for tourists.

Out of the top 50 tourist cities in the US, Seattle was ranked 37th. The top complaint? Cost.

Travelers surveyed said our lodging, parking, transportation, entertainment, and activities are too expensive. Data from, reported by The Seattle Times says the average nightly rate for a hotel room in 2016 was $193.

When I read this survey, the first thing I thought was: you’re doing it wrong. Most locals don’t generally live and hang out downtown, so why should you limit yourself to staying there when you visit? Vacations can be affordable and fun if you do research and look outside of the traditional tourist traps. CBS travel editor Peter Greenberg agrees.

“You ask people when they want to come to New York, where they want to stay and they say, ‘We want to stay in Midtown.’ And you go, ‘Why?’ Because that’s the most expensive place to stay and if you have a good transportation system, you don’t need to stay there. Stay in Brooklyn,” Greenberg said. “The same thing applies to Seattle. People aren’t being creative, they’re not looking at their options. They’re just thinking the answer to their problem is downtown. I’m not saying people shouldn’t go downtown, I’m just saying pick and choose your battles carefully.”

Laura Podolak lives in Oakland and when she visited Seattle last year with her husband they wanted to stay in a cool neighborhood where they could walk to bars and restaurants. So they rented an Airbnb in Ballard for a fraction of the cost of a hotel.

“We flew into Sea-Tac and we did take light rail,” Podolak said. “We’re from the Bay Area so taking public transportation is, honestly, more comfortable and relaxing to us than renting a car and dealing with coming up with directions and parking. So we took light rail to downtown. Our host at the Airbnb was really helpful with giving us directions on which bus to get on and how to get to Ballard. It did take some time, it probably took us an hour and a half. We just knew we had to give ourselves enough time and we’re on vacation so that’s part of the travel to us is seeing the city from public transportation. Sometimes that’s the best way to see a city.”

So it is possible to experience Seattle on a budget.

“I was not surprised or sticker shocked at all by Seattle’s prices,” Podolak said.

If you are still unwilling to stay anywhere but a hotel, Greenberg recommends you make your reservation over the phone, not online.

“Only 52 percent of the available inventory is online. I know why you do it because you can do it at two o’clock in the morning in your bathrobe. You don’t have to talk to anybody. God forbid you should have a conversation with another human being. More importantly than that, the best hotel deal is not just predicated on rate, it’s predicated on: can my kids stay free? Can they eat free? Will you get rid of that dreaded resort fee? Will you throw in free parking? What Internet system asks you those questions? Everything is negotiable. Remember, an unsold hotel room is revenue the hotel can’t recoup once the sun rises. You just have to be able to talk to somebody on the phone.”

As for entertainment and activities, the Space Needle is iconic, but instead of spending $29 for an adult ticket, why not go to Kerry Park in Queen Anne and check out the view for free? Or check out the website Atlas Obscura.

“The Atlas is a place where people can discover places that are sort of off the beaten path,” said Shin Yu Pai, head of the Pacific Northwest Obscura Society. “In-depth articles about unusual histories and places, perhaps personalities or people.”

The website has ideas for quirky, often free or cheap places to visit, like the Fremont Troll and the Seattle Pinball Museum. And they’ve recently started leading tours. Seattle Obscura Society Field Agent Eric Magnuson led me down a set of stairs in a blacksmith shop, discreetly tucked into an alley in Belltown. This was a stop on his grunge music walking tour, called Grunge Redux.

“It’s still a current blacksmithing spot, but the practice space downstairs was where, for example, Pearl Jam had worked out their first album Ten and Soundgarden used to practice well,” Magnuson told me.

These tours take visitors into parts of the city they might never find on their own and satisfy unique, niche cravings.

But maybe traveling creatively and skipping the hotel, rental car, and main tourist attractions is just not how most Americans like to travel. Many people crave the comforts of home, but in an unfamiliar city. According to the survey, the #1 city to travel to is Vegas.

Tourists who visited Seattle, and participated in the survey, also complained about traffic and lack of friendliness at restaurants, bars, sightseeing destinations and sporting. The one thing they didn’t find too expensive was the restaurants and bars here.

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