I recently had the pleasure of traveling to New Orleans. The city is indescribable, but I’m going to try to tell you about it anyway.

Let me start off by saying it was pretty damn good. What wasn’t so good was the god-awful amount of additional money I ended up spending, even though I had gone to the trouble of making a travel budget, like some kind of adult.  

I, along with four other Irish girls, decided to take this trip down South to see everything New Orleans has to offer. Spoiler alert: It has too much to offer — drop what you’re doing, go there immediately, and tell ’em Kelly sent ya!

While the trip was wonderful, and I don't regret any of the time or money spent there, in my mind I assumed that anywhere outside New York City just had to be cheaper. It seems America is wont to continually surprise me.

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Unexpected Item in the Baggage Area

I budgeted a total of $500 spending money for our four-night stay; $125 a day seemed as if it would go far.

We paid for flights and accommodation beforehand, which seemed reasonably priced. Kiwi.com got us the cheapest possible connecting flights at $290. Great, right?

Little did I know — as this policy doesn’t exist in Ireland — that airlines such as Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant can and will charge you for every minuscule thing, even the very air you breathe! Okay, that's a bit dramatic. But when one of the aforementioned airlines tried to charge me $60 at the gate for my tiny suitcase, it was as if all the air had been sucked out of the room at the same time.

These airlines have a “personal item” policy for a good number of their national flights. This might seem like common sense to many of you, but for a resident alien such as me, it was scary to realize on the day before flying that I had no carry-on booked for any of my four connecting flights there and back.

Cue an extra $105 of in-flight fees. And that was after I managed to sneak my bag on one of the flights for free!

I can’t say that was in my budget, that’s for sure. From now on, I’ll be booking that hand luggage at check-in, where the fee is still ridiculous, but much lower. Why would I fly halfway across the country with only a handbag, like some kind of animal?

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Accommodation Wins

We stayed in hostels the whole time, and while I can hear some of you shudder at the thought, trust me, it’s worth it: The total for a bed for five nights came to $151.80. That’s only $30.36 a night! It’s probably even cheaper at other times of the year, as this was jazz festival season. Hostelworld and Booking.com will be your best friend!

I stayed in two different hostels while I was there, as the one that some of my other friends were staying in was booked until the last night. Site 61, the first hostel, was one of the cutest houses I have ever seen.

Typical huge Louisiana-style balconies and a giant back porch made it the sweetest place to stay. The bunk beds were wooden instead of that awful wrought iron that I despise. Plus, our six-bed dorm never had more than four people staying at once. And free pancake and bagel breakfasts? Bliss!

The second hostel had a pool. Need I say more?

Friends + Money = Not as Bad as You’d Think

Nothing makes my skin crawl more than having to ask my friends to pay me back the money they owe me. Maybe it’s an Irish thing, or maybe it’s just my particular upbringing, but I break out in a nervous sweat whenever I have to say, “Hey, can I have that $20 back whenever you get a chance, please, thanks, love you?” I also never actually ask my friends for the full amount, which I think is fairly standard. If the debt is $26.07, I ask for $25. But apparently people do it down to the very decimal nowadays. Who knew?

Venmo and Chase Quick Pay saved us from scrabbling at the ATM and begging for change from a bartender.

If we couldn’t split the bill, one brave person in our group would foot it, and we’d Venmo the money immediately. While Venmo can be annoying because of the delay in funds arriving in your account, it still made our dining and small shared expenses so much simpler.

One evening in particular, we were practically forced to pay quickly and on one card after receiving some of the worst service I’ve ever had the misfortune to experience.

While I won’t lower myself by naming the place (but it rhymes with Shamboula’s), the waiter not only ignored us for most of the meal, but also left us waiting for our food for more than an hour and a half, without explanation. He also swore at us multiple times. I’m talking about that lovely F-word. What a charmer!

Our meal was discounted down to $25 after we refused to pay for most of the bill (rightfully so, I promise! I’ve been a server, too). To speed things up, one of the girls paid on her card so we could get the hell out of there. After that, Venmo to the rescue again!

Kelly and Fluffy the alligator in New Orleans
Author Kelly Meehan Brown with the alligator Fluffy. Courtesy of Meehan Brown

New Orleans Travel Tips: Expensive Things to Do (That I’ll Never Regret)

While I ended up spending way over my budget (nearer to $700 more than I’d care to admit), I have no guilt for the money spent. We drank and ate like queens, and we saw more of New Orleans than I had ever expected to.

We also took a tour of the Jean Lafitte swamp and bayou route. I got to hold a baby alligator, whose name was Fluffy. I’m still not over it.

It cost a total of $50, which included the bus out to the swamp and back. Honestly, it was worth every penny. The beauty of the bayou is breathtaking. (Alliteration!)

We wanted to experience the amazing jazz culture of New Orleans, so we spent a ton of cash to do so. Preservation Hall, one of the oldest and most authentic jazz clubs in the city, has a $20 cover charge.

So worth it! I would have paid it every night for the entire time we were there. Photography during the performance is banned, so I can’t show you how amazing it was, but trust me on this one. Have I ever led you wrong before?

Preservation Hall, New Orleans
Preservation Hall. Courtesy of Meehan Brown

We also spent a hell of a lot of money on a jazz brunch in the Marigny area, where our bottomless mimosas were accompanied by lively jazz piano. Best $38 I ever spent.

Our big problem was that even though we had access to free or cheap breakfasts in our hostels, we wanted to taste that Louisiana cuisine. Not so difficult to figure out where I went wrong in my vacation budget, right?

Monkey See, Monkey Don’t

Don’t follow my lead and you can easily find things to do in New Orleans on a budget. Stay in a hostel, use the kitchen, take advantage of the open-container law, and bring your own drinks outside to enjoy the many street performers. Buying museum tickets in bulk will get you discounts.

We did it extravagantly — typical millennials, am I right? — attending the Jazz and Heritage Festival, where the price of a beer would give New York City rooftops a run for their money. (I got to see Aerosmith live, so again, totally worth $70.)

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New Orleans Travel Tips: How to Avoid Hidden Fees

  • Almost every ATM had a $4-plus fee. On top of the non-ATM fees that your bank might charge you, this can quickly become a nightmare. So bring cash!
  • Don’t get caught out — make a budget, but make sure you have some extra cash in case of emergencies. One of my friends didn’t realize that the hostel hadn’t taken her money out at the time of booking. She ended up down $300 on Day 1, and she ran out of money because she didn’t bring her backup credit card. Be careful!
  • Make sure that your flights have carry-on luggage included. Payments at the gate skyrocket. Some airlines charge up to $100 for that teeny tiny suitcase that you would call conservative.