How to Get the Most Bang for Your Buck in Phoenix

by  Teresa Bitler | Dec 31, 2014
Camelback Mountain, Arizona
Camelback Mountain, Arizona / Jeremy Janus/iStock

Phoenix has always been a popular winter destination, but this year it will be even more so as it hosts Super Bowl XLIX and the 2015 Pro Bowl. While you’ll probably need a small fortune to attend either event, Phoenix is one of the most affordable large cities in the nation. Here’s how to get the most bang for your buck in Phoenix, whenever you go.

Before You Book

You definitely pay a premium to enjoy Phoenix’s mild winter climate, so if budget is your primary concern, consider booking a vacation in late spring or summer. Room rates can be half of what you would pay during high season, plus many of the resorts and hotels offer resort credits, 2-for-1 dinners, and other perks. And, even though it will be hot from May through mid-September, if you are planning to lounge by the pool and take a day trip to the Grand Canyon, the weather shouldn't be much of an issue.

On the other hand, if the whole point of your visit is to escape your chilly hometown in winter, you can still get a good deal if you pick your dates wisely. Avoid the last weekend of January when car enthusiasts descend on the Barrett Jackson Auction and golf fans flock to the Waste Management Phoenix Open and the entire month of March when spring training baseball comes to the Valley. Resorts offer fewer deals during these peak times.

Getting Around

Because the Greater Phoenix area spans more than 500 square miles, you’ll probably want to rent a car. Just beware: Phoenix levies some of the highest taxes and fees on rental cars in the nation. To minimize the impact, look for hotels on or near the light rail system like the Hyatt Regency Phoenix or Sheraton Phoenix Downtown.

Or, plan to stay in Scottsdale. The city runs a free trolley service with stops near hotels and resorts in the Old Town area.

Where to Stay

There’s no shortage of five-star resorts in the Phoenix area, and many offer great deals, especially during the summer off-season. For a secluded, upscale stay, check out Royal Palms Resort and Spa (from $275 per night) -- the resort is currently offering two $40 spa credits and a $25 dinner credit for two with an upgraded room from January 7 through May 31 ($599).

Or, check out Hotel Valley Ho, a swank property frequented by Hollywood elite since it opened in 1956. Even though it’s a AAA Four Diamond property, it is one of the more reasonably priced ($208) and is one of the few in the Valley that doesn’t charge an additional resort fee.

Families have several great options. Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort in North Phoenix ($135)  has a water park and offers family-friendly packages, like the New Year’s Eve package that includes a one night stay, dinner, live music, games, and crafts ($229 for two adults and two children). At Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa ($175), families can enjoy Native American-inspired crafts and nature walks while, at Westin Kierland Resort ($230), they can golf, swim, or ride the FlowRider, surf simulator.

Where to Eat

Even though you’ll find some of the city’s best restaurants at the resorts, you’ll pay for the experience (expect to pay $80 per person at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa’s Kai, the state’s only AAA Five Diamond restaurant). For more budget-friendly meals, stick to smaller, family-owned eateries.

Many Mexican restaurants have an almost cult-like following. Ponchos, for example, has been serving traditional recipes since 1972 but gained notoriety when Bill Clinton ate here in 1999. Try the President’s Choice: two tostadas, two chimichangas, two tacos, and two green corn tamales ($10.95). Mi Patio is also a local favorite and serves some unique dishes like the gyros chimi ($9.85) and fish flautus ($9.85). If you like it hot, head to Los Dos Molinos where you won’t find a single “mild” sauce.

If you don’t want Mexican, don’t worry. Matt’s Big Breakfast dishes up reasonably-priced breakfast dishes all day. Order The Chop & Chick, two eggs plated next to a skillet-seared Iowa pork chop ($9.95). Or, give nearby Pizzeria Bianco a try. It’s nationally acclaimed pizzas may be a little pricey -- $15 for a margherita and $18 for the Wiseguy topped with wood-roasted onion, fennel sausage, and house-smoked mozzarella -- but they are definitely worth every penny.

What to Do

From October through April, take advantage of Phoenix’s outstanding parks and urban hiking trails. South Mountain Park, the largest city park in the world, has 51 miles of primary trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Access to the park is free. There’s also no charge to visit the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, a 30,000-acre nature preserve also available for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. (No matter what time of the year you visit, bring plenty of water and sunscreen.)

Phoenix has several must-see attractions. We recommend the Heard Museum, an internationally-acclaimed collection of Native American artwork and artifacts. Although general admission is $18 for adults, visitors on the first Friday of the month (every month except March) get in for free from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m..

You’ll also want to plan a day at the Musical Instrument Museum, a state-of-the-art venue that tells the global story of music. It isn’t a cheap outing ($20 for adults; $15 for teens 13-19; and $10 for children 4-12), but it is definitely worth it. Don’t miss the Experience Gallery, where you can play instruments from around the world, or the Artist Gallery where you’ll see instruments played by John Lennon, Taylor Swift, Elvis Presley, and more.

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