A reader recently asked, "With Manhattan hotel prices so high, would I be better off staying somewhere else and commuting when I visit New York?" I've heard the similar question from other readers about other expensive city centers. And, as with so many apparently simple questions, the answer can be complicated.
My take is that the decision to stay outside the city center rests on how you might answer several main questions:
*How important is the city center to what you plan to do?
*Do any nearby areas offer less expensive accommodations?
*How good is the public transportation?
*How inviting and interesting are the outlying areas, themselves?
Here's how I would apply those questions to a few of the world's top visitor destination cities:
>New York: You visit New York for a combination of reasons -- theater, other cultural offerings, museums, shopping and restaurants. No other area can match Manhattan's theater or museum access, so if those are your real focus, stay in Manhattan regardless of price.
For other interests, some of you might find a good alternate spot in Brooklyn, where lots of new hotels have opened in the last five years, including several budget options. Brooklyn enjoys its own lively cultural life, it is emerging as both a restaurant and shopping mecca, and public transit to Manhattan's theaters and museums is pretty good. Long Island City is also enjoying a mini hotel boom, and offers a wide range of funky and inexpensive cuisines as well as good Manhattan access. But I don't recommend Hoboken/Jersey City unless you're heading for games at the Meadowlands; there isn't much local action, and access to Manhattan is fiercely expensive by cab and difficult by subway.
>Chicago: The Windy City presents the opposite picture. Just about everything you might want to see and do is concentrated between McCormick Place and the Near North. Suburban areas around O'Hare and strung out along I-94 are flourishing as business centers, with lots of budget hotels, but there's almost nothing to do and getting into town is a drag.
>San Francisco: The main theaters and cultural action are in the city center, as are many great and many budget restaurants, and if you want to enjoy the city's midsummer "natural air conditioning" fog, you have to be in the city. However, surrounding areas Berkeley/East Bay and San Jose/Silicon Valley also boast lots of restaurants and their own cultural activities; Berkeley gets the nod for easy access to downtown San Francisco, and Silicon Valley for being its own lively center.
>London: As with New York, if London's main magnets are theater, museums and shopping, stay in central London. Although you can find many modern budget hotels outside the city, schlepping in from such suburban areas as Heathrow and Richmond can be dreary and time-consuming, and you didn't really want to spend three or four hours every day riding the Underground, did you? On the other hand, if you have other interests, you might consider the newly developed Docklands area, which features good access plus its own activities and lots of local restaurants.
>Paris: As with Chicago, the visitor action is highly concentrated -- in this case, within the Boulevard Peripherique -- so you want to be there, too. Also, you won't find much of local interest in business-centered La Defense, and the rest of Paris' inner suburban ring is really not visitor-friendly.
Over the years, I've tested the "stay outside and save" system several times and been disappointed in each. (Also keep in mind the extra trips involved if you want to go back to your hotel to rest or change your clothes.) Testing a great hotel deal in Newark, for example, required at least two daily round-trips to Manhattan with multiple subway rides. Ditto staying in Richmond for London: Even though I found some good local Richmond restaurants, the District Line still took far too much of my time. And my experiments around Paris were worse -- seemingly eternal train rides. On some future New York trip, however, I might be enticed to Brooklyn or Long Island City.