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Middle America Bargains

Kansas City museum

In both Europe and North America, big cities are more expensive than small ones. The contrarian traveler knows this well, but the throngs paying top dollar do not. Many of the tourists who are aghast at how much they’re spending in New York City or Paris could do quite well if they traveled a few hours away in any direction. And when you get to the heartland, prices drop even more. Supply and demand, cost of labor, tax rates, and real estate costs all factor in, with the result being that a place like Kansas City—where I spent last week—ends up being quite the bargain.

First of all, you can get most places you want to go in that city off of one main artery, which happens to be served by the MAX express bus system. It connects the three areas where most of the hotels and attractions are and it’s only $1.25. Heck, you can ride three days solid for $8. You can go from downtown to the Country Club Plaza area (where the two best museums are nearby) and what’s in between. If you’re up for hoofing it, a lot of things to do are clustered together and you can walk from the entertainment district to the Crown Center in about 20 minutes if you want.

There are plenty of quality things to do for free in this town, including visiting one of my favorite museums anywhere, the Nelson-Atkins Museum. of Art. Thanks to some generous wealthy donors and other sources of funding, the newly expanded museum was and continues to be free. The powers that be there take the stance that art should be freely available to the public, just like great literature is at the library. At many museums, the “suggested donation” is really just a misnamed admission fee, but here it really is just suggested. No matter which of the seven entrances you come through, a money box with a slot sits alone, without you having to squeeze past it and without scowling admission people watching to see how much you put in. If you’re flush, drop in a fiver for the cause; if not, no pressure.

Besides, you don’t even have to go inside to see some great works of art. Outside among the lawns and gardens are striking sculptures from a variety of artists and a great collection of Henry Moore’s work. Plus there are four of these shuttlecocks pictured above from Claes Oldenburg, each one weighing 5,500 pounds.

The Hallmark visitor center is free (with, oddly enough, a painting from Winston Churchill), as is the Kemper Contemporary Art Museum. The World War 1 museum is free if you’re in the military. The tourism bureau even has a 33 for free section on its website.

Get the Discover KC Pass—also free—for lots of great coupons and goodies.

winstead's Kansas CityYou can stay and eat for a reasonable price around here as well, whether it’s grabbing breakfast or lunch from Winstead’s (pictured here), grabbing beers at a pub, or sampling some great barbeque.

I just checked Hotwire for hotels this coming weekend. The 2-star ones started at $29 (not a typo) and a 4-star downtown one with a gym and a pool is going for $104. The wonderful historic Hotel Phillips is $144 on Expedia. A room in a hotel like that would easily top $350 in New York or San Francisco. No hostels there I’m afraid though—you’ll need to hole up in a motel or null if you’re on a backpacker budget.