Budget Breakdown: Comprehensive Guide to Saving Money in Charleston

two beautiful churches in Charleston - charleston on a budget

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Is Charleston on your list of beautiful cities to visit, but you aren’t in a place where money is no object to you? I can relate. The good news is that there are ways to manage your spending in Charleston and keep costs to an absolute minimum. It is definitely possible to visit Charleston on a budget.

Whenever I travel, I always have constraints on my spending, so I budget in advance what I reasonably think everything will cost. Over time, I’ve gotten pretty good at this and my budgets are almost always spot on. It’s funny too, because I’ve also pinpointed where our biggest budget weakness is – drinking (we love our wine and craft beer!).

Without planning or knowing what you’re spending, it’s easy to let any travel budget go off the rails. That’s why today I’m laying out for you what a trip to Charleston actually costs, and breaking down all the ways you can make your southern getaway as cheap as possible. At the end of the day, you want to make sure no matter what your budget, you’re getting the best experience that Charleston has to offer.

Here is what to expect from the cost of a one or two person trip to Charleston (in USD):

spreadsheet showing costs of visiting charleston on a moderate budget

Above are the actual costs from a trip that my husband, Aaron, and I recently took to Charleston. As you can see, we splurged in some areas, while saving in others. As we were not aiming to make our trip as cheap as possible, I would consider this to be a moderate budget.

If you are trying to visit Charleston on an even thinner budget, you will need to trim some of this down to make it cheaper. Don’t worry, though, because it’s definitely possible, and we’re about to discuss all the ways you can do that. We are going to be really nickel-and-diming it here, so stay patient with me as we chisel this thing down.

st. michael's episcopal church on broad street (four corners of the law)

Cost of Getting to Charleston

If driving to Charleston is feasible, this could be the cheapest mode of transportation for your budget, since you’d save on airfare, car rental, and Ubers. However, you may not want to drive if you are like my husband and I, and face a twelve hour journey down Interstate 77. As people who maximize our PTO days every year, wasting a precious vacation day on a full day of driving is not usually our first choice.

If you do prefer to fly, there are definitely still ways to make this inexpensive. Our recent 3 day trip to Charleston was largely driven by Frontier Airlines’ new cheap direct flight to Charleston. We never pass on direct flights from Cleveland, since they are so few and far between – especially to an amazing city like Charleston.

colorful houses of the rainbow row in charleston, south carolina

Frontier is a budget airline, so this flight was about $120 a person, or $240 total for both of us to fly round trip. With Frontier you do have to pay extra for any baggage besides a personal item, but Aaron and I managed to mitigate this by sharing one extra carry-on bag between us.

I did write a whole post on the easy ways I find cheap flights. For your convenience, though, I’ve included some of my top flight-buying tips below:

  • For dirt cheap prices, fly a budget airline, like Spirit or Frontier.
  • Avoid high season swells by traveling in the off-season (December through March).
  • Consider purchasing your plane tickets at the airport. Many budget airlines charge an extra fee for online purchases.
  • Keep extra bags to a minimum. If you can fit all your things into a book bag, you won’t need to bring anything beyond a personal item.
  • Do not pay to pick your seat on the plane, even if you are traveling with someone. Instead, check in as early as possible to get your seat assigned before the rest of the masses check in. Most of the time, you will still get seats together.
  • Get a travel rewards credit card, like one of my two favorites: Capital One Venture or Chase Sapphire Reserve. Simply use these cards for your every day purchases, and watch the free flight rewards roll in.

If you choose to fly a budget airline, buy your flights at the airport, and only bring what will fit into a personal item for your flight, here is what your new budget will look like:

charleston budget without website fees and baggage fees
street view outside of Charleston City Hall with colorful buildings and palm trees

Cost of Renting a Car in Charleston

If you are driving to Charleston, then renting a car is an expense you will not need to worry about. However, if you are flying, the best way to stay on a budget when visiting Charleston is to forgo renting a car at all because you largely won’t need one. The city is super walkable, and you can Uber or taxi from the airport to your lodging.

To keep expenses as low as possible, I would focus on spending your time in downtown Charleston, where you will largely be able to walk everywhere. My husband and I did not take one Uber during our time there. In fact, we even walked to our nice dinner at Husk. I just wore sneakers for the twenty minute walk and changed into heels upon arrival. The walk was much needed anyhow, with the heavy meal we were about to have!

Here is what you can expect your budget to look like if, in addition to the flight tips above, you forgo renting a car in Charleston. Note: I bumped up Uber a little, since you’d still need to get to and from the airport, and may use it for an additional short trip or two.

cost to visit charleston if you are not renting a car
picturesque pineapple fountain at the waterfront park along the Cooper River

Cost of Eating & Drinking in Charleston

Restaurants are the hardest area to avoid overspending your limited funds when traveling to Charleston on a budget. The Holy City has a huge restaurant scene, from casual to sophisticated to a tad snobby, with almost all of it being pure southern deliciousness. It would be a shame to come to Charleston and not even be able to dabble in any of this goodness.

If you’d like to make the most of Charleston’s food scene, for less, consider visiting during Charleston Restaurant Week. With preset multi-course menus at fixed prices as low as $15, this annual event offers incredible value and the chance to try a wide variety of Charleston’s restaurants.

pink storefront of Magnolia's restaurant in Charleston

Here is what your adjusted budget will look like if, in addition to the cost savings discussed above, you minimize any drinks while in Charleston and cut back on dining expenses. This budget allows you to still partake in Charleston’s amazing dining scene, while forgoing extras like drinks, appetizers or dessert in favor of a great entree, or perhaps eating appetizers as your entree.

charleston budget spending less on food
Callie's Hot Little Biscuit stand in Charleston Market
Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit is a great budget option for breakfast, lunch, or late night in Charleston!

Avoid Shopping in Charleston to Stay on Budget

Being that you are traveling to Charleston on a budget, I do not recommend spending any money shopping during your trip. It will be better spent checking out historical homes or the exciting food scene.

In general, Charleston shopping tends to be high end, with designer retailers and fancy art galleries, which is not conducive to saving money. If you’d still like to partake in some way, there’s no harm in window shopping!

The $24.52 from the original budget is from a coaster I bought at a gift shop during our recent trip. For the ultimate cheap trip to Charleston, I recommend you skip souvenirs, even if they seem inexpensive. To avoid those little costs that tend to add up, take lots of pictures to remember your trip instead!

charleston budget with no shopping

Lodging in Charleston

When traveling to Charleston on a budget, lodging is another area to keep as inexpensive as possible. The best way to do this is avoiding, unfortunately, the more convenient, modern, and stylish hotels. That’s no cause for concern, though, as you can still find amazing places to stay without blowing your budget.

Option #1: Stay at a Historic Bed & Breakfast

romantic rope lighting on patio of 1837 bed and breakfast in the evening

While not dirt cheap or the most modern, you can definitely find affordable bed and breakfasts in walking distance of downtown Charleston. Bed and breakfasts are actually my preferred type of lodging, as I love their historical vibes, overall coziness, and quiet intimacy.

One place I recently stayed at that I would 100% recommend is the 1837 Bed and Breakfast. While not right in the main historic center of Charleston, the 1837 Bed and Breakfast is in a pretty neighborhood, and only about a twenty minute walk from places like the Insta-famous Rainbow Row.

Here are two ways that staying in a historic bed and breakfast can actually save you money:

  • Since breakfast is included in the cost of the room, this is one less meal you need to buy. If it’s big enough, you may even be able to skip lunch.
  • Some places, such as the 1837 Bed and Breakfast, have a small parking lot, where you can park free of charge. This can save you so much money if your alternative is paying to park overnight for several days at a hotel.

Related: Super Romantic Things to do in Charleston

Option #2: Try One of These Other Cost-Saving Tips

colorful row of buildings making up The Vendue in Charleston

If you don’t want to stay at a historic bed and breakfast, here are more ideas for saving money:

  • Stay somewhere outside of downtown Charleston to see hotel prices drastically decrease. Just know you’ll now need to Uber or taxi into downtown Charleston (if you didn’t drive), which will increase transportation costs. You may still save money doing this, but just try to minimize how often you Uber.
  • Visit Charleston in the off-season to avoid spikes during its most popular times. In general, mid to late spring and early fall are its most expensive seasons.

I’m not gonna beat around the bush with you; staying in downtown Charleston is pricey, and it’s hard to find much under $200 a night. In general, the further you stay outside of downtown, the cheaper it gets, and the more you get for your money. Here is an update, based on finding possible lower prices downtown, but the savings are minor.

cost of cheaper lodging in charleston

14 Free Things to do in Charleston

There are plenty of free things to do in Charleston that will more than let you fully enjoy a weekend in this beautiful city. Below are some of the top things you can do to immerse yourself in Charleston without spending any money.

The Tavern at Rainbow Row's free Friday whiskey tasting
  • Try the free whiskey tasting at the Tavern at Rainbow Row on Friday or Saturday afternoon
  • See the George Washington painting at City Hall
  • Walk to the Pineapple Fountain at the Waterfront Park
  • Stroll past gorgeous old colonial homes on Church Street
  • Visit some of the pretty churches in town, such as the iconic Saint Michael’s Church, with its tall white tower
  • Drive a half hour out of Charleston to see the twisted limbs of the 400 year old Angel Oak
  • Pop into some of the galleries in town. It’s not free if you end up buying something, but you definitely don’t need to pay to browse!
  • Walk down along the Cooper River to The Battery
  • Check out the vendors at the Charleston City Market
  • Pose for a photo at the Rainbow Row
  • Drive or walk over the Cooper River via the iconic Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge
  • Have a beach day at Sullivan’s Island
  • Admire the historic, albeit condemned, Morris Island lighthouse
  • Visit one of Charleston’s free museums

If you don’t mind paying for a few activities while in Charleston, I highly recommend doing a historic walking tour with Two Sisters and visiting the Aiken-Rhett House Museum. Here is an updated budget that factors in these two paid things to do in Charleston:

charleston budget with fewer paid activities
George Washington Portrait at Charleston City Hall

Pet Boarding

Are you like me, and have a fur baby that needs care while you are gone? Much as I’d love to take our little puppy boy with us, he does not share our same interest in travel, and rather prefers routine.

Unfortunately, having a pet can add an extra complication and often expense to your travel plans. We often cannot find someone to watch our dog, and therefore pay about $40 a night to board him. Here are the best ways around this type of expense:

  • Option 1: Bring your pet with you. If they travel well, this may be a good option for you. Just keep in mind that some lodging will charge extra for this, if they even allow pets at all. If you need to bring a lot of additional supplies for your pet, this may also cause you to pay extra for baggage on your flight.
  • Option 2: Find a family member or friend who will watch your pet (hopefully for free). This is my preferred option, although sometimes it’s hard to find a person who is willing. If your pet gets along well with others, it may help you to make a deal with another friend with a pet to watch each others’ animals while the other is traveling.

If you don’t have a pet, or have a kind family member or friend who is willing to watch them for free, here is what your budget will look like:

cost to visit the Holy City if you don't have pet expenses
charleston home with patina and teal shutters

Finally: Can You Share Any of These Costs?

Traveling with another couple or party who can share the financial burden makes a huge difference. While costs for things like meals or admission into places won’t change, things like lodging and taxis/Ubers can be cut in half. This opens up a lot more options for your trip!

For example, say you were ruling out staying in downtown Charleston due to the cost of lodging. You looked at places downtown, such as the King Charles Inn, and decided $300 and up a night was too much for you to pay.

However, you later invite another couple to join you on your trip, and agree to share one hotel room for your stay. Suddenly, the $1,067 you would have had to pay for three nights is halved to only $533, which comes to $178 a night. Now, you have the option to stay at the King Charles Inn in downtown Charleston, which means you’ll have more convenience and spend way less money on Ubering back and forth.

It’s true that now you’d have to plan your trip around the wants and needs of another party. However, if you’re traveling to Charleston on a budget, this sacrifice might be worth it for what you gain in financial savings and spending options.

charleston on a budget when splitting costs
*Assumes room cost is slightly more expensive for two beds and that you may still need to take one Uber on your own.

• • •

I believe we’ve whittled this Charleston budget down about as far as it will go. While you should definitely be a frugal traveler, do also try to save up some funds to spend where it counts. That way, you can make the most of your time eating and exploring in the historical and charming city of Charleston. If you are smart in your planning, those will end up being some dollars that you definitely won’t regret spending!

Will you be traveling to Charleston soon? What tips do you have to save money in the Holy City?

How to visit gorgeous Charleston, SC on a budget, from choosing places to stay to dining at amazing restaurants.  There are plenty of cheap or free things to do in downtown Charleston, SC, even in the tightest budgets.  You can definitely visit Charleston in style, while also staying on the cheap.  #charlestonsc #charlestonsouthcarolina #charlestonthingstodo #charlestonrestaurants #charlestonstyle #charlestonfood #charlestondowntown
How to visit gorgeous Charleston, SC on a budget, from choosing places to stay to dining at amazing restaurants. There are plenty of cheap or free things to do in downtown Charleston, SC, even in the tightest budgets. You can definitely visit Charleston in style, while also staying on the cheap. #charlestonsc #charlestonsouthcarolina #charlestonthingstodo #charlestonrestaurants #charlestonstyle #charlestonfood #charlestondowntown
How to visit gorgeous Charleston, SC on a budget, from choosing places to stay to dining at amazing restaurants. There are plenty of cheap or free things to do in downtown Charleston, SC, even in the tightest budgets. You can definitely visit Charleston in style, while also staying on the cheap. #charlestonsc #charlestonsouthcarolina #charlestonthingstodo #charlestonrestaurants #charlestonstyle #charlestonfood #charlestondowntown

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