Albuquerque, a jewel with a high-desert climate, spreads beneath the Sandia Mountains, continuing to grow as the Rio Grande flows through, from north to south. Albuquerque is a state-of-the-art outdoors city, a place that should be on Millennial radars, family planners and retiree bucket lists. It's one of our nation's most active, healthiest, wildlife-friendly and bicycle-friendly cities.

If you can't float to the Duke City for October's annual Albuquerque International Balloon Festival, and that can be a bit salty, check out our tips for getting to Albuquerque and enjoying your stay without breaking bad to foot the bill.

  1. Finding Cheap Flights

    Giving ourselves some flexibility in dates, we found our most economical days to fly were Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Saturdays. We chose midweek round-trip fares, looking for nonstop flights from a variety of locations. 

    Starting with Boston's Logan International, flying nonstop wasn't an option. Our best bet was a $348 American Airlines fare with a departure of 6 a.m. and an early evening return takeoff time. The itinerary had an hour or less to change planes at Dallas-Fort Worth, keeping total flight time each way to 7 hours or less. The cheapest upgraded tickets totaled about $470 for Choice Essential, $670 for Choice Plus and $1,300 for first class.

    From Chicago, nonstop fares started at nearly $450, but when we slipped over to Southwest's site, we found Midway nonstop flights 3 hours and under – 8:25 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. — that totaled just $335 for a "Wanna Get Away" ticket. Anytime fares totaled closer to $1,090, and Business Select would have added another $50.

    From Portland, Delta had our best deals, with a variety of early morning and early evening flights and a 1-hour plane change in Salt Lake City. Flying basic economy, our cost ranged from $230 for evening flights to $280 for morning flights versus 9 a.m. flights that started at $500 and were still basic economy. A Delta Comfort ticket totaled $700 to $1,300 while first class easily cost $1,600 to $1,800.

    An airline credit card may be your ticket to further savings like in-flight discounts, free checked baggage and even free travel insurance. You can find more saving tips in our guide to finding cheap flights.

  2. Finding Cheap Hotel Stays

    Unlike some cities, Albuquerque seems to have plenty of affordable lodging. Hotels tend to lie along Routes 40 and 25. We looked for rooms that included free breakfast and Wi-Fi and had at least a good rating – no mediocres or okays:

    • Toward the North Valley, $71 would cover a king room at Quality Inn & Suites; a king room with a sofa bed was just $10 more. Choosing the refundable option brought it to $85 a night, or $673 for a week.
    • Downtown, a number of historic homes are now bed and breakfasts, but count on prices more along the lines of $140 or more. We did find that the Fairfield Inn by the University of New Mexico had king rooms with a sofa bed for $89; for $10 more, we could make our reservation refundable, bringing total cost for 1 week to $784.
    • Between Bio Park and the airport, 3-star Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham had 2-queen-bed rooms for $68 a night – $538 for the week; they're pet-friendly, too. 
    • Just south of that, Hyatt Place Albuquerque Airport caught our eye. Also 3 star, it had a refundable king room with a sofa bed and all the perks – including a "complimentary area shuttle" – for $99 a night. Normally, that room would run about $230 a night; we got the week for $784. 

    Hilton has a number of locations in Albuquerque, including Homewood Suites, DoubleTree, Hilton Garden Inn and many more. That means you can redeem Honors points you've earned with top rewards cards for Hilton stays.

    Checking all our options, on Airbnb, we found a 2-bedroom, 1-bath apartment near Sandia's hiking trails. It was basic but had Wi-Fi, a kitchen and laundry, and a week's stay came to just $437. Most homes near Bio Park quickly crossed the $100 mark per night.

    However, we did find an "old and interesting" Old Town adobe for $86 a night, about $674 for the week. Furnishings were vintage, and you had the benefits of a kitchen, laundry, Internet, parking and convenient walking distances to attractions.

  3. Eating Inexpensively

    In Old Town, if your hotel doesn't cover breakfast, Central Grill and Coffee House on Central Avenue Southwest has an espresso bar and "the best hot cakes in town" as well as breakfast burritos, huevos rancheros or skillets. Lunches range from veggie wraps to prime rib tacos, the Rio Grande Cobb, or the bison or "Black and Bleu" burger, with nothing crossing the $8 mark.

    If you're downtown and in the mood for pizza on green chile or blue corn crust, Teriyaki chicken wings or sweet potato empanadas, Golden Crown Panaderia on Mountain Road Northwest began as a bakery but now has everything from sandwiches to wine and beer on tap. With a free biscochito, they'll have your sweet tooth covered for under $10.

    In the North Valley, on Indian School Road Northwest, check out Bocadillo's slow-roasted sandwich shop menu, and succumb to your inner Guy Fieri with "Marie's signature TnA" – turkey and avocado – or her "melt in your mouth Duke City Ruben." For veggie lovers, they have a "Salad Shooter," and they'll cover breakfast, too, with 3 types of burritos. Breakfast will be under $5, and lunch will squeak in under $10.

    For plate-filling portions of "Tex-Mex meets Southern y'all" near Sandia, Vick's Vittles Country Kitchen on Central Avenue Southeast has a Sunday buffet. The rest of the week, they'll have you covered for breakfast, lunch or dinner well under $10; Friday and Saturday evenings, you can order Vick's prime rib with potato and salad for $16.

    Also toward Sandia, on Lomas Boulevard Northeast is Red Rock Deli. Here, you'll find authentic Polish sausage, custom-stuffed sweet or savory pirogi, Chicago-style hotdogs, Angus burgers, Italian beefs, pounded pork chop sandwiches, and all the tasty Eastern European specialties and sides like Ukrainian borscht and nalesniki. You can even purchase food from the freezers and market shelves to take home.

  4. Things To Do

    Petroglyph National Monument has numerous hiking trails varying in difficulty covering the Volcano Day Use Area as well as Rinconada, Piedras Madras and Boca Negra Canyons. For cars, the city does charge a $1-weekday, $2-weekend parking fee at the Boca Negra Canyon parking area. Check the website for the trail head locations that allow access to hundreds of petroglyphs left from indigenous peoples.

    Albuquerque Bio Park is a multiple-attraction venue, with a zoo, aquarium, botanic garden and Tingley Beach. Tingley Beach has walking trails around its ponds as well as opportunities to rent a pedal boat, sail a model one, picnic or simply relax. Bio Park Combo Admission covers the zoo, aquarium and garden for $20 per adult, $10 per senior or $6 per child. New Mexico residents can see all 3 for $15 per adult, $8 per senior or $4 per child. Check the website for special events like the summer music or holiday programs.

    To Albuquerque's east, Sandia Peak is a favorite. You can drive the Sandia Crest Byway and hike to the top. If you're willing to part with $20 per adult and $12 to $17 per child, you can take the 60-person Sandia Peak Ski & Tramway up, but the tram doesn't allow bicycles or pets. The peak has 2 restaurants – also quite pricey. Many prefer to drive, picnic and enjoy the peak; just bring a jacket or sweater, and be prepared for temperature shifts. Stop along the way to visit the animated miniature world of Tinkertown Museum: $3.50 for adults, $3 for "geezers" and $1 for kids over 4.

    In the old town, Albuquerque Museum offers a glimpse into the art and history of the region. Bank of America credit card (or debit card) holders can get in free on the first full weekend of every month by presenting their card and some ID. If you don't use Bank of America, the regular admission fee of $4 per adult and $1 per child ($2 for seniors) is well worth it for art, history and culture buffs.

    The old town is also home to other museums, the San Felipe de Neri Church (built in 1793), and numerous shops, galleries and restaurants.

    For a day's bicycling, try the Gilman Tunnels Mountain Bike Loop. You can ride 40 miles through the tunnels blasted in the 1920s for the logging railroad on Routes 4, 485, 376 and 126. The New Mexico Touring Society has complete information, including maps, elevation and difficulty statistics, and options for routes.

    For a different Albuquerque experience, Breaking Bad fans may enjoy taking a self-guided tour of on-site filming locations. Stop at The Candy Lady on San Felipe Street NW to pick up a bag of blue crystal candy to enjoy along the way.

  5. Wasting Money?

    Other than Bio Park's Combo Admission, Albuquerque doesn't seem to have an attractions pass. However, the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau has coupons and discounts as well as listings for the many inexpensive and even free museums and other attractions.

    Hold onto your dollars in Old Town; it's an adobe boardwalk of galleries, shops, museums and impulse buys.

    As for the international balloon festival, spectators should be aware that rain or high winds can ground the whole event. If you plan to fly over just for the festival, consider buying a refundable ticket.

    On the other hand, when the weather is just right, you, too, can experience the magical sense of wishes and dreams floating aloft, drifting high above Albuquerque.

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