A Complete Guide To Traveling Rio de Janeiro On A Budget

rio de janeiro on a budget
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They call it the home of carnival, the Cidade Maravilhosa (the Marvelous City), the Beach Paradise, and we’re in absolutely no doubt that Rio is up there with the bucket-list metropolises of the planet. But is it possible to come here if travel funds are low? Can you travel Rio de Janeiro on a budget?

You most certainly can and this guide is here to reveal how, exactly. It will run through a whole host of tips and tricks that would-be travelers to the caipirinha-doused town on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean can use to ensure that their jaunts down Copacabana and Ipanema don’t set them back a bucket load.

We’ll home in on everything from the cheapest times of the year to travel to how to score bargain deals on hotels in Rio. We’ll even outline the best ways to bag well-priced tickets on those initial flights across to the rambunctious megacity by the sea in the first place. Carnival outfit at the ready? Good. Let’s begin…

Getting to Rio de Janeiro on a budget

Rio de Janeiro cablecar
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The first step in any trip is getting to where you want to go in the first place, right? Right. And so it is with Rio. Thankfully, bargain-loving travelers are in luck here. This booming megacity happens to be one of the most popular gateways to the whole of Brazil, and even one of the major arrival points for South America.

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Most of that is down to the presence of the Rio de Janeiro/Galeão – Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport (GIG), usually just called the Galeão International Airport for short. It currently hosts links with over 20 major airlines, including big flag carriers like BA, American Airlines, and Air France.

Now…to the bargain hunting. There are three or four key rules to follow when hunting cheap flights to Rio de Janeiro, and anywhere else for that matter…

Firstly, always book in advance. Stats show that the most affordable tickets are usually available 90 days prior to take-off. Secondly, never leave things to the last minute. There can be whopping great big price increases to the tune of 500% if you try to score a seat the day before you want to travel. You should also be sure to use a powerful flight comparison tool like Google Flights or Momondo to look for your connections, since they can help you weigh up all the cheapest options with all the cheapest carriers at a glance.

As for a ballpark figure for what you can expect to pay…around about $300-500 is normal for returns from the USA, while about $700-1,200 is normal from Europe, which is to be expected because it’s a whole load further away!

Searching for cheap hotels in Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro mountains
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Accommodation is probably the biggest cost you’re going to have in Rio. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Yes, this town of showy beach promenades and jazzy districts like Ipanema does have its fair share of uber-classy five-star hotels and resorts. But you’re going to have to resist the temptation to book into the likes of Vila Santa Teresa ($$$), a glorious pad on the mountainsides with pool views across the city. There are plenty of other choices that cost a whole load less…

The hostel scene in Rio is particularly vibrant, largely owing to the huge numbers of backpackers who flock this way. The best of those tend to be clustered around the old area of Santa Teresa and the all-new and hip favela come barrio of Vidigal. Some of our top picks on the Rio hostel scene are:

  • Rio Forest Hostel ($) – A chilled pad with great panoramic views of the town and its own little tropical garden, the Rio Forest hostel has dorm rooms that should set you back something like $24 a night.
  • Pousada Favelinha ($) – An authentic Rio homestay that’s full of character and very relaxed, the Pousada Favelinha is around $24 a night for a bed.
  • Books Hostel ($) – Books Hostel is a touch closer to the Centro area of the city and the main beaches, so rates for dorm beds do crank up a little to around the $35-50 mark.

If you’re not the hosteling type, then never fear. Rio is also packed with low-to-midrange hotel choices that come in the form of local pousadas (a sort of Brazilian guesthouse that has few frills but clean beds and a warm welcome). Some of the best of those are:

  • Ipanema Inn Hotel ($$) – If you’re determined to be close to Rio’s iconic beachfronts then there are few deals to be done, but Ipanema Inn Hotel is one of them. Classic rooms within walking distance of the sands for about $200 a night.
  • Saionara Hotel ($$) – A Zona Norte hotel that gets you close to the downtown and the action, Saionara has modern family suites and doubles that will set you back around $50 a night.

Stay in the right areas (AKA – not the beaches!)

Morro do Cantagalo
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Take one glance at the accommodation map and you’ll notice instantly: There’s a real premium on stays close to the famous beaches of Rio. That’s hardly a surprise. Who wouldn’t want to bed down within earshot of the lapping Atlantic waves, with the cool ocean breeze forever brushing over, and the famous bars scenes of Ipanema and Copacabana on the doorstep.

Sadly, as the hotel recommendations above should have highlighted, rates are something like 200% higher when you head towards the coast, with hostel prices going from around $25 per night to nearly $150, and hotels – even the cheap ones – commanding rates of over $200 with ease.

There is some good news though. Rio has plenty of enthralling districts that aren’t on the coast and don’t have hotels that will cost a bomb. Santa Teresa is a prime example. It’s an immersive historic district plonked on the hills high above the shoreline, known for its Art Deco cafés and vintage bars, rattling trams and old-school European looks. Public transport can easily get you from there to the ocean when it calls, but you will pay WAY less for hotels in the meantime.

Don’t travel when it’s carnival

Man playing guitar in Rio
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This is probably rule numero uno when it comes to traveling Rio de Janeiro on a budget. Yep, Carnival time is the most expensive time. It’s a shame, really, since the days when the party is in town are truly unforgettable – it’s the biggest carnival celebration on the globe, after all, bringing a mega two million revelers to the boulevards of the big city for five full days of no-holes-barred dancing and drinking.

Naturally, two million more people in town means that prices for everything (like, EVERYTHING!) are sure to skyrocket. You’ll pay premiums on hotels, on flights in, on events and activities, and even on food. Oh, and you’ll even have to pay to gain entry to most of the parades, with official tickets ranging from $30 to a whopping $300 depending on the ones you want to hit.

You also have to bear in mind that the carnival dates are smack dab in the peak of the high season in Rio, which has its own price spikes. The best weather tends to run from December to March, when you’ll usually find the beaches totally packed to bursting. However, not many people know that the driest months are July and August, so there’s certainly something to be said for chasing the low season and enjoying the dip in prices that comes with it.

Do free things

Escadaria Selarón
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There are oodles of free things to do in Rio. This is a beach town, remember? Simply scoot down to the urban sands of Copacabana and Ipanema and unfurl your towel. You can spend the whole day soaking up the real Rio there, watching the maestros kick footballs, the muscle men on the promenades, and the folks sipping cocktails in the kiosks behind. You won’t spend a single dime for the pleasure, either!

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You can walk the Arpoador lookout point to gaze at the Atlantic Ocean. There are wild hikes in the company of primeval forest and all manner of exotic animals to be chased up in the Tijuca Forest National Park. Central Rio has street art and street murals that are on display for all to see. Santa Teresa is an immersive historic area that you’re free to walk around. All that and more comes 100% gratis in Rio.

Traveling Rio de Janeiro on a budget – our conclusion

Despite Rio’s rep as one of the bucket-list cities on the planet, we actually don’t think it will be all that hard to see this town without breaking the bank. You can ensure you score awesome deals on flights there by using a good comparison tool and by booking early. Then, it’s just a case of avoiding the pricy hotels on the seafront and dodging the peak days of Carnival, which usually fall in early to mid-February. Also try to make the most of all the amazing free things there are to do in this enthralling megalopolis, the sparkling Atlantic sands especially!

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.