Galveston on the Cheap

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Just an hour away from Houston and with mild winter weather, Galveston Island is a favorite year-round destination. (It won Best Weekend Getaway in our Best of Houston Awards in 2014.) The island is low-key, for the most part, and extremely affordable. Here are some of the best bargains we've found, including low-cost options at some of the island's most popular attractions. 

Must-haves for any visit to the island include the usual sunscreen, water, a hat, a camera and such. We’ve got one more: a Galveston Island Pass. You’ll have access to more than a dozen of the most popular island attractions with 40 percent off regular admission prices. You pay only for the tickets you want (four attractions minimum) and the pass is good for 30 days after purchase, so you don’t have to try to see everything all at once.

Participating attractions include 61st Street Fishing Pier, Lone Star Flight Museum, Oceanstar Off Shore Rig Museum and Pirates! Legends of the Gulf Coast and Galveston Water Adventures among others. We've got more info on several, including Moody Gardens and Moody Mansion, below.  

For information, call 409-765-3580 or visit galvestonislandpass.com. Prices vary according to selection.

What to Do: 

First on any Galveston Island agenda should be to see the beach. There are several on the island. The most popular is perhaps the Seawall (officially called Seawall Urban Park). With more than ten miles of beach and boardwalk, the Seawall is a treat for visitors who want to walk on the sand or take an oceanside run or a casual bike ride.

There are a few rules to keep in mind while you're on the beach: no alcohol, no glass containers, no open fires (barbecue pits are okay), no overnight camping and no motorized vehicles. Pets are okay on a leash; clean up after them or face the wrath of the poop patrol (translation: irate beach visitors who don't like stepping in dog poop and will chase you down to tell you so). 

Access to the beach here is free but parking isn't. You'll pay $1 an hour or $8 a day; if you're a frequent visitor to the island, an annual pass might be a good choice. It's just $25. Parking rules are enforced 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For information, call 866-234-7275 or visit paybyphone.com

Find out more about Galveston Island beaches here

Stop by Island Bicycle Company for a variety of bike rental deals (kids, tandem, cruisers, surreys and more). For $30 you get a bike and a map for a self-guided tour around the island. You can also rent surfboards, fishing gear, telescopes and metal detectors. The Island Bicycle Company is at 1808 Seawall Boulevard. For information, call 409-762-2453 or visit islandbicyclecompany.com. Hourly and full-day rates available. 
A real treasure, Galveston Island State Park is a must-see. The winner of Best State Park in our Best of Houston 2015 awards, the park boasts beach front, various hiking trails, fishing and swimming spots, and plenty of picnic areas, and the $5 admission fee covers everything including tours and activities. Park rangers and Friends of Galveston Island State Park volunteers lead a variety of activities daily. Among the most popular are the Turtle Patrol/Turtle Patrol Jr. hikes. Guides lead participants for an hour on an easy hike along the beach looking for Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, an endangered species that calls the island home, providing an informal talk about the creatures along with sea turtle and other nature-related games.

Galveston Island State Park is located at 14901 FM 3005. For park information, call 409-737-1222 or visit  tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/galveston-island. The park is open year-round but some areas may be closed occasionally, so check the website for details. Admission is free for kids under 12 years old and only $5 per day for adults.

It’s an almost official state law that every Texan must visit Moody Gardens every year. It’s easy to see why; the complex offers dozens of great attractions and activities. Every attraction has a separate admission fee and, while each is reasonable, add them all up and a family of four can easily spend a couple of hundred dollars on tickets alone. That's where the Galveston Island Pass and a little planning come in. 

Both the Moody Gardens Aquarium Pyramid and the Rainforest Pyramid are available with the pass. Regular admission to each pyramid is $17.95 to $21.95; Galveston Island Pass prices are $10.77 to $13.17. 

Want to see even more of Moody Gardens? Try the three-story Colonel Paddlewheel Boat, a replica of an 1800s vessel. Hour-long tours of Galveston Bay are available daily and are a low $10.95.

Palm Beach, an artificial white sand band with a wave pool, tower slides, a splash pad and a winding river, offers beach chairs, loungers, umbrellas and locker rooms. Open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, Palm Beach's regular admission prices are $17.95 to $23.95. Try the Bands on the Sand live concert series instead. You get access to the beach and all the water attractions from 5 to 9 p.m. plus performances from local bands for just $15. (Big savings and more shade!)

Moody Gardens is at One Hope Boulevard. Open daily (Galveston Island Pass not available for Saturday admission). Hours are seasonal and vary by attraction. For information, call 409-744-4673 or visit moodygardens.org
History buffs find plenty to do on the island, starting with lots of historic architecture to see. (The city didn’t have the same boom-and-bust cycles as Houston. While H-town was busy demolishing older structures to make way for new skyscrapers, Galveston couldn’t afford the demolition costs, so structures remained standing and, in large part, unchanged. By the time the city came back into an era of prosperity, islanders had already discovered the value of history-based tourism and restoration was favored over remodeling or new construction.) There are six different historic districts on the island, and it has one of the largest, most significant collections of 19th-century buildings in the country.

You can get a quick look at all that history with the Riding the Rails promotion going on now through the end of 2016. One ticket gets you admission to three museums related to the island's history, including the Galveston Railroad MuseumMoody Mansion and Bryan Museum. A Riding the Rails pass is just $29.95 for adults and $14.95 for kids ages four to 12. For information, call 409-632-7685 or visit ridingtherails.info

The Galveston Railroad Museum is home to dozens of restored railroad cars; the earliest dates back to 1880 and the most recent to 1990. Exhibits about the cars, the people who worked and rode on them and the products they moved are on display. See elaborate place settings in the dining room cars and the style of luxury cars from various eras, and visit with the "ghost travelers" (life-size sculptures of riders and workers that dot the grounds). Short train rides are scheduled for Saturdays ($5 with paid admission).

The Galveston Railroad Museum, 2602 Santa Fe Place. For information, call 409-765-5700 or visit galvestonrrmuseum.com. Hours vary seasonally; usually 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily with some winter weekdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Regular admission is $5 to $10; Galveston Island Pass price is $3 to $6.  

Moody Mansion, former home to the Moody family, offers a glimpse into life as some of the island's most wealthy lived it. Grand rooms are decorated in a variety of luxurious styles, from classical revival to French rococo, using original furniture. The garage is filled with vintage cars. Special exhibits include a display of Mary Moody Northern's jewelry, her collection of Native American artifacts and more.  Two free audio tours are available. 

Moody Mansion is at 2618 Broadway.  For information, call 409-762-7668 or visit moodymansion.org. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.  Regular admission is $6 to $12. Galveston Island Pass price is $3.60 to $7.20. 

The Bryan Museum, housed in a former orphanage, holds the largest collection of historical artifacts, documents and artwork covering the Southwestern United States. Current exhibits include "Visual Prayers: Spanish Colonial Religious Art," a never-before-seen selection of works from the museum's holdings, and "La Cruz Blanca (The White Cross): Leonor Villegas de Magnón," about the woman who founded the White Cross during the Mexican Revolution.  The Bryan Museum, 1315 21st Street. For information, call 409-632-7685 or visit thebryanmuseum.org. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays. Regular admission is $4 to $12.

What to Do Insider Tips: Plan ahead and be flexible. Have alternatives in mind in case your plans don’t work out. Some tours or rides need a minimum number of participants, and many attractions have seasonal hours. Visit the attraction’s website for the latest information.

Many attractions have live webcams. Check those out for a sense of the site, especially if you’ve never been there before. 

Where to Eat: 

Got a crowd to feed? Farley Girls’ family-style meals are delicious and inexpensive. A group of ten can get French toast, a house specialty, for brunch for $44, or chicken and waffles for $60. Low-priced lunch and dinner options include spaghetti and meat sauce, again for ten, at just $60, or roasted chicken at $90. Add a dinner salad for $27 and a sheet cake for $34. Got an even bigger group? Spaghetti for 20 is $102, while roasted chicken is $134. Chili, steak and pasta are also on the meal menu. Phone ahead at least 24 hours in advance for family-style meals.

Not traveling in a group? Opt for the $10 weekday specials. King Ranch chicken and pulled barbecue pork are popular (and filling). Farley Girls’ meatloaf, served with mashed potatoes, fried onion strings and barbecue sauce, is $11. Pizzas are only $8 to $15.

For weekend brunch, you can’t beat the waffles at $5. There are also biscuits smothered in sausage cream gravy for $8 (called the SOS) and chicken-fried steak on a pancake topped with sausage gravy and a fried egg for $15 (listed on the menu as the OMG).

Farley Girls Cafe is at 801 Postoffice. For information, call 409-497-4454 or visit farleygirls.com. Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. 

Leon's World's Finest In and Out Barbecue has just a half dozen tables and there's no ocean view.  Don't let its less than polished appearance fool you; the decor isn't much, but the food is spectacular. A dinner plate is less than $10 and you get your choice of brisket, ribs, two types of links or chicken and two sides. Two-meat plates are $12.95, and three-meat plates are $16.55.

Our personal favorite is the brisket. Like all of Leon's barbecue meat, the brisket is fall-apart tender and extremely tasty. All of the sides are excellent, but the spicy rice is downright addictive. (The rice's heat factor varies slightly depending on the cook's mood.) Expect the sauce to be tangy with a bit of a sweet kick.

There are two really important things to remember about Leon's: One, the homemade desserts are excellent. Two, Leon's delivers to nearby hotels. 

Leon's World's Finest Bar-B-Que is at 55th and Broadway. For information, call 409-744-0070 or visit leonsbbq.com.

Shrimp N' Stuff beat out the legendary Gaido’s in the 2015 Best of Galveston awards for best shrimp on the island. That alone makes it a must-try for any shrimp-loving visitor. The fried shrimp dinner, with fries, coleslaw and hush puppies, is a favorite with locals. A serving of five shrimp is $8.99, eight is $10.99 and a dozen is $14.99. The shrimp po-boy (seen above) is just $7.99. A side of shrimp gumbo is $5.89 for a bowl or $6.99 for a pint. 

Other popular choices include fried catfish ($9.39 or $11.99). There’s also a create-your-own platter option with any two of boiled, fried, stuffed or coconut shrimp, catfish, tilapia, oysters and crab balls ($12.99). Both include fries, coleslaw and hush puppies. 

Shrimp N' Stuff is at 3901 Avenue O. For information, call 409-763-2805 or visit shrimpnstuff.com. Hours are seasonal. 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 or 9:30 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 or 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

For more on where to eat in Galveston, see our The 5 Best Hidden Restaurant Gems in Galveston.

Where to Eat Insider Tips: Most eateries have serving size options. Portions tend to be generous, so consider the smaller sizes unless you’re a really big eater.  

Many restaurants deliver to hotels (most do so for free, but a few have added delivery fees, so check before you order).  

And, most important, try not to have the dreaded “Well, I dunno. Where do you wanna eat?” conversation. At least not while you’re standing in a parking lot under a blazing sun. Just pick one already. 

Where to Stay: 

Most Houston residents will drive to Galveston for the day and save themselves the expense of a hotel room, which usually makes up the bulk of vacation spending. If you want to spend the night on the island, the trick to saving is timing. Weekends and holidays are almost always going to be most expensive. Opt to stay any weekday and you'll save as much as 50 percent off full rate, even in the summer. 

We suggest Motel 6 Galveston for a super-inexpensive yet clean and comfortable stay. In season, the cost of a room with a queen bed is a reasonable $101 (+$16 tax) on the weekend. Stay any night Sunday through Thursday and that same room runs just $52 (+$8 tax)! There's no view (the motel isn't on the beachfront), but there is free parking, ADA access to rooms and an outdoor pool. Expect a small surcharge for Wi-Fi usage ($3). Keep in mind, this is not a hotel; it's a motel. Facilities will be simple and basic. And cheap. Very, very cheap. 

Motel 6 Galveston is at 7404 Avenue J. For information, call 409-740-3794 or visit motel6galveston.com
Even more budget-friendly is Galveston Island State Park.  Campsites for tents or RVs range from $15 to $25 per night, depending on location and amenities (lakeside versus beach side, water versus water + electricity) + daily entrance fee. Up to eight people and two vehicles are allowed per campsite. 

Want something with air-conditioning? Try one of the park's two cabins. The smaller one sleeps six, and the larger one accommodates eight. They rent for $175 (+ $26.25 tax) and $250 (+ $37.50 tax) nightly, which is a real bargain for a group. Both cabins are on Como Lake. 

Galveston Island State Park is located at 14901 FM 3005. For park information, call 409-737-1222 or visit 
tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/galveston-island. For campsite and cabin reservations, call 512-389-8900 or visit texas.reserveworld.com. 
If you'd like something more hotel-like, the La Quinta on the Seawall has rooms with two queen beds for just $89 (+ $13 tax) during the week compared to its regular $174 (+ $26 tax) on weekends.  La Quinta offers free Wi-Fi, free breakfast, free parking and an ample outdoor pool. The hotel is located on the seawall, but not every room has a full view of the ocean. (There's a second La Quinta in Galveston's East Beach. Both hotels have Seawall addresses; however, rates differ drastically. A room with two double beds at the East Beach location runs as much as $245 weekdays. Make sure you have the right location when you make your reservation.) 

La Quinta on the Seawall is at 8710 Seawall Boulevard. For information, call 409-740-9100 or visit lq.com

Where to Stay Insider Information: Free cancellation options will likely add to your nightly rate. Non-refundable prices offer a bit of a break. Remember, hotel rooms include a 15 percent occupancy tax. Reserving your room in advance, say four to six weeks, usually gets you the best price. 

For more information on Galveston's attractions, eateries and lodging options, visit galveston.com

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