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Fun tip: for an entire year in the mid 2000s, one of our team members did the Monday – Thursday commute between New York and Phoenix.
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Phoenix may not seem like an automatic choice when picking destinations – it’s in the middle of the desert and the heat. However, the sixth largest city in the US has enough offerings that taking advantage of one of the frequent Shorthaul Deals would be worth it. With a range of family activities, museums, and arts, Phoenix has made significant progress in stepping up its culinary scene and urbanizing its central and downtown areas. And while the economy has been moving in a positive direction, your money still stretches far here. So grab your sunscreen and head south(west).
It’s the elephant in the room, so let’s talk about it now – for about five months a year, Phoenix is hot. For three of those months, Phoenix is really hot. That leaves seven months a year when the city’s temperatures (60’s to 80’s) spark envy for residents of the rest of the country, making it a great winter getaway. Those other five months? Well, if you do a little planning ahead and are realistic about the heat, you can score great deals and still enjoy the city. May through October tend to be the hottest, though spikes into the nineties can stretch into November or wave through in April and March. June, July, August, and sometimes September can be the worst of those, when temperatures can be 110+ for days on end; and look for stretches in July and August when the low temperature won’t get out of the 90’s. Mid-June begins monsoon season but most activity comes in July and August. Although monsoons can be intense, it’s all relative – the average precipitation for both months is still only an inch.
Phoenix’s airport is Sky Harbor International and it’s easily one of the bonuses of visiting. Although it’s in the top ten for busiest traffic in the country, Sky Harbor was ranked as the number one airport in the country last year and is also in the top ten for on-time flights in the world. As a Phoenician and frequent traveler, it’s one of my favorite parts of living here. The airport has Terminals 2, 3, and 4 (don’t ask where 1 went). Terminal 4 handles international flights plus American and Southwest. The terminal has been remodeled in the past few years and includes multiple award-winning local eateries, so if your flight is delayed, eating at the airport isn’t so bad (Barrio Cafe is a great option). Terminal 3 primarily handles Delta and Terminal 2 has United and low cost airlines, like Spirit and Frontier. Both are on the older side, though 3 in the middle of a revamp, but all are easy to use and straightforward to move through. If you are needing to switch terminals, there is a free Sky Train available.
Known affectionately as the Valley of the Sun, Phoenix is often described in parts – the West Valley, East Valley, downtown, North and Northwest Valley. The Phoenix metro area is over 70 miles across; renting a car while here is a must. Unless you are staying and doing activities in a limited area of downtown, there is little public transportation available. There is a bus system but it is not the most efficient way to go around the city. There is also a limited light rail system that runs through downtown Phoenix and into parts of Mesa and Tempe; prices are affordable, with an all day pass running at $4. If the weather is mild, it’s a decent option if you’re going to some of the attractions downtown. However, a car is going to be the overall best option to experience the area.
Phoenix’s infrastructure is fairly straightforward and easy to navigate. The city has the interstates 10 and 17 going through it plus several freeways that connect the entire area. Streets are laid out in an ascending order going from the street Central downtown; east of Central are Streets, west of Central are avenues. Phoenix is laid out on a grid, so a number of the major roads cross almost the entire valley; because of this, it’s important to clarify details (75th Avenue and Indian School and 75th Street and Indian School are 20 miles apart). Avoid rush-hour during the week if possible and factor it in if heading to the airport during the morning and afternoon drive. It is important to note that freeways can have multiple names and that can signify a different part of the road. For instance, the Loop 202 freeway is either the Loop 202 Santan or the Loop 202 Red Mountain but it’s two separate pieces that don’t connect and are miles apart. The I-10 will be called the Papago or Maricopa freeway.
Surprisingly, Phoenix is becoming more of a food destination than in years past. It was recently ranked as the number one city in the country for pizza because of the vast number of different, high quality regional pizzas available. I would have to agree and suggest taking advantage of the circumstances at La Piazza al Forno in the West Valley or The Parlor Pizzeria and Cibo Urban Pizzeria near downtown. Hit up local chain Oregano’s Pizza Bistro at lunch for mini deep dish pies. Early birds go to Matt’s Big Breakfast in the heart of downtown, Butterfield’s out towards Scottsdale, or Over Easy in Arcadia. For a couple of local legends, head to the original and best location of Carolina’s on E Mohave Street for killer tortillas (preferably around a breakfast burrito or Oaxaca Special for under $5) – the area can get a little sketchy at night. Pick up some more authentic Mexican for a great price at Comedor Guadalajara and be sure to also try the ceviche. But any Mexican restaurant worth their salt serve homemade menudo (tripe soup) on the weekends. Upscale diners should look at Kai out at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass resort for an amazing meal inspired by the local Native American tribes. Go to Crudo for great Italian food with Japanese offerings, Bourbon Steak for an updated steakhouse, and Durant’s for the old-school kind.
The biggest bonus of the staying in the summer? Low rates at the resorts and spas across the city. Make sure to check travel deal sites for cheaper stays at the award-winning and multi-diamond properties scattered across the city – you can find nightly rates for around $100 or package deals with dining or spa options for 50% off. The best part is most resorts boast great pool complexes to beat the heat. My personal favorites are The Wigwam out in the West Valley (where you can find rooms in the $80s during summer), the JW Marriott Camelback for a taste of the Southwest, or the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia for their Moroccan inspired spa, Joya. For the rest of the year, price can drive your decision on where to stay. Finding a hotel in downtown or Scottsdale isn’t a requirement (remember, you rented a car), so there are a myriad of options available across Phoenix and its suburbs if you are looking to keep things on the cheaper side.
During the winter and spring, take advantage of the amazing weather and outdoor activities. Phoenix is a great place for hiking – in town, there’s Camelback Mountain, South Mountain or the White Tanks to the far west; drive north just out of town to the Superstition Mountains. There are also dozens of golf course options spread across the city. Phoenix also houses teams for every major sport – summertime brings baseball at Chase Field, a covered and air-conditioned stadium. Chase Field is also the cheapest stadium in the country, so taking in a game is a reasonable expense. If you’re a baseball fan, Phoenix is home to spring training for West Coast teams; however, prices and attendance have increased significantly over the last few years. Try going to the Arizona Fall League instead for cheaper tickets but a chance to see MLB rookies. Or for something slightly different, head to Tempe for a Division II Phoenix Rising soccer match. $20 will get you a good seat with a great atmosphere. For those culturally inclined, Phoenix offers numerous options, from opera to ballet to world class museums and theatre. Here are a few suggestions:
- See your favorite Broadway musical at the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Gammage Theatre at Arizona State University.
- The Musical Instrument Museum is the only global instrument museum in the world. The museum is massive, so plan to spend a good chunk of the day but for $20, it’s a great experience.
- The Heard Museum near downtown offers a unique look at American Indian art. Every February, they host the World Championship Hoop Dance contest, which is a fun and fascinating two-day event.
First Fridays are hosted every month on the first Friday evening. Artists and studios showcase their work and galleries stay open late for visitors to walk through downtown. There’s a trolley to go around the entire circuit and park and ride locations available. It’s a great chance to explore the area for free.
About the Author:
Asonta Benetti is based in Phoenix, Arizona. When not at her day job or working on scriptwriting, she and her husband are avid travelers, most often exploring his native UK. Having just knocked Iceland off the list, they’re looking for their next adventure. She’s written articles for Highroads magazine on San Diego, the Oregon Coast, Missouri, and Belgium. You can follow her on Twitter/@AsontaMarie or Instagram/@asontabenetti.
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