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Rio de Janeiro's infamous Carnaval celebrations attract nearly 5 million people every year, with generally one to two million of those being tourists, so it's easy to see why hotel prices are at their highest during this time. If you don't want to miss out on the world's largest party, it would be smart to plan your trip to include either the first or last day of Carnaval.
If your main goal is to be close to the action during Carnaval, staying at a hotel in Ipanema is your best bet. Booking a hotel near a metro station is also a good idea to easily move around the city, since most traffic stops during Carnaval. The Mar Ipanema Hotel or the Rio Hostel Ipanema are in the perfect area for Carnaval-goers.
For several weeks leading up to Carnaval there are hundreds of block parties that take place throughout the city, so if you're looking for a taste of the celebration without paying extreme prices, the blocos are a great option. Most neighborhoods in Rio host a bloco at some point, but one of the largest ones takes place in Cinelandia, so if you're planning to attend, check out hotel Novotel Rio de Janeiro or Rio Aplauso Hostel which are both in the area.
Keep in mind that the peak of high season generally lasts from the beginning of December until the end of February, so prices will still be fairly high during those times (apart from a temporary drop that happens in the middle of January.) The cheapest months to book a hotel in Rio are April, May, June, September and October. In addition to lower prices, the temperatures are milder during those months and you'll see considerably fewer tourists.
Many tourists head to Rio planning to spend their entire vacation lounging on the beach, which is quite easy to do considering vendors walk by with everything from steamed seafood to clothing and souvenirs. If this sounds like your ideal vacation, there are plenty of discounted hotels in Rio de Janeiro near the beach. Some great options are the Windsor Palace Hotel, which is one block from the Copacabana beach and boasts a rooftop pool plus free breakfast, or the affordable 4-star Mar Ipanema Hotel near Ipanema's famous Leblon beach, which also has access to the major bus lines directly in front of it.
To save money and to see a different side of Rio, consider staying in a neighborhood that's not beach-side, like Santa Teresa. Although the bohemian neighborhood of Santa Teresa is often considered a must-see for tourists, it's not an extremely common place to stay so the hotel rates are significantly lower than in Copacabana or Ipanema. Santa Teresa is safe, artistic and a foodie's paradise, making it an ideal area for budget travelers or anyone looking for cultural immersion.
Also keep in mind that if you want to take advantage of the Lapa district's unforgettable nightlife, you might want to stay nearby to avoid paying for an expensive taxi once public transportation shuts down. The Casa com Varanda bed & breakfast is a cheap and popular option in Santa Teresa, which offers a full buffet breakfast and is walking distance from Lapa's nightlife.
If you're on a tight schedule during your trip, or want to avoid paying transportation fees, you may want to find a hotel in Rio de Janeiro that is near one of the main attractions you plan on visiting. A trip to Rio wouldn't be complete without taking a ride in the glass-walled cable car to the top of Sugarloaf mountain, which is situated at the mouth of Guanabara Bay. Hotel Acapulco Copacabana is extremely close to Sugarloaf, but is also walking distance to Vermelha beach and the Rio Sul Shopping Mall.
Both the Christ the Redeemer statue and Corcovado mountain are located in the Tijuca forest, but since Tijuca is a national park, the closest hotels are in the Cosme Velho neighborhood. Some great nearby options are the Les Jardins de Rio, which is a romantic 4-star hotel, or the Corcovado Rio hostel, which has a beautiful outdoor pool and is a great budget option. Note that you do not have to stay directly in the Cosme Velho neighborhood to have easy access to the Christ the Redeemer, as you could stay at a hotel like the Mercure Rio de Janeiro in the Botafogo neighborhood, where you can easily reach the statue by metro and still be within walking distance of Copacabana beach.
If you're a backpacker on a tight budget you may want to stay at a hostel in Rio de Janeiro, but you could be surprised to find that prices are slightly higher than what you'd see in Europe. With Rio becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination each year, and due to the strong economic growth Brazil has seen recently, prices continue to rise.
Hostels are still a great way to interact with other travelers, particularly if you are hoping to meet someone to explore the city or drink a caipirinha with, however, you might need to do some comparison shopping to find one that suits your budget and your needs. El Misti Hostel Leme is a popular choice near Copacabana; Rio Aplauso Hostel offers a quirky and fun atmosphere in the heart of Lapa; and the Santa Tere Hostel is a good option for couples looking for private rooms within the Santa Teresa neighborhood.
The number of Airbnb listings has skyrocketed recently, and Airbnb is now a wildly popular and inexpensive alternative to hotels in Rio de Janeiro. Listings range from penthouse condos to cozy private rooms to simple dorm-style shared bedrooms, and the prices vary greatly as well.
It is not uncommon to find a room in a shared house listed on Airbnb that's equal to or cheaper than a bed in a hostel dorm. For example, "Cool House in Gloria/Santa Teresa" is in a central location, guests rave about the friendly hosts, and it has most of the same amenities as a hostel, yet you get a private room for about the same price you'd spend on a dorm bed in a hostel.
In general it is not advised to rent a car if you're planning to stay within the city, due to troublesome traffic and the excellent public transportation system. If you do not rent a car, it is a good idea to research how to get to your hotel from the airport before arriving to avoid paying for expensive airport taxis.
There are two airports in Rio de Janeiro; Tom Jobim/Galeão (GIG) is the main international airport and Santos Dumont (SDU) is a smaller airport for domestic flights. Many hotels offer shuttles to and from either airport for a fee, but to save money you should search for one that offers cheap airport transfer or has it included in the price of the room. The Windsor Guanabara Hotel and El Misti Hostel Leme both offer transfers free of charge, and there are many others that offer a shuttle upon request for a small surcharge. If you plan to stay at a boutique hotel or an apartment rental, it is unlikely that a transfer will be available, however, the staff members are usually a good source of information for details on how to find the property.
Assuming you are arriving on an international flight to the Tom Jobim airport, a taxi into downtown Rio could cost between $30 and $60 USD per person. If you decide to take a taxi, make sure to exit the airport and catch a regular yellow one in front of the building that agrees to use the meter. Using a Radiotaxi from inside the airport will cost you nearly double the price. If you need to take a taxi to the airport you should call a regular yellow taxi by phone, or hail one on the street and insist that they use the meter.
The cheapest way to reach your hotel is by taking the blue REAL bus. These buses run from 5:30AM to midnight and cost about $5 USD. There will be signs in the airport pointing you to the bus stop, and if you need to catch it back to the airport, just find a stop on the street and wave the bus down as it approaches.