Fortunately, however, on any given day people with more imagination than money can find plenty of only-in-New Orleans experiences around town that are inexpensive or even free. Below are four suggested itineraries to enjoy the city's unique offerings all tuned to a student's budget.
Over the River
New Orleans owes its very existence to the Mississippi River, one of the world's great river systems and an iconic feature on the cultural, historic and economic landscape of America. In other words, it's pretty important. And, fortunately for the budget-minded, it also offers some free thrills. On a hot day, in fact, the river breezes usually offer the outdoor equivalent of free air-conditioning for anyone who pays it a visit.
Start your own visit with a little self-guided tour of the riverfront, starting at Washington Artillery Park, the raised platform across from Jackson Square. Head toward the river from there and you can stroll along the Moonwalk, a paved walkway named for former New Orleans mayor Maurice "Moon" Landrieu. This will take you to Woldenberg Park, a large open field with displays of public sculpture and memorials as well as the berth for the Steamboat Natchez, a paddle wheeler that enlivens the riverfront with music from its steam calliope prior to each departure.
Your walk will lead you to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and, next to it, the terminal for the Canal Street ferry, a state-run commuter ferry offering free rides across the Mississippi River (there is a $1 fee for motorists that is charged on the return trip). If the ferry is not yet at the terminal, use the time to explore the adjacent Spanish Plaza -- a gift from Spain in a gesture of friendship to New Orleans, its one-time colony.
The ferry ride is brief but offers a great opportunity to get close to the brown, swirling waters of the mighty Mississippi and to let the wind blow back your hair. The ferry crosses the river to dock at Old Algiers Point, a community established in 1719.
A recent addition to the neighborhood is a little gourmet take-out shop called Sortez Caf (141 Delaronde St., 227-2989; www.sortezcafe.com). You'll have to spend your first dollars of the trip here, but not too many of them. Take your sandwiches, salads, soups and dips back toward the ferry terminal and follow the trail that runs atop the grassy levee. Here you'll find benches where you can sit, eat and watch huge ships from ports around the globe make the dramatic, hairpin turn necessary to round Algiers Point.
Riverfront walk: free
Ferry ride: free
Even if the Beatles were right when they sang that "money can't buy you love," it certainly does help to have some dough on hand if you want to take your sweetheart out for a date. But follow the schedule below and you can offer an evening filled with exotic cuisine, drinks and the sounds of New Orleans music and still have change leftover from a pair of $20 bills.
This itinerary is designed for a Thursday night, but if the school bell rings too early for you on Friday morning for that to work, just use this as a model to customize an outing on any other night.
On Thursdays (and Sundays) the Uptown Indian restaurant Nirvana (4308 Magazine St., 894-9797; www.insidenirvana.com extends the hours of its popular lunchtime buffet through dinner. That means for $9.95 per person (plus tax and tip), you can sample soups, a salad bar, the Indian flat bread called naan and a selection of chicken and vegetarian dishes over basmati rice.
Make sure you don't get too full at the buffet, however, because you will want to be light on your feet for the next stop. If you and your date are at least 21 years old, head up Magazine Street just a bit for the bar and music club Le Bon Temps Roule (4801 Bordeaux St., 895-8117). There is normally no cover and Thursday is the night the Soul Rebels Brass Band rolls into the back bar for a show that mixes hip-hop styles with New Orleans brass band sounds. Beers and basic cocktails will set you back about $3 each, or you can split a pitcher of beer and get a discount on volume.
If you don't care for clubs or aren't yet 21, a good after-dinner alternative is the Neutral Ground Coffeehouse (5110 Danneel St., 891-3381; www.neutralground.org) an Uptown destination for music, art and poetry. On Thursdays, this cozy, low-key venue usually books four different acts, each beginning around the top of the hour from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. The baristas can set you up with coffee, tea or dessert for less than the cost of a Miller High Life.
Dinner for two (with tax and 15 percent tip): $26
Cover for a show: free
Drinks for two (with tip): $8
Total for two: $34
French Quarter on the Cheap
As long as you're not in the market for real estate, bargains are easy to find in the French Quarter. A muffuletta sandwich of Italian cold cuts, cheese and olive salad costs $13 at the vintage food emporium Central Grocery (923 Decatur St., 523-1620). But no one needs to (and few can manage to) eat an entire muffuletta, and the store sells most of its sandwiches as still-massive half-sized portions for $7.
Pick up a bottle of local-favorite Barq's root beer for another $1.50, grab some paper napkins and head down to Jackson Square. Find a perch on one of the benches in front of St. Louis Cathedral and enjoy your classic New Orleans lunch in a classic New Orleans setting while listening to classic New Orleans jazz this last element supplied by a group of musicians who gather each day in the square. Like all the other street performers in the Quarter, the band plays for tips, so dropping a few bucks in the tip bucket is the right thing to do and a small price to have live musical accompaniment for your lunch.
Afterwards, cross Decatur Street to Caf du Monde (800 Decatur St., 525-4544; www.cafedumonde.com) for a fitting finale to your meal: a caf au lait made with chicory coffee.
Tips for the band: $2
Art in the Park
Streetcar service on St. Charles Avenue is out of action for now, but the historic streetcars themselves are still running along the Canal Street route. Head down to Canal Street, pony up the $1.25 fare and let one of these 80-year-old rolling landmarks be your chariot for a trip to City Park and an afternoon of art, outdoor scenes and some of the cheapest po-boys around.
First, make sure you board a streetcar bound for City Park on the Carrolton Avenue spur (others go straight up Canal Street to the cemeteries). The end of the line is right at the gates for City Park, and it's a short walk to the New Orleans Museum of Art and its outdoor Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden (see www.noma.org for hours and information). Admission to the museum and the sculpture garden is free for Louisiana residents with proper identification (otherwise, museum admission is $8 or $7 for students).
Head back toward the streetcar stop and you'll see Bayou St. John. Walk along its grassy banks, heading toward the city's skyline, and you will pass historic French Colonial-style houses and probably will see some wildlife swimming on, flying above or leaping out of its gentle waters.
After about one-third of a mile, near the end of the bayou, you should spy the bright yellow corner building of the Parkway Bakery & Tavern (538 N. Hagan St., 482-3047) one block in from the waterway itself. This freshly renovated but thoroughly old-fashioned New Orleans po-boy shop offers one of the city's original bargain meals: the French fry po-boy. This is just what it sounds like -- French fries, with or without gravy, dressed with the usual condiments on French bread. This festival of carbs goes for just $3.50, or $2.50 for a smaller version. Add a soft drink or, if you are of age, a bottle of beer, and your total bill is still under $6. (There are, of course other delectable po-boys on the menu, and they're big enough that you can split one between two people, but the French fry po-boy is a quintessential New Orleans indulgence.)
As an extra kick, the Parkway hosts free shows by local bands outside on its patio early on Friday and Saturday nights. The bands are usually old-time R&B-style acts and plenty of patrons will be dancing to their tunes. If you're among them, just make sure you save enough energy for your walk back to the streetcar stop at City Park.
Streetcar fare (roundtrip): $2.50
Museum/sculpture garden admission: free
Po-boy and drink (with tip): $7