Santiago makes it really easy not to spend too much money while exploring the city. Most museums and attractions are free, and there are plenty of cheap food and drink options to ensure that your money is spent well. Here are the things I did in Santiago for cheap:
A really good way to get introduced to the city is via Tours4Tips.com. I made a reservation very easily on their website at noon for a 3pm tour the same day. The tour is free every day at 10am and 3pm, but they ask you tip based on your experience (from $5,000 pesos, suggested). Our guide Camilo was super helpful in explaining the more niche aspects of the city, and kept things interesting. He explained why the stray dogs had clothes on (they're loved by the public), why women in short shorts and heels were serving coffee, and an in-depth, personal look into the student protests constantly arising in different parts of the city.
The metro is super easy to navigate and always costs around $1 USD. The prices for a ticket change depending on the time of day, but if you just hand over 1,000 pesos you'll always get change back--you don't have to worry about communicating in Spanish. The metro stops are clearly listed everywhere and it's super easy to make sure you're headed in the right direction.
No matter where in Santiago you are headed it's best to take the CentroPuerto bus into downtown from the airport. It is fast, cheap, and comfortable--it also runs regularly and there's always one boarding. The bus stops are clearly listed stations so it's easy to know when to jump off.
The museums in Santiago are mostly all free. I went first to the Museo de Bella Artes (The National Museum of Fine Arts). That building is attached to The Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC), which has some amazing photography art and a very cute cafe. Did I mention they are both free? Most museums are not open on Mondays, but if you find yourself in the area these are both well worth a look.
The Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (The Museum of Memory and Human Rights) is also free, however it costs $2,000 pesos (about $3.00) to use the English-speaking audio equipment. It's important not to skip this museum--it chronicles the brutal era in which Augusto Pinochet led a military dictatorship from 1973 to 1990. You may or may not be familiar with this events, but the struggles others face become very real as you wander through the modern three stories filled with first-hand accounts and newspaper headlines. After wandering through such a lovely city it's important not to forget the buildings that were bombed, the buildings where people were tortured and killed, and the people who still mourn their missing father, son, or daughter.
Lastly the Chilean National History Museum is located just next to the Cathedral de Santiago (which you can also wander into). The bad news is that everything in this museum is in Spanish-only, except the special exhibits. The good news is that it's free, you can still get a good idea of what the city you used to look like via maps and images, and the museums provides access to a tower over-looking the Plaza de Armas. It's a pretty fantastic view.
*for all of Chile, a Student I.D. also gets you very far, from bus tickets to park entries
Los Cerros (The Hills):
Finally, the hills in Santiago are a great way to see the panoramic views of the city, explore new terrain, and enjoy a nice day outside. San Lucia is in downtown Santiago, across from a very cute market for souvenirs and clothing items. First built on in 1816 as a defensive fort, it was in 1872 transformed in a sophisticated and manicured park for the public to enjoy (complete with a cathedral). On the way up you pass letters from early explorers describing the city as well as writing from Darwin, and at the top of the dubiously mismatched steps you are rewarded with beautiful views of downtown and the Andes Mountains.
San Cristobal, at 300 meters high, provides even more amazing views and, in the afternoon, "radioactive sunsets" (as my tour guide calls them, referring to the way the light is affected by the heavy smog above the city). This hill could easily fill an entire day, just by visiting the Japanese Garden, the Zoo, and spending some time at the cafes on the summit itself.
There are three ways up: the road, which is a gradual two hour walk (or quick drive), a funicular that is less than $3,000 pesos round-trip, or a dirt road that basically goes straight up for thirty minutes. Of course, I took that one. It was tiring, but the snow-capped Andes and freshly bloomed flowers provide the perfect backdrop for the sprawling, rag-tag metropolitan vista that makes up Santiago. I even found myself grateful to reach the 14 meter statue of the Virgin Mary. She and I looked out over the city for a while enjoying the last bits of light before I decided I deserved to take the funicular on the way down.