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For me, the most expensive part of travel is sightDOING. I’ve learned how to harness the power of frequent flyer miles and take advantage of hotel discounts, but tours — especially unique experiences — can be expensive. In order to keep my travel budget to a realistic amount, I try to offset every tour I take with something I can do for free. Need some inspiration? You’re in the right place.
Free Walking Tours
Free walking tours are one of the fastest growing activities worldwide. You’ll find them in every major city and they can be an awesome introduction to your destination. I love them to get oriented with neighborhoods, find my way around, and as a no-risk tour: if you don’t like the guide, just leave in the first 5 or 10 minutes and move on with your day. Check out this list of 80 free walking tours to find one where you’re going (or just google city + free walking tour and you’ll likely find one!).
Although these are usually titled “free” tours, in reality, they are donation-based. If you liked your guide and stayed for the whole walk, pay up. However, these groups are usually 20-40 people, meaning they cost far less than personalized, small group tours.
>>>>> The best free walking tour I ever went on was in Lima, Peru. The guide was engaging and there was a lot to learn!
I’ve met people who traveled halfway around the world just to see a certain piece of art. To me, that’s preposterous but it’s all part of the fun for a lot of visitors. Regardless, it’s amazing to me that world-class attractions like the British Museum and Smithsonian are always free.
Even for museums that normally charge admission, you’ll often find free limited hours on certain days of the week and it can be worth planning your trip around (especially if there’s only one exhibit you want to see). Also check out programs that offer free admission, like the Bank of America’s “Museum on Us” program for free admission when you show your BofA credit card.
This probably where the bulk of my free activities come into play. A lot of churches and temples are free all of the time and offer beautiful art, architecture, and history. Even churches that normally charge an admission price are free during religious services, as long as you dress respectfully and don’t mind attending service rather than walking around taking photographs. I love vespers services (typically music and evening prayer) as a way to experience the surroundings in the way they were intended.
Look beyond religious buildings though. Neighborhoods, like Chinatown in NYC or the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, can literally transport you to a different world. Take the time to explore, window shop, people-watch, or maybe sample a few foods. Even Colonial Williamsburg is free to walk around as long as you don’t enter any buildings.
Free Natural Sites
Some national parks are always free (and others are free on select dates), making them a great place to spend the day without paying a penny. State parks and city parks can also be worthwhile to visit for a stroll, with my favorites being El Parque Retiro in Madrid (amazing people-watching!) and the Englischergarten in Munich (if you’re willing to spend a few euro on a beer). Seashores are also often free, if you’re into sunbathing, wave jumping, or just a beautiful sunset stroll.
For a park with a more structured activity, try outdoor sculpture parks, such as the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, or botanical gardens like the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney – both free every day of the year. And while the night skies are always free, you can take stargazing up a notch by using free telescopes at Coit Observatory in Boston.
When guided tours don’t work out, you’ll find free directions and maps for self-guided walking tours in library books or online and free mp3 walking tours for cities, museums, and other European attractions from Rick Steve. Group runs are also almost always free, such as the run in London from the Nike store to Regent’s park held a few times weekly.
Prefer something more sedentary? Sometimes you’ll find television tapings that need more people in the live audience. It can often take advance notice to secure a seat, but tickets will be free, so give the studio a call! One of my favorite spots to find events and free activities is on Facebook Events – just search the dates and city that apply to your trip and find something new.
Especially in the summertime, you’ll find free entertainment in most cities. Check out free outdoor movies at the Civic Center Park in Denver or free jazz music at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. You’ll also find free cover charges at dance clubs, often with live music, if you go early and sometimes salsa clubs even offer a free lesson. Throw in local parades and festivals for some daytime fun and you’ll be busy for all your waking hours.
Vacations can be pricey, but there’s no need to spend a bundle. Balance out some free activities with other for-fee attractions and you’ll end up with a great trip…without breaking the bank.