Courtesy of Visit Denmark
Zip around town on two wheels. In Copenhagen, Zürich, Bern, and Helsinki (usually from May though the fall) you can borrow a bicycle from stands stationed around the city. Each program requires a nominal deposit ($3–$20), which is returned after your ride when you lock the bike up. Many cities, including Paris, Vienna, Rome, and Lyon, offer free bikes for the first half hour (after that you'll have to fork over some cash).
Tom Craig / Alamy
What: Forget renting the museum wand. Instead, download podcasts to your MP3 player and get a step-by-step narration of some of the world's hottest spots. Some examples:
- Rick Steves will guide you through the Louvre, Versailles, the Coliseum, the Sistine Chapel, the Uffizi Gallery, and other sites. Each tour features a PDF companion map.
- Zevisit has free downloadable audio guides to scores of European cities, including Dublin, Hyères, Bordeaux, Munich, Arles, and Cannes.
- Author Peter Caine has a free podcast based on his book, Walking the Da Vinci Code in Paris. The tour follows the footsteps of Dan Brown’s characters in the best-selling novel.
Open House New York offers a number of free podcasts of notable though often overlooked buildings throughout the five boroughs, including the Edgar Allan Poe cottage and the Little Red Lighthouse.
Courtesy of the Steigenberger Hotel
Free Public Transportation
What: Ride subways, buses, and ferries for free.
- Europe: 27 InterCity Hotels throughout Germany and one in Vienna offer free unlimited local public transportation to guests during their stay. (In some cities that even means the train ride to the airport.) Each guest is given a voucher at check-in that's valid until midnight of their checkout day.
- New York City: Sure, the main purpose of the Staten Island Ferry is to transport people the five-mile distance between Manhattan and Staten Island, but visitors can’t beat the spectacular view of the skyline, Statue of Liberty, and New York Harbor during the 25-minute ride.
- Several cities offer free transportation around their downtowns, either by bus, light rail, trolley, or all three. Some of these free spots include Denver, Colorado; Portland, Oregon; Coral Gables, Florida; and Buffalo, New York.
Courtesy of exchangehomesoia.com
A hotel can be the most expensive part of a vacation. Instead, live in someone else’s home while they live in yours. List your house or apartment on a vacation-exchange site like Only in America. There’s no listing fee, but you’re limited to the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. To go global, the International Home Exchange Network features listings all over the world on nearly every continent for an annual listing fee of $40. And Intervac International offers traditional exchanges globally, as well as a hospitality exchange (travelers visit and stay with you, then you return the favor another time). Annual membership fee: $95 (if you don’t find an exchange within a year, you get a full refund.)
Tip: Yes, having someone else live in your home may feel a little dicey. Call the swapper to you get a sense of who they are and make sure you’re comfortable with them. Check their references and ask friends or neighbors to periodically check in.
Courtesy of Lemassif.com
What: The price of riding chair lifts is climbing as high as some of the mountain peaks they serve. But there are ways to hitch a free ride.
- Utah: With the Quick S.T.A.R.T. Vacation package, if you take an early morning flight to Salt Lake City and head straight to the mountains, show your boarding pass (and a voucher and ID) and ski that day for free at Deer Valley Resort, Park City Mountain Resort, and The Canyons Resort. Already in Utah?Show up at Alta from 3pm–4:30pm and ski off the Sunnyside Lift for free.
- Colorado: Several resorts offer some type of free-skiing program to reward volunteer work. At Winter Park Resort, for every four hours you volunteer, you earn a one-day, transferable lift ticket. And there's no limit to the number of free lift tickets you can earn!
- Quebec: For one day each year during Christmastime, anyone who dresses like Santa (beard, hat, and red jacket) can ski for free on Santa Claus Day at Le Massif in Charlevoix, outside Québec City. You won’t be alone. Last year, 500 Santas participated.
Courtesy of Utah Olympic Park
Free Sports Events
Sure, you can see amateur athletes compete at your local soccer field. But world-class athletes are expensive to see, right?Wrong!
- Park City, Utah: Each year, dozens of Olympic teams (from China to Australia to Great Britain) train at the Utah Olympic Park, site of 14 events during the 2002 Olympic Winter games. You may see Olympians ski jumping 60 feet into the air or training for bobsled, luge, and skeleton.
- Lake Placid, New York: At Lake Placid’s Olympic Center, site of the 1932 and 1980 winter games, you can watch Olympic and professional figure skaters and hockey teams training for free.
- Many professional baseball and football teams allow the public to watch them train and sometimes offer autograph days. Check out the Chicago Bears’ free practice sessions in July and August, 50 miles south of Chicago in Bourbonnais, Illinois. From mid-July to mid-August, fans can watch practice, get player autographs, and take part in free clinics.
Courtesy of Tate Britain
Free Museums & Zoos
Some of the world’s top museums don’t charge a cent to see their prized possessions.
- Great Britain: The national museums and galleries in England, Scotland, and Wales are free (however, there may be a fee for special exhibits). And they’re places you wouldn’t want to miss anyway: the National Gallery, the British Museum, the Tate Modern and the Tate Britain, and the Victoria and Albert.
- Washington, DC: Admission to all 19 Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo is free and includes the National Portrait Gallery, the Air and Space Museum, and the African Art and Natural History museums. And there is no admission charge to visit the National Gallery of Art.
- Chicago: At Lincoln Park Zoo, you can see sea lions, apes, bears, penguins, and many other wildlife species.
Courtesy of Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Top-notch music from world-class performers can be a pricey affair. But not here (and many other spots around the globe):
- South Africa: The precursor to the annual Cape Town Jazz Festival is the free concert on Greenmarket Square, which kicks off the main festival.
- Antibes, France: Take in the finale free concert at the celebrated Jazz à Juan International Annual Jazz Festival, which draws music lovers from around the world.
- Montreal: Each year, the Montréal International Jazz Festival has a dozen stages of free open-air concerts.
- Santa Cruz, California: Throughout the summer on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk’s main beach, musicians like Blue Oyster Colt, Eddie Money, the Gin Blossoms, and John Waite perform two free shows on Friday nights.
Courtesy of Paris Tourist Office/Amélie Dupont
At $10 and climbing, movies can be a pricey affair for a group of travelers. So show up here (and many other spots) and don’t pay:
- Paris: Every summer, the ultramodern Parc de la Villette outside the city draws movie lovers with its giant outdoor screen and free Open Air Cinema festival. The 2008 offerings center around Hollywood icons Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, and Gina Lollobrigida.
- Baltimore: The American Visionary Art Museum sponsors Flicks on the Hill, an outdoor film series featuring free outdoor movies from Casablanca to Harold and Maude to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Guests sit on the side of Federal Hill while movies are projected onto the side of the museum.
- Pismo Beach, California: Every other Wednesday from June through August, Dolphin Bay Resort & Spa in Pismo Beach, on California’s Central Coast presents a Cinema Under the Stars series on the hotel’s lawn. Available to all movie buffs, not just hotel guests, movies may include West Side Story, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Sleepless in Seattle.