The World's Best Free Stuff
A few years ago, Canadians Terry and Carole Baker vacationed in St. Genis, France and stayed in a place with a kitchen, washer/dryer, and a balcony overlooking the Jura Mountains. They’ve also stayed in a 4,000-square-foot, 18th-floor condo in Penang, Malaysia and in a sprawling, amenity-laden spot in Mesa, Arizona. And next August they’re spending five weeks in a cozy cottage in Stirling, Scotland.
Cost of their accommodations? $0.
The Bakers had discovered one of the craftiest ways to save money on hotels: home-swapping. Whenever wanderlust calls, they list their four-bedroom home in Ottawa on several home exchange sites and trade lives with people around the planet—without paying them a dime.
Sure, we all stumble across the occasional grocery-store sample or the no-cover music venue. But finding free events, accommodations, and transportation is especially important these days, when even the complimentary things we took for granted are disappearing. Checking your bag? $25. Soggy airline sandwich? $10. And now that the cost of gas is at eye-popping levels, free stuff is not just a bonus, it can be a vacation-saver.
Sometimes, of course, there are catches: the Bakers had to trust that the strangers living in their house wouldn’t sell all their possessions on eBay (they’ve never had a problem). And there can be significant costs in accumulating enough frequent-flier miles to fly free.
But sometimes free really means free. One example: world-renowned works of art. True, some famous museums do away with tickets for a couple hours each week (usually at inconvenient times). But if you’re heading to Great Britain, you’ll find that all the national museums and galleries are free of admission fees, allowing you to peruse masterpieces by Picasso, Matisse, and Miró in spaces like London’s Tate Modern for $0 (which, thankfully, converts to 0 euros).
“People don’t expect national treasures from all over the world in the British Museum to be in free public display, but it allows our heritage to be available to everyone,” explains Paul Mace, deputy head concierge for the May Fair hotel in Central London, who delights in telling guests that most museums are complimentary. “It’s a nice and welcome surprise and illustrates how British people invite visitors to share what we have.”
But just because New York City’s MoMA now costs $20 to get into, it doesn’t mean a Big Apple vacation has to take a debilitating bite out of your vacation budget—there are lots of free activities. Riding the Staten Island Ferry gets you a panoramic view of downtown Manhattan and a close-up view of the Statue of Liberty. Check out free museums like the American Folk Art Museum and the Guggenheim Museum Soho. Then hook up with a Big Apple Greeter and have a volunteer show you their favorite locales with a truly insider view (the program’s also available in cities like Houston and Buenos Aires). There’s no charge, and your guide won’t ask for a tip (and will even throw in a $4 subway and bus credit for each person).
Sports fan? You could spend $50 or more to see the Chicago Bears football team play from nosebleed seats. But how about watching them up close—for free? Since the early 1980s, the Chicago Bears have opened their team training practice in Bourbonnais, Illinois, for three weeks to the public, at no charge. “All our home games are sold out, so training camp gives us the opportunity to reach out all to Bears fans,” explains team spokesman Scott Hagel. Not only do fans see the team up close and personal, there are free football clinics, autograph sessions and firework displays.
It’s that local, personal experience that drives Terry and Carole Baker to keep home-swapping. “We have been in extraordinary homes and experienced local culture,” says Terry, “and saved a fortune."
Get the inside track on a city from someone who knows it best—a local. These volunteers truly want to show off their town, and won’t demand a tip or force you into a tchotchke store. And some places, like New York City, throw in free public transportation. A typical visit lasts anywhere from two hours or more, and greeters can be scheduled via e-mail or telephone. Most programs ask that you arrange a visit several weeks or one month before arrival.
Where: New York City, Fairbanks, Toronto, Chicago, Paris, Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Houston, Kent, England, Adelaide, Nantes, France. And new greeters programs are continually cropping up around the world.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.