Travel hacking brings you the best of both worlds.
Not only do you experience the joys of travel but you also do a sterling job of not pounding away at your wallet (I £ove my jok€$, if that make$ ¢ent$). It’s not just about getting great deals (how does free sound?) on airfare and lodging; touring can also eat up (oh, and eating) a huge chunk of your travel budget.
Here are 14 of our favorite ways to go sightseeing and still stay within your budget:
1. Check out free or reduced-fare admission days at museums.
Some museums offer free admission or reduced rates on certain days or times of the week that typically have slower traffic. Before planning a visit to a museum, check the website for these deals or call the museum. By way of example, here is a list of more than 60 museums in New York City that offer free, pay as you wish, or reduced rates. (If a museum offers a “suggested entrance fee”—also called “pay as you wish”—you can choose to pay the full amount, a percentage, or nothing at all, depending upon your ability to pay and other factors that are relevant to you.)
So look for these freebies and lower priced days at museums. Seeing a Picasso at a discount doesn’t discount the value of the art.
2. Instead of paying for a group tour in a new city, do your own research on the major attractions online before you visit.
When sightseeing in a foreign city or town, some people take organized tours of the local attractions to learn about the historical and cultural details of the location (or maybe they’re too lazy to plan it out on their own?). On the plus side, these group tours will show you the major attractions (no FOMO) and provide you with a local, knowledgeable tour guide to take you around. They may also offer group discounts that you wouldn’t usually get on your own (and sometimes even unique access). The downside is that group tours are often pricey and crowded, and can cramp your style due to group scheduling. (“Be back at the clocktower in exactly 20 minutes.”)
Instead of paying for this local knowledge, you can stay informed and prepared by doing your homework online (i.e. for free) before you go. A group tour to a major attraction can cost you twice as much (or more) than going by yourself and just paying the regular entrance fee. Visiting on your own will free up your time to move around as you please and will also save you a lot of money.
3. Take a self-guided walking tour.
If you want the benefit of local knowledge but you still want to be on your own, check out these apps. They’re like those annoying museum headsets but for a city:
- Roadside America
- Just Ahead
- Field Trip
- Rick Steves Europe
(Rick Steves free self-guided walking tours of Europe are available individually or through the Rick Steves Audio Europe Travel App. These walking tours are available for Austria and Germany; Britain; Eastern Europe; France; Greece and Turkey; Italy; Netherlands; Portugal; and Spain.)
Whether you are walking the Freedom Trail in Boston, the High Line in NYC, or exploring other great cities anywhere in the world, you can get a lot of mileage out of your own two feet for nothing more than the price of a water bottle (you’re gonna get thirsty) and a good pair of sneakers. And you can do it all on your own schedule.
EXTRA BONUS: Download maps to use offline. Below are the instructions straight from the horse’s mouth (though if you’re a Droidy, you’ll have to look it up). You can keep your WiFi on, turn off mobile/roaming, and through the powers of triangulation, you can literally have Google Maps for zero data usage.
“Download a map to use offline
- On your iPhone or iPad, open the Google Maps app.
- Make sure you’re connected to the Internet and signed in to Google Maps.
- Search for a place, like San Francisco.
- At the bottom, tap the name or address of the place > tap More … .
- Select Download offline map > Download.”
4. Consider purchasing a city pass to the major attractions.
In some cities, you can purchase sightseeing passes to receive discounts on admission to major tourist attractions such as museums, tours, and other local attractions. If you think you will be visiting enough of these tourist destinations anyway, you should compare the price of the pass to the cost savings you think you’ll receive.
CityPASS, for instance, offers passes in 14 cities (Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, New York City, Orlando, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Southern California, Tampa Bay, Toronto) and covers entrance fees to specific attractions over a set time period. For example, the Seattle CityPASS provides discounts on 5 major attractions (Space Needle; Seattle Aquarium (they have otters!); Harbor Tour; Museum of Pop Culture OR Woodland Park Zoo; and Chihuly Garden and Glass OR Pacific Science Center) over a 9-day period. The adult pass costs $99 but can save you about 45% on those attractions (if you plan to visit all 5!). Do the math and compare. These passes can save you a lot on admission fees if you are going to visit those attractions anyway.
Some city passes offer choices based on the duration of time you spend in that particular city. The New York Pass, for instance, offers discounts on 100+ attractions, and the pass is sold on a 1-day, 2-day, 3-day, 4-day, 5-day, or 10-day basis. If you know you will be visiting enough of these covered attractions to make the pass cost-effective, then you can save money on entrance fees. Plan your trip carefully before you purchase a multi-day pass, though, so that you make sure you come out ahead.
You can search for city passes online or through tourist bureau websites. In addition to giving you great discounts, some passes also offer “skip-the-line” privileges. This feature can save you a lot of time at the more popular museums and attractions. Even if the pass ends up costing you more, it may make sense to buy it anyway if you have limited time, so that you don’t spend half your time waiting on an endless winding line. Would you rather have FOMO and have to fly back again? Don’t be pound wise and penny foolish.
5. Check out Visitor Bureaus and Tourist Bureaus for information on free, discounted, or low-cost events and attractions.
Before you leave for your trip, go online to the Visitor Bureau or Tourist Bureau for the city or town you will be visiting to find information on free or low-cost things to do in that particular location. You can also visit some of these bureaus in person at airports, rest stops, or in the center of the city you are visiting. Tourist bureaus often provide pamphlets and brochures with discount coupons or coupon codes for the city’s major attractions. Some airports also have tourist desks that sell discounted tickets to main attractions.
If you are at a brick-and-mortar visitor’s bureau, ask someone who works there to recommend free or low-cost attractions. You can also ask about local restaurants and cafes that they recommend for travelers on a budget. (Caveat emptor: Sometimes they may direct you to places that pay them to recommend them, so keep your radar on.)
In addition to getting information from tourist bureaus, you can just Google something like “free things to do in ______.” From free museums and art galleries to parks and outdoor markets, there may be lots of lesser-known places you can find out about from just a simple online search.
6. Ask for recommendations from the locals.
“. . . I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.” (“A Streetcar Named Desire”)
What’s one way to connect with the culture? Drop your phone. Enjoy your experience. Strike up a conversation with people you meet and ask them what their favorite place is or what you should go see. You will get a better perspective, they may have an “in,” and you might even make a new friend. People take pride in their culture and love to share it with visitors.
I’ve always found that looking at a tour book to find historic coffee shops and/or pubs is your first step, but talking to real people can be the best way to go beyond what’s recommended for tourists. The local people will know out-of-the-way places that might never make it into the tourist guides. They can also recommend great local restaurants that will give you an authentic meal without the touristy price.
7. Explore side streets and neighborhoods.
Some of the best and most authentic experiences you can have in a new city are found by exploring the local streets and markets on your own. Although the major tourist attractions in any city are usually “must-see” material (you can’t go to Paris and not go to the Eiffel Tower), you can learn a lot about a new place just by exploring the side streets by yourself, away from all the crowds.
Meandering around the local neighborhoods can expose you to the local culture, flavor, and architecture in a way that the main tourist areas may not. (Just read up about locations in advance so you know where/when to go —and not to go. Exploring is great, but you don’t want to end up in some deserted place either.) There’s a special thrill in stumbling upon something unexpected—amazing street art, beautiful row houses, charming side streets—that you just can’t replicate by visiting the usual tourist spots that you see in all the travel brochures.
8. Spend some time people-watching.
Another interesting activity is to find an outdoor cafe and spend some time watching the people go by. Every new place has a rhythm and personality that is unique, and it’s interesting to just watch the flow of life on a typical day in a foreign city.
One of my favorite things about traveling is to see the culture, the sites, and the history of a new place. Then you sit back and notice the everyday life of people—how they work, move, dress, interact, and live. It’s exciting to immerse yourself in a foreign world and to try to experience life the way that others do.
9. Visit public parks, squares, statues, gardens, fountains, etc.
Many cities have beautiful public spaces that are free for the taking. You can pass stunning sculptures, unique structures, or charming cobblestoned squares just by walking and exploring freely. No city wants to hide its highlights.
Many places put their best works on display for public consumption. These local treasures draw crowds for a reason and always will. The Trevi Fountain isn’t going anywhere. (Save three coins and toss them in.)
10. Look for local events such as farmers’ markets, outdoor concerts, and other free or nearly free activities.
These may be more seasonal to the location you are visiting, but by checking listings for local events (online, outdoor signs, postings, and fliers in stores, etc.), you might stumble upon area events that are free to the public. I happened to be in Paris last summer during the World Cup playoffs. Every outdoor cafe had throngs of fans pouring into the streets to watch the restaurant’s giant TV screen. The collective cheering (and groaning) during each goal and each missed goal was exciting in a way that few other planned activities could be. You never know what you’re going to stumble upon when you travel.
11. Visit college and university campuses.
Want to see where the school scenes in Harry Potter were filmed? Do you want to visit beautiful art galleries and libraries? There are many beautiful college campuses in the U.S. and abroad that you can tour for free. This is especially true for some of the older colleges and universities. Intricate designs, amazing collections, and incredible architecture. What’s not to love?
While you’re exploring a campus, take note of posted signs for lectures or performances that might also be open to the public. Some of the best actors, musicians, and other performers start their career there.
12. Use local transportation instead of taxis.
You can spend a lot of money on taxis and Ubers (or other shared rides) if you’re not careful. Make the most of local transportation methods such as trams, buses, subways, water bus (Venice, anyone?), etc. Don’t be afraid to ask for directions if the maze of subway routes or bus lines looks overwhelming. People are (usually) more than happy to help you out. You will save a ton of money on transportation if you get around the way the locals do. However, do be careful about times and safety. A lot of cities shut down the subways at night and may only provide bus transit at those hours (if that). So just be aware.
13. Seek out tours with free local guides.
In some cities, there are local residents who volunteer to show you their city at no cost. Most tourists who use these free guides will offer the local guides a donation, tip, gratuity, or gift at the end of the tour. If you go this route, just know the local customs and how to present these gifts.
In Japan, for instance, you can find free local guides and greeters by searching the Japan Tourism Guide, which provides links to free guides and greeters in different areas. For instance, Tokyo Free Guide connects you to volunteers who will take you on short walking tours or half- and full-day guided tours of the city. The short walking tours with greeters do not use transportation and only visit places without entrance fees. On the half- and full-day guided tours, the visitor is expected to pay for any transportation, entrance fees, and meals for the volunteer.
In Paris, you can arrange for free guided tours with local volunteers (Paris greeters) through Paris, the Official website of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Parisien d’un jour’ is an association of Parisians who love their city and who like to show people around their district. The 160 members, all volunteers, invite the public to spend a few hours living just like a Parisian.” Booking these free guided tours must be done two weeks in advance here.
In Iceland, free walking tours of Reykjavik can be arranged through CityWalk. The two-hour tour has no up-front price. The guides rely upon donations from the tourists at the end of the tour.
You can search online for free (donation-based or tip-based) tours in many different cities by searching for the name of the city, followed by “free local guides” or “free guided tours” or similar search terms. You can also obtain listings of free and budget tours with local guides in more than 120 countries at freetour.com and the Free Tour app.
(Please note that Otterwize has not tried any of these specific local guide programs ourselves. We are providing the links and information as an alternative touring option for you to research and consider. Read over the bios and reviews of specific guides to help you determine if this type of arrangement will work for you.)
14. Always look online for discounts before visiting main attractions.
You can find discounts to sightseeing tours and attractions at many major cities in the U.S. on sites like Groupon and LivingSocial (owned by Groupon). Using the search bar at the top of the site, simply search for the word “tour” or the type of tour or attraction you are interested in (“museum,” “boat cruise,” “show,” etc.).
You can also find other local discounts and coupons for tours and attractions by doing a simple search for “discount coupons” and the name of the city you are visiting.
Traveling is expensive enough, even if you are able to travel hack your way to free airfare or free hotel nights. Eating in restaurants can also significantly add to the cost of your vacation. (For tips on how to save money on eating out while on vacation, see “Have Your Cake and Eat It Too: 10 Ways to Save Money on Food When You’re on Vacation.”) Sightseeing and exploring can sometimes cost you more than the cost of your airfare. But with a little advance planning and knowledge about where and how to find discounts, you can significantly reduce the cost of seeing the sights that you’ve traveled so far to see.
Seeing the world on a budget is possible.
At Otterwize, we see travel as an investment in yourself.