Looking at glamorous images of Caribbean resorts or pics of a friend’s weekend in Paris, it’s easy to feel like you have to have ample funds to enjoy a good vacation.
Not so! Thanks to dropping fuel prices and a number of new airlines cropping up, adding competition, 2016’s winter and spring travel season is slated to offer some of the cheapest ticket prices seen in a long time.
But, traveling on the cheap takes more than simply finding airfare and hotel deals.
Even the most budget-conscious travelers sometimes find they’re pressed to spend beyond their limit to enjoy famous attractions and museums—which often demand equally famous ticket prices.
In lieu of paying for entry fees or booking $50+-day trips (only to realize later that you could have explored the same route with a map and a bike), here are some of our favorite ways to have free or almost-free fun while you travel.
1. Explore a Local Grocery Store
Much ado is made about exploring open-air markets, particularly in countries that offer cheap street eats and a bounty or exotic fruits. But, have you ever considered strolling through the aisles of a local grocery store in a new country?
Salted tamarind candy! Pork floss! (Which is somewhat like shredded jerky.) Interesting kitchen gadgets! Grocery shopping has never been this fun.
Seoul Asian Grocery Store. Image: www.sbs.com.au
Living in South Korea for a year, I loved to explore the expansive tea section—many blends boasting herbs or cures of ailments that I’d never heard of. Another favorite I came to love was roasted seaweed, which is fun to snack on alone or pop into sandwiches for extra crunch.
Not only is exploring a grocery store a fun (and air-conditioned!) way to spend some time learning about another culture, you can also save big by picking up a few snacks that spread out how frequently you’re spending on restaurant meals.
And if you’re feeling really adventurous? Buy a few products you can’t identify and nibble on them in a park—unless you have serious food allergies of course.
P.S. If you happen to be visiting South Korea, don’t miss a chance to check out the world’s first virtual grocery store!
Tesco virtual supermarket, South Korea. Image: itwarmup.com
International megastore Tesco Homeplus now has two “virtual grocery stores” in Seoul, South Korea. How does it work?
Pictures of products are posted with QR codes underneath, allowing shoppers use their smartphones to scan the QR codes of the items they want. Then, the products placed in each shopper’s virtual cart are delivered right to their home at a selected time.
While the home-delivery option means Tesco’s virtual shopping experience probably isn’t the easiest to navigate as a tourist, it’s certainly an inexpensive way to experience South Korea’s tech-forward culture.
2. Head to Dinner With Some New, Local Friends
Looking for the best pizza in Italy? While which establishment deserves the award is certainly subjective, one thing’s for sure: Some of the best meals to be had when traveling are often where the other tourists aren’t!
Roma Sparita, Trastevere, Rome. Image: hiddenpalette.com
Tourist restaurants are often mediocre, overpriced, and overcrowded. However, finding hole-in-the-wall hidden gems can be surprisingly hard when you’re traveling—plus, if traveling alone, eating by yourself night after night can be kind of a bummer.
What’s the solution? Eat with a local! If you’re even the slightest bit chatty, it’s not difficult to find folks who are eager to share a bit of their local knowledge with an interested tourist. And, not only will someone who knows the area be able to recommend a great place to dine, you’ll likely pick up all sorts of interesting and helpful insights, as well.
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If you’re a tad too shy to strike up a conversation at random, two websites cater to those looking for a destination dining buddy (or even someone to share a meal with in your own home town).
Option one, Invite For A Bite, aims to provide women with a “safe, friendly way to meet and eat.” While option two, Eat With A Local, invites members to “Be a traveler, not a tourist.” And both sound like delicious ways to have a satisfying, and social, local experience.
3. Attend Service at a Local Church
No matter what your personal beliefs, attending church services in a different country is a fantastic way to learn more about the culture and meet people. If you were raised going to church, services are also a great way to connect with a sense of community if you’re feeling homesick.
Carpentras Synagogue, France. Image: hdimagegallery.net
I grew up in an agnostic household, but have incredible memories of attending Christmas Eve services in Ireland, morning prayer in Thailand, and unique Sunday service in South Korea.
Of course, it’s incredibly important to be conscious of being respectful: Don’t attend orthodox churches if you’re not orthodox. Be sure to dress appropriately. Women especially—if you’re unsure what to wear, dress similarly to local women, making sure you’ve covered all the same parts of your body.
If you’re feeling shy or not interested in attending a service, simply visiting local churches during non-congregation hours is another way to experience a bit of solace and zen after hours of the hustle and bustle that is traveling.
While less so in America, due to the newness of most of our architecture, around Europe and Asia, lesser-known churches and temples often offer brilliant insights into a county’s history—as well as a quiet place to sit and collect your thoughts.
P.S. Another gorgeous (and free!) place to visit for some precious serene time during your next vacation? A library!
St. Florian Monastery Sankt Florian, Austria. Image: architecturaldigest.com
Often just as stunning as churches and cathedrals (and held in equal reverence by many), libraries offer the chance to thumb through local periodicals, explore rare editions, or simply sit and enjoy the quiet.
Check out Mental Floss’ “62 of the World's Most Beautiful Libraries” and “The Most Spectacular Libraries Around the World” by Architectural Digest to see if your next destination has a library that made the list.
4. Use Public Transportation
Taxis are definitely easier (and more often air conditioned), but they’re also incredibly expensive! Instead of flagging down a cab to get from point A to B on your next trip, brave the local bus, metro, or train—you’ll save money, see more of the city, and the people who live there.
Parisian bus. Image: hipparis.com
In large, tourist-friendly cities, such as Paris, public transport schedules are often available in a range of languages (and almost always in English). And not only is the bus a particularly handy way to get around, if offers the same feel as those double-decker guided tours at a fraction of the cost!
5. Or, Rent a Bicycle
Many European cities are already bike-friendly, and it hasn’t taken long for other tourist destinations to catch up. Bike sharing and rental programs have even started becoming popular in America, allowing you to cruise around, viewing an area’s highlights for just a few bucks!
Other bonuses? Exploring via bicycle means you’ve got a better chance of stumbling across something unexpectedly awesome. You’ll also get fitter—or at least give yourself a good reason to revisit that gelato place your fell in love with on day one.
To check ahead of time if your destination offers a city-wide bike rental program, just Google ‘bike sharing [name of city].’ Other options include local bike shops, which often have a rental program, or Spinlister.com—a nifty online community that allows locals to rent out their sports equipment (bikes, surf equipment, and snowboards) for a small daily fee.
6. Check Out Local Events
Sure, Mardi Gras is awesome, but what about the Alligator Festival? Or, you may have heard of La Tomatina in Spain, where locals and tourists from around the world come together for a gigantic food fight featuring Buñol’s famous fruit—the tomato.
But, have you heard of Spain’s Haro Wine Festival? I’d take being splashed by wine over beaned by ripe tomatoes any day!
La Tomatina, Buñol, Spain. Image: Buzzfeed.com
If you’re interested in seeing some of the world’s bigger festivals, including the aforementioned Mardi Gras and La Tomatina, Buzzfeed offers a comprehensive list. However, those big-name events often draw big crowds—causing spikes in the cost of local accommodations, as well.
If you’d like to avoid droves of tourists, check out The Guardian’s list of “10 of the Best Festivals in Europe...That You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.”
Already got a destination in mind? Just search Google for ‘local festival [name of city]+[month of your visit]’ to find more celebrations that are small enough to fly under the radar.
And, don’t be afraid to look away from big cities and towards smaller towns! They often host tons of hilarious, frequently free events that are just as much fun as the tourist-soaked, hotels-booked-months-in-advance stuff a few miles over.
Finally, Don’t Forget to Google ‘Free Things to Do In [City Name]’
Oddly obvious? Sure! But, the best ideas can be.
Searching for ‘free things to do in Paris’ yields a “Top 20” list by Lonely Planet that includes a range of activities, from visiting the famous Notre Dame Cathedral to my personal favorite, the Père Lachaise Cemetery—where you can gaze at the final resting places of such notable figures as Jim Morrison, Proust, Marcel Marceau, and Oscar Wilde.
Or, simply stroll through the endless, twisting brick paths shaded by a hundred-year-old tree canopy and enjoy the beautiful carvings and general history.
Heading to the Far East? Googling ‘free things to do in Tokyo’ brings up dozens of lists, including this list of 30 by Timeout.com. Included are multiple beer bottling plants, hot spots to catch a free show put on by local bands, observation floors, and even some free museums!
Bottom line? Traveling doesn’t have to be expensive to be entertaining!
So, before you head to your next destination, hop online to do a little research, pack your cycling shoes, and don’t forget to get change for the bus—because whichever of these tips you use to explore a new destination, you’re sure to enjoy it more than spending hours on end waiting in line for the Louvre.
What free or almost-free things do you like to do when you travel? Share your tips in the comments below.