10 (Almost) Free Travel Deals
There are some things we've all come to expect for free: hotel Wi-Fi, snacks on planes, smartphone apps that help you get around, concierge services and admission to parks and festivals. Other parts of our journeys are tougher to get comped—unless you know where to look. Here are 10 key elements of your next trip that you can nab for close to nothing.
A Free Hotel Night
Make your trip less spendy—and a bit longer—by finding hotels that offer a one-night-free deal. Keep an eye out and you’ll notice these types of offerings popping up all over. A few that have crossed our radar recently include getting a fourth night free at Lake Tahoe’s Village at Squaw Valley (though April), at Anaheim’s Disneyland-adjacent Annabella Hotel (ongoing), and at nearly any Wyndham (through February). Hotels currently offering a third night free include Tucson’s Westin La Paloma Resort (ongoing; includes $50 food-and-beverage credit and a room upgrade; use promo code Z3R), the Four Seasons New York (through March), and a B&B in Virginia called Caledonia Farm 1812.
Short of doing constant research, how can you stay on top of these cost-slashing deals? Knowing about a few key websites should help: Bookmark this DealBase page, this Priceline page, and this ILoveInns page. The latter in particular is a bit of a gem ⎯ it lists more than 1,000 inns across the country that offer a "buy one night, get the second night free" deal for the price of a $15 voucher.
(Bonus tip for hotel stays: You can almost always get a late checkout for free. Just call the front desk the night before, or early the morning of your departure, and politely request a late checkout. Often they’ll ask you what time you want to leave. Give them a reasonable answer–noon or 1:00 p.m.⎯ and most of the time, the answer will be yes. This is a trick every traveler should know.)
Free (and Cheap) Transportation
Parking fees, cab costs, and gasoline stops add up quick, which is why it’s smart to choose a hotel or outfitter that provides free transportation to the sights you want to see (not to mention your airport).
During Catalina Island’s soft season, many hotels offer a package that includes round-trip boat transportation to the lovely Southern California destination 22 miles off the coast aboard the zippy and fun Catalina Express. A full listing of those offers, most of which are valid until March 2016, is available here.
For getting to and from the airport for free, your best bet is to book with the big-name hotels a stone’s throw from your arrival gate. Do a quick search on these types of hotels’ sites (or call them) to confirm that they provide airport pickup and drop-off via a shared shuttle. Hotels like this exist all over the world, but a smattering that we know of includes the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport, the Concourse at LAX, the Airport Honolulu Hotel, and Spokane’s Wingate by Wyndham.
Sites like Yapta and Orbitz make it easy to filter for hotels with free airport shuttles–check out these filtered search results for Orlando, Denver, and Miami.
Tourist-heavy cities like Las Vegas and Anaheim have taken it upon themselves to shuttle their millions of yearly visitors around in orderly fashion. Land at Vegas’s McCarran International Airport, get in the shuttle line, and you won’t end up paying more than $7.50 for a shared ride to your hotel’s front door. Once you’re on the Strip, get around by boarding the monorail–it’s $5 per ride, or $12 per day ⎯ a way better deal than a cab or an Uber. In Anaheim, a system called ART connects 65 hotels to Disneyland, the convention center, Knott’s Berry Farm, and other points of interest–just pay $2 for a daylong transit pass or $3 for a three-day pass.
Free Admission to the National Parks
Help the national parks celebrate their centennial ⎯ without spending a penny. For 16 days in 2016, the National Park Service is waiving admission fees for their 127 sites that normally charge to get in. (The other 282 sites are always free.)
If you’re in the military, though, or a fourth-grader, or a person with disabilities, you can get into the national parks for free any day of the year. Over the age of 62? Get a lifetime pass to the national parks for just $10.
(Prefer to explore the great indoors? Check out Free Museum Day instead.)
Often we travel to learn new things. But to ensure that the lessons you end up learning are more than incidental, do a bit of upfront research to find expert-taught classes ⎯ for free.
Guests of Los Suenos Marriott in Costa Rica, for example, get to attend an hour-long Spanish class every day at 2:00 p.m. The classroom isn’t so bad, either–the language instructor imparts her knowledge poolside, overlooking palm trees and the ocean.
In Tahoe City, Tahoe Cross Country offers free and cheap lessons for beginner and intermediate skiers, and for those who want to learn cross-country methods.
But your best bet for getting free enlightenment during a vacation is onboard cruises, which are known for enlisting experts who carry forth to passengers on topics ranging from astronomy to history to zoology to cooking to photography.
Free Gear Rental
No traveler wants to buy or lug around heavy or expensive equipment, even if it enables more adventure. Devotees of traveling light should instead look for hotels and operators that let them borrow gear, gratis.
The Costa Rica Marriott San Jose, for one, outfits its guests with a waterproof GoPro Hero4 camera during their stay at the resort, which sits in a 1,100-acre rainforest along the Pacific Ocean. Once you’ve got your footage, the Marriott encourages you to share it with the company via social media for a chance to be featured online and on guestroom TVs.
Crystal Cruises’ new Esprit vessel outfits its water-loving passengers to the max: Aboard, and free of cost to use, is snorkel and scuba gear, four eight-passenger Zodiacs, jet skis, water skis, wakeboards, kayaks ⎯ even a two-person submarine.
And in cycling-friendly locales, some hotels provide guests with free bike rentals–a few properties we know of that do so include Portland’s Hotel Rose, Madrid’s First Petit Palace Italia Hotel, Napa’s Hotel Yountville, and Honolulu’s Kahala Resort.
Expert travelers know how to spend a day or two in a city that’s far from home–and not have to pay for it. You can do this, too.
Time your layover right and if you’re flying from, say, Los Angeles to Tel Aviv on British Airways, you’ll get to enjoy enough hours in London on each leg of your trip to feed Piccadilly Square’s pigeons, fill yourself on roasted nuts from street vendors, ride a double decker, and wave to Big Ben. When you book your ticket online, the airline gives you the option to break up your trip with stopovers. Click "yes" and a daylong stop gets built into your itinerary at no extra charge. The trick is to make your final destination far enough–from the U.S., that usually means Asia, Africa, or Australia–that it warrants a stopover somewhere good.
But British Airways isn’t the only airline offering this see-a-city-free setup. Other carriers known for excellent stopover options include Hawaiian Airlines, Icelandair, Japan Airlines, and Emirates.
RELATED: 8 Best Airlines for Free Stopovers
Free Shore Excursions
Call them "included" or call them "free," but choose your cruise itinerary correctly and extracurricular activities at your destinations won’t cost you a dime extra than kicking around port.
Most notably, Regent Seven Seas Cruises never charges for shore excursions, regardless of destination, date, or how many off-boat adventures you choose to have.
In addition, Norwegian is offering a limited-time deal that allows passengers to choose either free shore excursions, free unlimited drinks, free specialty dining, or free Wi-Fi ⎯ or get all four options for free if you book a Haven or Suite stateroom.
Not to be left behind, Silversea is now offering free shore excursions and Wi-Fi on every voyage in every port of call on all Mediterranean voyages.
Finally, many of Crystal Yacht Cruises’ "Adventures Ashore" are complimentary, including at least one no-cost excursion in every port on every itinerary the company’s new Esprit yacht offers, such as hiking and rafting Greece’s Acheron River, ziplining the forests of the Seychelles, and touring Slovenia’s medieval capital city.
Free Food and Drink
There may not be such a thing as a free lunch, but free breakfasts and happy hours abound. Case in point: If you’ve ever stayed at an Embassy Suites hotel (the brand has more than 200 properties scattered across the U.S., Canada, and Latin America), you know the worth of the brand’s cooked-to-order, all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet and its afternoon cocktail hour featuring a full bar and hearty snacks–both yours for just flashing your room key. Add sensible nightly rates, a guaranteed two-room suite, and Hilton HHonors points, and it’s hard to compete with this value.
If you need an even more budget-oriented hotel, however, most economy chains ⎯ including Super 8 ⎯ offer all-you-can-eat continental breakfast for free, so get out of bed early enough to get your fill of sticky pastries and steamy coffee.
We’re also seeing free breakfast become a big thing at boutique inns ⎯ recent a.m. offerings we’ve enjoyed were at La Jolla’s Scripps Inn, Saratoga Oaks Lodge, San Francisco’s Inn at the Presidio, and especially Glen Ellen’s Gaige House. (And remember, no B&B is worth its label if it doesn’t present a memorable breakfast spread.)
In California’s wine country, it’s common for hotels to offer a complimentary wine-and-cheese hour ⎯ more hotels in Napa and Sonoma do this than don’t, it seems ⎯ and in Puerto Rico, the W on Vieques Island offers free poolside ice cream ⎯ guests choose from quirky flavors like avocado-lemon, coconut-guava, and corn-and-bean.
Finally, if you find yourself in Tahoe this winter, make your way to Northstar Resort’s East Ridge trail at 2:00 p.m. any day of the week for a toast with a free glass of champagne. (Kids get sparkling apple cider.)
Free Premium Amenities
Granted, the types of people who splurge on the first-class service and accommodations that’ll land you free premium amenities are probably not the same people who read "best travel freebies" stories like this. Still, these upscale freebies are fun to know about and give us something to aspire to.
At Mexico’s five-diamond Grand Velas Resorts, VIPs who book a stay in the properties’ Presidential, Family, or Grand Class suites get a handmade sunhat worth $60 to use during the vacation and then to take home.
Those who book a first- or business-class ticket on Emirates get a Bvlgari amenity kit in a custom-designed case–leather for men, satin for women. They’re filled with exclusive Italian-made products, including Bvlgari’s Red Tea fragrance spray. (Flying coach? Emirates promises new amenity kits for economy-class passengers soon.)
And though JetBlue is known for being a budget carrier, its Mint program is what the company’s publicists call "the airline’s refreshing take on a premium experience." This winter, JetBlue’s Mint flyers get a free present from GiftEffect–choose from a lifetime membership to Blind Barber, free classes at YogaWorks, a round of drinks from Reserve, and other attractive options. Plus, each Mint passenger also gets a Birchbox amenity kit stuffed with on-trend grooming and beauty goodies.
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