This post is part of the Frugal Travel Series. At Frugal Hackers HQ, we apply many strategies to optimize our travel spend, which happens to be our top spending category in the "discretionary spending" category. Follow along to see how we maximize our enjoyment of vacation days given the constraints on time and money.
Tourist traps are the frugal traveler's #1 enemy. By definition, these are attractions that are geared towards grabbing a bunch of money from unsuspecting tourists. Over the years, I've gotten better at recognizing and avoiding these money grabs. Based on my observations, these are the characteristics that all tourist traps share:
- Easily accessible by car
- Operated by private companies
- Tons of tourist buses in the area
- Heavily advertised as "must-see" and "bucket list" attractions
- High $$$ entrance fees
I'm not against paying entrance fees for activities that you get a lot of value from. However, let me give you some examples of tourist traps I've come across in the past that can easily be replaced by other activities *for free*:
- Grand Canyon Skywalk - costs $82/person for stellar views of grand canyon. What Frugal Hackers did: Hike the South Kaibab Trail into the Canyon for the same (or even better) views. $0/person entrance fee, thank you very much.
- Banff Gondola - costs ~$60/person. The free alternatives here are endless - pick a trail of your choice and hike up the mountains for million dollar views.
- Ripley's in San Francisco - $45/person for the aquarium entrance. Okay maybe this one's just my personal preference, but I get way more enjoyment watching the sea lions chilling on the pier for free.
- Hop on, Hop off bus tours - $45/person, per day in San Francisco. Skip the bus and just walk or rent a bike. Save your money for the world famous sundae at Ghirardelli's instead! Now that's $6 well spent.
Frugal Alternatives for Entertainment and Sightseeing
- Plenty of options, giving you full flexibility to build your own custom itinerary
- Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy the views
- You get to escape touristy crowds (turns out most people don't like walking up hills)
- Free exercise to boot!
- Bike rentals are typically way cheaper than bus tours/car rentals
- Explore at your own pace, without needing to rush back to the bus
- Look up local bike shops on Yelp/Google and call ahead to ask if they do rentals. They usually have nicer bikes at cheaper prices because you get to avoid the tourist tax that you usually pay at regular bike rental shops
- Most big cities have free, tip-based walking tours
- Great way to get a local's perspective on their city, learn some history, and get tips on "secret" spots in the city from the guide
- We took full advantage of this in many cities in Europe. But walking tours exist even in North American cities like Toronto
- Self-drive canoe and kayak rides are typically pretty economical (we've paid under $20 for a couple hours)
- We're not good swimmers so being out in the open water is always a good adrenaline rush for us
Local Parks and Museums
- Parks are usually free or have very minimal entrance fees
- Look for museums and other historical attractions operated by the government. These tend to be subsidized to promote tourism. They might also be free on certain days of the week
- Stay away from the cafés and restaurants located on premises unless you're looking for overpriced food or coffee