The promise of a free vacation used to be such a predictable come-on from a shady timeshare salesman or a questionable travel club, that all but the most gullible travelers ignored it. Not anymore. Sure, the useless fractional ownerships and pyramid schemes are still out there. But Shannon Huffman Polson of Seattle discovered that in a recessionary economy, you could score a free vacation or something close to it. For an upcoming trip to New Zealand with her husband, Polson is cashing in 80,000 airline miles (a free ticket), staying with friends (free accommodations) and hiking in the great outdoors (also free). When they aren't staying in someone's home, they'll be camping (free).
Polson, a former marketing executive, figures they'll have to spring for a few nights at a hotel, so the trip won't be totally free. "But we'll be saving money while seeing the country," she says. Polson is hardly alone. Travelers are no longer content with a bargain. Now, they want everything free. If your concept of "free" is a little more flexible, you can always burn some of those hard-earned award miles for your next vacation. But how else can you travel without paying?
If you think you'll visit a theme park, luxury hotel or cruise ship and not pay a dime, you might be disappointed. As a result, a lot of travelers have changed their vacation expectations, says travel expert Pauline Frommer. "People seem to be more interested in the destination - its cultural aspects, its attractions, its history - than obsessing over their hotel rooms, the hottest clubs or meal choices."
The Internet is buzzing with forums and blogs dedicated to free travel. Those include sites such as Couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing.org), which connects locals and travelers, and Global Freeloaders (globalfreeloaders .com), which helps you find free accommodations.
GET A TRAVEL JOB
Lots of jobs let you travel without paying. You could become a courier, a travel agent or a flight attendant. Not appealing? Organize a large group of people for a trip (all you need is 30 people for a cruise or tour), and you could travel free, according to travel agent Sharon Emerson.
GO TO THE PARK
Some parks are free, but most aren't. Still, the cost of an annual pass to state or national parks is often less than one-day admission to a theme park.
GET A SMARTER PHONE
One of the biggest controllable travel expenses is the mobile phone, particularly when journeying overseas. Truphone (truphone.com) is a mobile phone application that allows you to make less expensive calls and send text messages using a Wi-Fi network. Use a service like Skype (skype.com) to make free Internet-based phone calls from your computer. - Tribune Media Services