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I am what you might call a cheapskate. Actually, those of us in the business prefer the term “frugal” because it just has a somewhat better connotation. Part of that comes from having a large family. Multiplying even a small price tag times eight turns into some serious money pretty fast!

We use miles and points as much as we can to offset our travel costs, but there are still a lot of expenses for activities once we get to our destination. Because we try to keep our total costs as low as possible, we’ve come up with a few strategies to find cheap or free things to do while on vacation. Here are a few of our tips.

Use Reciprocal Memberships

We love using our local museum and zoo memberships to visit similar places in our destination cities. Our local museum (Cincinnati Museum Center) belongs to the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC), the Time Travelers network and the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM). So, for our $130 annual membership fee that gives us free admission at our local museum, we also get free (or sometimes discounted) admission to every museum in each of those networks. Last year, we used this benefit for eight free tickets to the Pacific Science Center (pictured below) when our family visited Seattle.

Pacific Science Center

Here’s a pro tip (that we personally have not done): Nothing says that you have to be a member of a museum near where you live. Consider looking for an ASTC or ACM museum or zoo that has a cheap membership fee and then use your reciprocal benefits — even in your hometown. Of course, supporting your local zoo or museum has other benefits as well, so do whatever works for your family.

If your family has a Bank of America debit or credit card, you can also use that on the first weekend of each month to access hundreds of museums and attractions around the country for free.

Look To Parks, Historic Sites And Points of Interest

For free and cheap pastimes, look for parks, historic sites and other points of interest. Many times, these are great spots to stop and break up a long road trip. And, they are usually either free or very cheap spots to visit. Depending on the location, it could work as a quick pit stop to stretch the legs, or a fun activity for an entire afternoon. Often, these types of places have plaques, signs or other historical information that can spark interesting conversation, like when our family went to the Geographical Center of the United States in South Dakota.

The geographical center of the United States in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. Photo by Tim Pearce/Flickr.
The geographical center of the United States in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. Photo by Tim Pearce/Flickr.

If you have a fourth-grade student (with six kids, of course I have one!), you are likely eligible for the Every Kid in a Park program, which provides families of fourth-graders (all kids under 16 and up to three adults) with free entry to most national parks. The only thing that you have to watch out for is parking fees at some locations, as our family found out at Mount Rushmore a few years ago. “Entrance” to Mount Rushmore is free, but if you want to park (instead of hiking 2 miles up-mountain), you have to fork over $11 per car.

Mount Rushmore

Use Discounts: Child, Senior, Military Or Other

Another thing to keep in mind is that many attractions offer discounts for different groups. The most popular discounts are for children, students and seniors, but it’s worth checking out all the options. Since we have a large family, we typically look for attractions that either price per family or per vehicle (instead of per individual), since that is usually cheaper for us.

Also remember to check for coupon codes, discount codes and Groupon deals online before forking over the stated cost of admission.

Visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Because I am a “list-checker-off-er,” I like to track the different places I’ve been. I am at 49 out of 50 states, and I’m also trying to visit all 3,143 counties in the United States. I’m about 61% of the way there.

counties of the United States
I use mob-rule.com to track my counties visited.

I also track the number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites that I’ve been to (37 as of this writing). If you’re not familiar with the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, they are sites of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of great importance to humanity. Not all of them are free to visit, but I’ve found they tend to be cheaper in price than comparable tourist sights.

Two good examples of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States with no admission fees are the San Antonio Missions in Texas and Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Both are under the care of the National Park Service.

Consider Roadtrippers And Atlas Obscura

Roadtrippers.com and Atlas Obscura are two websites I’ve used to find free or cheap activities. Both of these sites catalog “weird” places that might be slightly off the beaten path. If we’re visiting or road-tripping to or through an area, I usually plug our destination into these sites to see if there is anything nearby that we’d be interested in.

On a recent road trip to Texas and Louisiana, we found a grave in the middle of the road, located just three minutes from our destination. This may not scream “family vacation fun” in the same way as a ride at Disney World, but it is a free and educational way to spend time exploring and learning throughout the country. grave marker

The Bonnie and Clyde museum was also just a few minutes off the Interstate (though we lengthened our stay by driving 10 extra miles to see where they were ambushed).Bonnie and Clyde

Just Google It

My final suggestion may seem obvious to some (most?) but just Google it. If you search for “free things to do in [city],” you’ll almost always find several articles with ideas on free or cheap things to do where you’re going. I usually look at a couple of those articles and note any of the suggestions that seem interesting.

Bottom Line

With a bit of advance research and planning, you should be able to find plenty of inexpensive things to do while on vacation just about anywhere. Now it’s your turn. What are your best tips for finding free or cheap things to do on vacation?

Featured photo by Stanislaw Pytel/Getty Images

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