Cheap thrills: 10 inexpensive or free alternatives to top international attractions

Apr 12, 2020

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Editor’s note: The team at The Points Guy loves to travel, but now is not the time for unnecessary trips. Health officials note that the fastest way to return to normalcy is to stop coming in contact with others. That includes ceasing travel. We are publishing some travel guides because we should all use this time to think about and plan our next adventures. 

Whatever your next big destination may be, it’s bound to have its iconic attractions — vast fields of tulips in the Netherlands, the thermal lagoons of Iceland or lofty panoramas in almost every city. But you don’t have to pay big bucks and stand in long lines to enjoy these experiences — there are legitimate alternatives to many international tourist icons. Here are ways to stick to a budget by straying just a little off the beaten path.

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Staten Island Ferry (U.S.)

The Staten Island Ferry. (Photo by Brian Eden/Getty Images)
The Staten Island Ferry. (Photo by Brian Eden/Getty Images)

The Statue of Liberty is, of course, one of New York City’s must-sees, but rather than paying for a boat ride to base of the statue, hop aboard the Staten Island Ferry. The transport is free and runs 24 hours a day, serving primarily commuters between Staten Island and Manhattan. As you leave the pier in Manhattan, head to the right — starboard — side of the ferry for a clear shot of Lady Liberty. (If leaving from Staten Island, go left.)

Waipu Caves (New Zealand)

Glowworm Cathedral in Waipu Cave in New Zealand. (Photo by MarcelStrelow/Getty Images)
Glowworm Cathedral in Waipu Cave in New Zealand. (Photo by MarcelStrelow/Getty Images)

Being surrounded by the famous glowworms of New Zealand can feel like you’ve stepped right into Pandora in “Avatar.” Tours take you to Waitomo Caves to get a glimpse of these blue-green, bioluminescent wonders, but there’s an alternative farther north: Waipu Caves. An undeveloped, unguided cave, it is free to enter and you can explore as you like. Note that you are venturing inside at your own risk, so remember basic cave safety measures: Check the rainfall beforehand, bring a flashlight and don’t go in alone. Reef shoes are recommended (or any shoes that can get wet from wading).

Myvatn Nature Baths  (Iceland)

Myvatn Nature Baths. (Photo by Sylvia_Adams/Getty Images)
Myvatn Nature Baths. (Photo by Sylvia_Adams/Getty Images)

The warm (around 100° F), azure waters of Iceland’s Blue Lagoon attract thousands of people a day. Venture to the other side of the country, however, and you’ll find Myvatn Nature Baths, which are not nearly as crowded and have a similar stunning color. Both places are man-made lagoons with comparable water temperatures, but the entrance fee at Myvatn is far less.

Sky Garden or Tate Modern Viewing Level (England)

The Sky Garden. (Photo by Howard Kingsnorth/Getty Images)
The Sky Garden. (Photo by Howard Kingsnorth/Getty Images)

For excellent views of London you don’t have to shell out for a ticket (or deal with the line) at the London Eye. There are two free alternatives. One is the Sky Garden atop a commercial skyscraper. It is London’s highest public garden and offers 360-degree views. Access to the Sky Garden is free, but tickets are limited so you need to reserve them online. Your other option is the viewing level of the Tate Modern — another spot in the city with wraparound views of the skyline. The museum itself is free to enter and you can get to the open viewing terrace from the specified elevator on Level 0.

Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge (Canada)

The Lynn Canyon Park Suspension Bridge in Vancouver. (Photo by Richard Cummins/Getty Images)
The Lynn Canyon Park Suspension Bridge in Vancouver. (Photo by Richard Cummins/Getty Images)

A trip to Vancouver often includes a hike across the Capilano Suspension Bridge for a thrill and a great photo op. To avoid the pricey admission there, go about 15 minutes away to the suspension bridge at Lynn Canyon Park, a public park with no admission fee. Full disclosure: Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge is 50 meters high compared to Capilano Suspension Bridge’s 70 meters, but you’ll still get a span that sways in exciting, stomach-turning ways with beautiful nature views.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observatories (Japan)

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observatories. (Photo by Atlantide-Phototravel/Getty Images)
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observatories. (Photo by Atlantide-Phototravel/Getty Images)

A government building may not come to mind for a vacation stop, but hear us out. You could pay for a ticket to ride up the Tokyo Skytree, the 634-meter tower that is the world’s second tallest structure, or you could pocket that money and get your views of the city at the observatories at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. There’s no admission price to go to the building’s north and south observatories, which are 202 meters up. If you look northeast, you’ll even have the Tokyo Skytree in your view or photo.

“Oper live am Platz” (Austria)

The Oper live am Platz in Austria. (Photo by VvoeVale/Getty Images)
The Oper live am Platz in Austria. (Photo by VvoeVale/Getty Images)

Tickets to a world-renowned performance at the Vienna State Opera, or Wiener Staatsoper, aren’t cheap unless you happen to act fast before the lower-priced options sell out — or unless you’re OK with standing room for an entire opera. However, if you’re visiting Vienna in April, May, June or September, you can get your arts al fresco. It’s called Opera Live Outdoors or “Oper live am Platz.” A 50-square-meter LED video screen is set up outside the opera house and broadcasts opera and ballet performances live. It’s relaxed, and best of all, it’s free.

Self-tour in De Bollenstreek (Holland)

Lisse in the Netherlands and the Tulip farms. (Photo by Hollandluchtfoto/Getty Images)
Lisse in the Netherlands and the Tulip farms. (Photo by Hollandluchtfoto/Getty Images)

You’ve seen photos of endless rows of bright, colorful tulips at the famous Keukenhof Gardens. There may be millions of flowers in bloom there, but there are also thousands of visitors and an entrance fee. Alternatively, check out the many rural tulip fields found elsewhere in De Bollenstreek (the Bulb Region) by doing a walking or biking tour on your own through towns like Heemstede, Hillegom, Lisse, and Leiden during the season. Remember: Obey signs on private farms.

Maokong Gondola (Taiwan)

The Maokong Gondola in Taipei. (Photo by SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images)
The Maokong Gondola in Taipei. (Photo by SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images)

To soak up views from the top of Taipei, your first choice may be the Taipei 101 Observatory. But before you spend the money for that ticket, consider the Maokong Gondola. A ticket costs significantly less than admission to the observatory. Ride the gondola to the highest station, Maokong Station, to enjoy picturesque, panoramic views. If you want to make things even more exciting, ride in one of the “Eyes of Maokong Gondola” Crystal Cabins, which have see-through floors (don’t worry, it’s tri-layer reinforced glass).

Berlin public transportation F10 ferry (Germany)

The F10 Ferry on Großer Wannsee. (Photo by gph foto.de/Shutterstock)
The F10 Ferry on Großer Wannsee. (Photo by gph foto.de/Shutterstock)

A cruise along the Spree or Havel rivers is a great way to tour Berlin by water (in good weather). But if your funds are running low from all the kebabs, clubbing and museums, check out the F10 ferry, which is part of Berlin’s public transportation network. It’s a 20-minute ride across the Großer Wannsee (“Great Wannsee”) and part of the Havel. It may not be a full-out touristic cruise experience, but it does get you out on a nice stretch of water for less than three euros.

Feature image by Summer Hull / The Points Guy

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