Be a Budget Traveler…in Your Own Town

When I’m planning a vacation, I usually pick up a copy of a “cheap and free” guidebook that lists inexpensive attractions and secret-gem restaurants. A couple of weeks ago, I was visiting my friend Frank, who is a recent transplant to the East coast, and he saw my guidebook. “I need something like that so I know what inexpensive stuff there is to do in my own town.”

Which made me think, so do I!

When I’m visiting some other city, I usually have a list of free attractions or inexpensive, Zagat-approved restaurants, but I can’t really name places like that that are in my hometown. That’s not because I’m a big spender when I’m at home, it’s because my husband and I love to cook, so we rarely eat at restaurants, and we live in the country, so it’s just easier to stream a Netflix movie than to drive to the theater. Nevertheless, sometimes we have company over and want to show them around or we feel like getting out of the house, and it’d be nice to have a budget-friendly guide to our town.

But we don’t live in New York City. We don’t even live in a mid-sized city — we live 30 minutes outside of one. So until Frommer’s gets around to writing a book about our little town (which will be never), finding inexpensive entertainment isn’t as easy as buying a guidebook.

Undeterred, I started a list of resources where I could learn more about free and cheap attractions, things to do, and restaurants in any town, large or small. Here’s what I found:

Google “Free things to do in [your city]”

Yes, it’s obvious, but someone has already made a list of ideas for your city, even if it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss kind of town. Your luck here will vary, though. The first list that popped up on my search had some lame ones — why is a pediatric center in a neighboring city on a list of fun things to do in my town? But it also had some good ideas, like visiting an 80,000-year-old living cave.

Check out travel sites

Here’s another one where your results will vary, but it’s worth a search. I was surprised to find attractions and restaurants listed for my town on TripAdvisor, but there wasn’t much, and the search results didn’t turn up anything new or particularly exciting. If you live in a mid-sized or large city, travel sites will probably yield better results for you.

Research at the library

The library is always a good place to begin a search for things that are free! Everyone knows you can checkout books and DVDs, but hunt for the “events calendar” either online or in person. Most of the activities I found at my library were for kids, like book clubs, art classes, story time, and Bow Wow Reading Dogs, a reading program that uses dog therapy to help below-grade-level readers improve their skills. For adults, there was a GED class, computer classes, a knitting group, and a program called Travel Talks that’s all about traveling — from planning a trip and getting a passport to what to take and when to go.

Search for a local parks and recreation site

One of the goals of of my town’s parks and recreation program is to “enhance the quality of life” for its citizens. I discovered a list of upcoming events on the website, such as movies in the park, a kite festival, free Zumba classes, and a very active senior citizens group that plans events like wine tasting and picnics. The department even has its own Facebook page (sometimes I underestimate our town!), which is another way to keep up with upcoming events.

Go to your state’s parks and wildlife website

Most state sites provide a map of parks with a list of sites and recreational activities to help you plan your visit. Whether you want to rent kayaks or go fishing, you can probably find a nearby park that will accommodate.

Subscribe to local ‘zines

We have a local paper called Impact News that’s a great resource for new restaurants and events in our area. (You can search for local blogs if you don’t have a paper that specifically covers your community.) For example, in the last issue there was a story about new bakery in my area that offers daily lunch specials (and included a coupon for a free coffee when you buy a pastry). There’s also an event calendar in the paper and online, with free or cheap activities like fun runs and special open-air markets.

Browse The Historical Marker Database

My little town isn’t in the history books, but that doesn’t mean nothing ever happened here! One interesting site I read about in the Historical Marker Database was the spot where 30 people were massacred by a band of Comanche Indians. There’s also a historical site nearby where the a skeleton of a prehistoric woman was found, the earliest intact burial uncovered in the United States. Try searching for your town’s historical markers — there might be a site or two worth a visit.

Seek out the arts (but enjoy high-culture for less)

Our own Donna Freedman covered this topic thoroughly, so if you missed it, take a look. My town might not have museums or a ballet company, but the city nearby does, and there are a lot of ways to enjoy these activities on a budget.

It’s natural to get excited about traveling somewhere new, but obviously there’s a lot I haven’t explored in my own backyard, or my neighboring backyards! And just like the destination cities I’ve visited, there’s plenty for a “budget traveler” to do right here. In fact, after browsing the Texas State Park and Wildlife site, I’m feeling the urge to kayak some unexplored (by me) waters.

How much do you know about budget-friendly attractions in your own town? Do you have other places you go to learn about new, inexpensive activities and restaurants?

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There are 30 comments to "Be a Budget Traveler…in Your Own Town".

  1. Moneywisdomtips says 26 April 2012 at 05:11

    This is quite helpful,but i wonder if it will work like you have said in my area.May be a little more research here and there will do.Like enquiring from neighbors and friend around.

  2. TB at BlueCollarWorkman says 26 April 2012 at 05:32

    I live in a big city so dont’ have quite the problem you do; however, the historical markers thing is pretty cool. That could be little day trip ideas to get my daughters out of my wife’s hair for the day!

  3. Diedra B says 26 April 2012 at 05:50

    I live in New York City and am fortunate to have a lot of cheap or free things to do for fun. But that doesn’t mean I know where they all are. I too have to google, and check calendars.
    A great resources people might ignore in smaller towns is nearby community colleges. Students and faculty often put on plays, concerts, art exhibits and invite speakers.

  4. Megan says 26 April 2012 at 05:55

    Quite a few of the Chicago ‘burbs have museums. They all tend to be cheap or free, and are a great way to spend an afternoon.

    When the “cows on parade” thing was popular, quite a few towns did their own versions (one suburb does arches for example). If your town has something like this, make it a scavenger hunt and walk/bike/drive to find them all.

    I also recommend checking out your area’s travel bureau, which usually has a mix of free and near-free things to do.

  5. Jeremiah Brown says 26 April 2012 at 05:56

    I highly recommend googling your town for things to do. I was amazed at what I found locally. This is also great for people who are new to a city and tend to stay at home because they don’t want to waste the gas to go out and explore.

  6. Jenzer says 26 April 2012 at 06:03

    Visit and search for geocaches in your area. Whether or not you decide to take up “caching” as a hobby, your search might reveal interesting places in your town that you didn’t know existed.

    (If you’re not familiar with geocaching, you can watch “Geocaching in 2 Minutes” to get a quick overview: )

    In our area, we have several caches located near historical points of interest: old railroad stops, former factory sites, historical markers, interesting headstones in cemeteries, abandoned road beds. The cache descriptions often give a lengthy history of the site and its significance. I’ve found a few public nature preserves I didn’t know existed, while looking up caches to find. There’s even a new cache a few miles from our house that highlights an area where fossilized mastodon bones and footprints were discovered just twenty years ago. (!)

  7. EMH says 26 April 2012 at 06:47

    I am a fan of I find lots of “new to me” places on that site.

  8. Well Heeled Blog says 26 April 2012 at 07:36

    I prefer to explore places that are close to where we live, but that still require a bit of a drive and a night away (or at least the whole day away). In those cases I find social buying sites such as Groupon / LivingSocial helpful. If you see something that seems interesting in the area you want to go to, you can get it for cheaper. Which is why… we are going parasailing in a few weeks!

  9. Kate says 26 April 2012 at 07:47

    Check out local blogs!

    Our town doesn’t usually get a ton of positive attention, but there’s a group of folks who started up a great local blog showcasing what’s positive about the city- We can’t be the only city with that sort of set-up!

  10. babysteps says 26 April 2012 at 08:36

    While you’re at the library, ask if they have museum passes that you can check out. Our old library had about 20 choices across the state & into NYC as well.

    Our current library doesn’t have a museum pass collection, but that’s because most local attractions with entrance fees have a hefty discount for locals – which sometimes applies to guests as well if the local is with them.

    One other idea – lots of places with entrance fees have a free day or free hours once in a while. Sometimes it’s just once a year, but many places offer a free day once a month or even weekly (often select hours either early on a low-traffic day or evening hours only on Thursday or Friday).

    • Laura says 26 April 2012 at 09:03

      This. I live near Boston and last week when my son was off from school, we had a fantastic “staycation” at a fraction of the cost of traveling. We did day trips each day, including the Museum of Fine Arts – free transportation with our T passes, free admission for him because it was a school holiday, $7 admission for me with a library pass, and $14 for food because I didn’t feel like packing anything. We went to the beach (unseasonably warm day), went to discounted movies, and did a free writing seminar in downtown Boston. It was the best time.

      The very thing I love about staycations is the chance to go see and do things I can’t get to during the work week.

    • EMH says 26 April 2012 at 09:14

      The Chicago Public Library also has museum passes you may check out along with Ravinia lawn passes (at least they used to, who knows with the budget cuts). If you have a Bank of America card, they have museum days on the first full weekend of the month where you get in free.

  11. Becka says 26 April 2012 at 09:09

    I love this in theory, but unfortunately, the most entertaining and affordable thing to do in my city is leave.

  12. Gilia says 26 April 2012 at 09:32

    I suggest also checking out the alternative newspapers in your town. The one here has an events calendar and restaurant reviews. A good place to go for some options!

    I have recently checked TripAdvisor for the things to do in my own city and found a food tour that I want to go on. And the list of restaurants that it includes are ones that I have not been to before. How fun!

  13. Thad P @ says 26 April 2012 at 09:33

    I love this list! Each summer in recent years my wife has done much of these kinds of things for the kids in our family. It is not hard, and it is great fun.

  14. Valerie says 26 April 2012 at 10:33

    If you google “[city] on the cheap” you’ll find lots of websites with free and cheap events!

  15. Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager says 26 April 2012 at 10:42

    Also, check your local news Community Events calendar for free events.

  16. KP says 26 April 2012 at 10:43

    I have always been able to find things to do in a town that I am new to by picking up the AAA guide book for the state and getting the local attraction list from the Chamber of Commerce. Another location to check is bulletin boards at coffee shops, diners and laundromats.

  17. Nancy says 26 April 2012 at 10:54

    Hi April. What cheap and free guidebooks are you referring to and where do you get them?

  18. Frugal Portland says 26 April 2012 at 10:54

    Trip Advisor has an app — and I have found fun things using the “near me now” feature, even at home!

  19. Christa says 26 April 2012 at 11:12

    We have a great local advertising magazine in our town, and it always lists fun, cheap activities. We usually check out the free jazz festivals and art exhibits based on the magazine’s info. Now I’ll have to check in with the library, too.

  20. Financial Advice for Young Professionals says 26 April 2012 at 11:41

    I think the best way of finding local activities is to use Yelp. I just found a 100 year old suspension bridge in San Diego using Yelp, it was awesome! But you can search for local flavor or historic landmarks and there will usually be some great options 🙂

  21. Amy F says 26 April 2012 at 11:52

    Every year my three sisters, mom and I go on a girls trip to somewhere within driving distance of Cincinnati that we can sample for a long weekend. For the first time in 13 years, we’re planning a staycation here in town. Someone’s house will become the “hotel” and we’ll act as if we’re out of town while enjoying the benefits our city has to offer. I’m looking forward to investigating some neighborhoods for shopping, sightseeing and dining that I know have gone unnoticed.

  22. Krantcents says 26 April 2012 at 12:13

    No matter where you live there are things to do and many of them are free. I love picnics, going to the beach/lake/river etc. Going to the park or playing board games can aslo be fun with the right people. I used to take my children to the library to pick out books. There are lots of things.

  23. Becky says 26 April 2012 at 12:57

    I swear by TripAdvisor when I travel so that is a common stop for me no matter if I need something for vacation or a staycation. I want to return the favor so I have reviewed a few places I’ve traveled too, but have rated lots of places (without a review yet) in my own town and surrounding area (here in Cali the whole of Orange County and some of LA and the IE is my “town”).

    I also created a public Google Calendar (which is featured on my homepage) for all the fairs and festivals I hear about. Due to my nature, they are mostly free or inexpensive. These are all southern California based. I set them to repeat so that even if I’m not immediately interested, maybe next year. Also I can share it with friends if they are looking for something to do.

  24. Deonne Kahler says 26 April 2012 at 14:50

    Love this! About once a month I take this a step further and explore for three days in a specific radius. I live in Taos, NM so that radius pretty much covers all of New Mexico and Colorado, and for this lover of small towns and quirk, offers plenty of opportunity for inexpensive adventures. (Pretty much just the price of gas, which if you’re not going far isn’t outrageous.) I say get your map out, draw a circle of 200-250 miles in every direction, and get out there!

  25. DaftShadow says 27 April 2012 at 02:05 & Wikipedia. It’s absolutely fantastic. Data is updated generally by locals to each location, or others who have done a lot of research on the location (so you don’t have to). Has a lot more “local” locations too, rather than a place like Fodors who only has tourist spots.

  26. Drew C. says 27 April 2012 at 06:48

    Always appreciate your traveling posts, April.

  27. Carl Lassegue says 27 April 2012 at 08:34

    This is a good reminder! I live in South Florida where so many people come to vacation every year and i’ve been taking it for granted. There’s so many things to do down here and I have to start taking advantage.

  28. Elizabeth OK says 30 April 2012 at 13:02

    I moved to a small city/big town. One great resource for me has been the local Visitors Bureau, which puts out a weekly list of all the happenings in town. The list is for the local hotels to give to guests, but since I asked to be on the distrabution list, I also get it. Now every Monday, I get a list of things happening that week- from the local theater production to historical film screenings at the library to which bars have live music on which nights.

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