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.

Free isn’t just a legitimate goal for your next trip. It might be a realistic one, too.

Sure, the criminals pushing useless fractional ownerships and pyramid schemes are still out there, and you still have to beware of them. But Shannon Huffman Polson discovered that in a recessionary economy, you can 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 who lives in Seattle, 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 told me.

Polson is hardly alone. Travelers are no longer content with a bargain. Now they want everything free.

The travel industry knows it. The major American destinations didn’t wait for the National Bureau of Economic Research to declare the U.S. economy in a recession before releasing their lists of free things to do around town. Did you know, for example, that the Port of Houston Authority offers a free 90-minute cruise along the Houston Ship Channel? Or that The Indianapolis Museum of Art, one of the top art museums in the country, always offers free admission?

Can travel companies do better? They’re trying. It all depends what your definition of “free” is. There’s an abundance of two-for-one offers, but they require that you spend money. For instance, as I write this, the Rosen Shingle Creek here in Orlando has an offer that lets you book four nights and stay an additional three nights for “free.” Likewise, the Orlando World Center Marriott offers the fourth night free when you book four nights.

If your concept of “free” is a little more flexible — and the travel industry thanks you in advance for that — then you can always burn some of those hard-earned award miles for your next vacation. You paid a lot of money to earn those points, of course. I asked my friends over at, who track mileage redemptions, if they’ve seen any uptick in the rates at which passengers are cashing in miles for award tickets and upgrades, and was told there’s “a definite interest” although it’s still too early to call it a full-fledged trend.

But let’s keep our old school definition of “free” for the purposes of this story. How do you travel without paying?

1. Reset your expectations

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. “There seems to be a different mindset governing the entire enterprise,” she told me. “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.” Of course, culture is relatively inexpensive when compared with indulgences like a spa visit or a gourmet meal. Some of it is even free.

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  • Elliott

    Christopher Elliott has been called one of the world’s leading travel experts. But his focus isn’t on the destination, or ev…

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