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How to save on a U.S. vacation – a look at cheapest (and most expensive) American cities

San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge from Baker Beach
We all want to save a buck. Or three. With that in mind, the folks at gobankingrates.com have put together lists of the 10 cheapest and 10 most expensive cities to visit in the U.S.

I’m quite familiar with many of them and have some thoughts of my own, so I’m offering three free things to do in some of the most expensive cities. And, just for fun, free things to do in the cheapest cities so you can REALLY save.

We’ll start with the most expensive on the list. In order, from most expensive on down, were New York (naturally), then Santa Barbara California, San Francisco, Jersey City, Honolulu, Charleston, Boston, Los Angeles, Miami and Houston.

The cheapest? From the most frugal-minded on down it goes Las Vegas, Jacksonville, Orlando, Kansas City, Detroit, Albequerque, Grand Rapids Michigan, Salt Lake City, Memphis and Denver.

Here are 3 free things to do in various cities on the two lists.

New York
Looking out from Central Park
1. Most TV show tapings are free. It’s not always easy to get tickets, but you can register for free spots in the audience for everything from the Today Show to the Late Show (for now with David Letterman but soon with Stephen Colbert) to Dr. Oz and even Saturday Night Live.
2. The Staten Island Ferry is a free ride from the southern tip of Manhattan to Staten Island (and back). You’ll get sumptuous views of the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan, not to mention the constant parade of river and harbor traffic.
3. Central Park. No charge for clambering over the ancient rock formations and sleeping the afternoon away under the shade of a towering maple tree. Check out the memorial to John Lennon at Strawberry Fields and enjoy a break from the pounding of the city.
Check the tourism board’s website
for other free things to do.

Santa Barbara
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1. A walk out onto to the city’s pier won’t cost you a dime. You’ll enjoy fine views of the city’s red-tiled roofs cascading towards the mountains that frame the city. You might spot barking sea lions and perhaps a guitar-playing busker or two.
2. The beaches here are fantastic. The main beach stretches out in both directions from the pier. If you go north you’ll make your way to a lovely marina with fun shops and a couple of restaurants, including the Endless Summer Cafe. The cafe isn’t free, but prices are reasonable and the views are lovely.
3. First Thursday. The city opens its galleries and exhibit spaces to the public on the first Thursday of each month. You might witness live performances, and you’ll surely see some outstanding art work. Free concerts are also a staple of First Thursday, and you might even snag a free wine-tasting.

San Francisco

Mission Dolores in San Francisco

Mission Dolores in San Francisco


1. Golden Gate Bridge: Always free for pedestrians and cyclists; this is one of the iconic tourist attractions in the entire world. Enjoy great views of the Bridge from the vista point high in the Marin Hills, then head back to the San Francisco side and drive out to Fort Point for a view of the great bridge’s underside, along with the odd surfer
2. The Mission District: I love the old Mission Dolores, which dates back to 1776. Donations are suggested but you can always plead poverty. Nearby Dolores Park is wonderful for a picnic or checking out free-spirited San Franciscans.
3. The beach: Okay, it’s a little cool most of the year and the water can be frightfully cold. But the views of the Golden Gate Bridge from Baker Beach are legendary, and you can walk for miles along Ocean Beach, which is the city’s western boundary. Next stop: Japan!

OTHER SUGGESTIONS
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In Honolulu, there’s a free hula show and concert just off the beach in the heart of Waikiki every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday weather permitting. it’s wonderful entertainment, and you can’t beat the sunsets..
In Los Angeles, there’s no charge to wander Olvera Street, with its charming Mexican cafes and shops and strolling musicians. Most beaches don’t cost anything except for parking. Check out the skyscrapers in the burgeoning downtown district, including the lovely Bradbury Building. And take a hike in the lovely Santa Monica Mountains. There are dozens of trails just off famous Mulholland Drive or in Griffith Park, close to downtown.

CHEAP CITIES ADVICE

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Las Vegas
1. The Strip is, of course, free to wander about. Check the passing parade of characters, from the folks in Elmo costumes to the lady “cops” in fishnet stockings. A great new area is The Linq, a lively and pedestrian friendly shopping area that links the Strip with the new High Roller observation wheel.
2. Hotels aren’t quite free in Vegas. But you can often find free shows inside hotel bars, where you won’t necessarily have to buy a drink. The Cosmopolitan had a smoking hot retro jazz/pop band when I was there last. There’s a massive, free aquarium at the Silverton Hotel off the Strip. And don’t forget there’s no charge to admire the fountains and lights outside The Bellagio.
3. The natural beauty of the desert is a wonderful thing. You have to pay to visit state parks in the area, but just driving around the mountains that surround Las Vegas costs you nothing but gas. Go in the early morning or in the evening in summer to avoid the heat and maximize your chances of seeing animals.

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Jacksonville
1. The Cummer Museum is a small but lovely facility with fantastic art from around the world. Quite charming, with a nice garden out back on the river. The museum is free the first Saturday of every month from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
2. Anheuser Busch offers free tours of their brewery, so you can see how they make The King of Beers. Free samples at the end for those of age.
3. The beaches in Jacksonville are quite underrated, as is the city as a whole in my opinion. Jacksonville Beach goes on for miles, with plenty of space for the family to do their own thing. You also can drive over to quiet and historic Fort George Island; a peaceful part of old Florida.

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Orlando
1. A stroll around Lake Eola, in the heart of downtown, doesn’t require a $100 ticket or a Fast Pass. Enjoy an Asian pagoda and playgrounds for kids, not to mention a monument to Confederate soldiers from the U.S. Civil War. Great views of the city’s growing skyline and plenty of unusual birds to check out or feed. If you’ve got a few bucks, go for a ride on the swan boats.
2. Winter Park is just north of Orlando and offers fantastic window shopping and lovely parks that won’t cost a dime. They also have some great beaches on lakes that are free of alligators and great for swimming.
3. The Lego Imagination Center at Downtown Disney is free. You’ll find 4,400 square feet of colourful blocks, so kids can build and build and build.

OTHER SUGGESTIONS
Kansas City is an underrated U.S. destination, with lovely fountains, great shopping in the Spanish-looking Country Club Plaza area and great barbeque.
Salt Lake City has some terrific brewpubs and good restaurants in a downtown that’s livelier than you might think. Fantastic skiing and mountain scenery is just miles away in towns such as Park City.

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