While you’re unlikely to get an all-expenses-paid trip unless you win a game show, you can still get portions your trip for free if you book certain promotions or take advantage of some alternative modes of travel. Here are my picks for top limited-time and long-term “free” travel deals worth checking out.
1. Kids Fly Free to French Polynesia
Never considered French Polynesia for family vacation? Maybe Air Tahiti Nui’s kids-fly-free deal will persuade you. When you book two adult Air Tahiti Nui fares from Los Angeles to French Polynesia from January 12 to May 31, 2009, you’ll get two free fares for kids ages 11 or younger. The deal is valid for flights to Papeete, Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, Bora Bora, Rangiroa, Manihi, Tikehau, and Fakarava. Adult fares start at $1,428, including all taxes. You’ll still be responsible for paying taxes on the free children’s fares.
2. Organize a Group Tour, Travel for Free
If you organize a group of people to book a package tour together, many tour companies will allow you, the group leader, to travel for free. You can choose to accept the freebie or spread some savings out to everyone in your group. Either way, it’s a good deal. Each tour operator’s group tour policy varies a bit, but most require you to put together a group with at least 10 paying individuals before you’ll get a free spot.
For example, Grand Circle Tours, a company that runs trips geared towards mature travelers on six continents, lets a group leader travel for free with 10 paid travelers on river cruises or 16 paid travelers on land tours. Go Ahead Tours, a similar operator, gives two free spots for every group of 12 or more paying guests. Be sure to ask your tour company if they offer similar deals.
3. Pay for Three Nights, Get Seven at Club Med
Club Med’s recurring “Seven-Day Weekend” package is back, promising seven nights for the price of three at eight of its all-inclusive resorts. The deal is valid at family-friendly Club Meds in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic; Cancun and Ixtapa, Mexico; Sandpiper, Fla.; Caravelle, Guadeloupe; and Buccaneer’s Creek, Martinique; as well as adult-only Clubs Meds on Columbus Isle, Bahamas, and on Turks and Caicos. You must book by December 15 and travel by February 13 to take advantage of the promotion. Seven-Day Weekend prices range from $793 per person (normally $1,190) at the Sandpiper, Florida Club Med to $1,065 per person (normally $1,610) at the Buccaneer’s Creek, Martinque Club Med.
4. Free Weekend Rental Days From Hertz
Hertz knows the only the thing better than a weekend away is a three-day weekend away. The company makes it easier for renters to take longer weekend trips by offering the first day free when you rent a car for three or more weekend days, including a Saturday overnight. The deal applies to economy- through premium-class cars rented through March 31, 2009, in the U.S. and Canada, excluding Hawaii
5. Kids-Fly-and-Ski-Free Packages
For the past several winters, United and American Airlines have partnered with popular Western ski resorts to offer kids-fly-and-ski-free vacation packages. Generally, these promotions allow children 12 and under to fly and ski for free when an adult pays for an air-hotel-ski package at a participating resort. While not all fly-and-ski-free promotions have been announced yet for the 2008-2009 ski season, Steamboat Ski Resort in Colorado is already advertising its package, which requires a two-night minimum stay at a ResortQuest Steamboat vacation rental. Valid travel dates and blackout periods apply. Be sure to check the American Vacations and United Vacations websites in the days to come to see if other resorts join the promotion.
6. Swap Homes, Stay Free
Why not swap your apartment in New York for a cottage in the English countryside? Or maybe my Utah ski condo for your second home in Costa Rica?
By participating in a home exchange, you can get free use of another person’s house if you’re willing to let them stay in yours. It’s a common practice for a certain segment of travelers who prefer staying in vacation homes over hotels and are a bit flexible with where and when they travel. Essentially, two home owners in different places agree to switch places for vacation, using one another’s homes for no charge. Home exchange websites make it easy to find and make arrangements with other home owners, with the website usually charging a membership fee in order for you to make contact with potential exchange partners. HomeExchange.com is one of the largest of such sites, including more than 24,000 listings in destinations across the globe. A one-year membership costs $100.
7. Free Universal Orlando Theme Park Passes
This coming fall and winter, Universal Orlando is giving kids ages 3 to 9 free Unlimited Admission theme park passes when parents book four or more nights at a participating hotel and buy adult Unlimited Admission tickets. Unlimited Admission passes grant the holder seven days of access to both Universal parks, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Passes cost $95 each for both kids and adults, so the free child’s ticket is a big savings.
To get the free passes, you must book a stay of four or more nights at one of six local hotels, including the onsite Loews Royal Pacific Resort. Valid travel dates and blackout periods vary by hotel, but all require bookings to be made by the end of December.
8. Free Airfare for Crystal Cruises Panama Canal Sailings
When you book one of three Crystal Cruises’ Panama Canal sailings, you’ll receive free airfare between Los Angeles and Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, or Palm Beach, Fla. The cruises, which range from 14 to 16 days, sail between Miami and Los Angeles, so Crystal is essentially promising a free flight home from the final port. Departures include January 6, February 16, and May 7, 2009. Cruise fares start at $3,595 per person, not including taxes and fees.
9. Skip the Hostel, Couch Surf for Free
For young budget travelers, sometimes hostels just aren’t cheap enough. In that case, why not crash for free with one of the nearly 800,000 members of the Couch Surfing Project, a worldwide network that helps travelers link up with hosts offering free accommodations. The mission of the network is to promote cultural exchange through free hosted overnight stays. Travelers can find and request stays with potential hosts on the CouchSurfing website. Hosts offer a free place to sleep and oftentimes show guests around or share advice on places to visit nearby. As a member, you can request places to stay and host guests as you please. The site has some checks in place to help ensure the safety and trustworthiness of hosts and surfers.
10. Free Meals and Attractions for Kids in Hawaii
Families staying at ResortQuest Hawaii hotels can take advantage of free meals and free attractions admissions for kids year round. There are 26 participating hotels and condo resorts located on Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island.
Upon checking into a ResortQuest property, children ages 12 and under receive a special ID card good for the length of your stay. With the ID, kids get free meals and admissions at dozens of island restaurants and attractions when accompanied by a paying adult. For example, on Oahu, kids get in free to the Polynesian Cultural Center and Honolulu Zoo with an adult admission. On Maui, children eat free with the purchase of an adult entree at the Kobe Japanese Steakhouse and the Beach Club Restaurant.