Who says travel has to cost a fortune? Some of the most memorable experiences can be had for next to nothing, or indeed nothing. After forking out serious coin on flights, accommodation and food bills, light-on-your-wallet travel experiences are absolutely godsends. Compiling a list of the world’s best bargain travel experiences could probably fill several books. The possibilities are inexhaustible and it’s highly subjective, depending on what fires your particular interests.
But it never ceases to amaze me how many landmark visitor attractions can be lapped up without costing you a bean. Washington DC's astonishing stash of Smithsonian museums and the variety of free-to-enter museums in London would have to take top billing on the hit list.
Add to that, the arsenal of landmark museums across Europe, from the Prado to the Louvre, which offer free admission on the first or last Sunday each month. There are those quintessential sightseeing experiences, like marvelling at the Parthenon in Rome, watching Changing of the Guard in London or enjoying an audience with the Pope, as he leads his weekly Angelus blessing, from the window of his study.
Mega-lighting spectacles feature prominently too, whether it's the Symphony of Lights on Hong Kong Island or the Marina Bay extravagance in Singapore. The world swoons over those lavish illuminated fountain shows, whether it’s beneath the Burj Khalifa in Dubai or outside the Bellagio Hotel on the Las Vegas strip.
On that note, if you're in Sin City, don’t forget to head downtown to historic Fremont Street for Vintage Vegas exuberance. The hourly Viva Vision light show blasts out on a video screen stretching 1,500 feet long and suspended 90 feet above the old-school casinos that first shot Vegas to fame It’s a trippy sound and light show, accompanied by music from The Who, Heart and Imagine Dragons.
In this country, Te Papa's enthralling exhibition of 'Gallipoli: The scale of our war', would be a star specimen of a free-to-enter experience of epic proportions. Since opening just over two years ago, nearly 1.5 million visitors have passed through the exhibition. The attention to detail throughout the evocative exhibition is breath-taking and more than warrants repeat visits. Timed to run for the length of World War 1, one hundred years on, the exhibition is open to view until mid-2018.
Beyond the freebies, here's an assortment of some of my most cherished cheap-as-chips travel experiences. They'll cost you little but are worth the Earth. My top gong would have to go to the aperitivo experience in Milan. Aperitivo Hour, or Happy Hour, is a passionate Italian pastime, but Milan is the undisputed capital of the aperitivo. No other city applies the same level of glamour, zeal and generous parcels of food to the aperitivo experience. When the clock strikes 6pm, for savvy travellers, the aperitivo beckons as a clever alternative to dinner.
For the price of a prosecco or a cocktail, you can nosh heartily on an endless variety of dishes, served at the bar. Pasta, risotto, salads, ham, cheeses, meatballs, sausages and pizza slices all feature in the bonanza. Many aperitivo bars in Milan offer an “all you can eat” buffet approach. For a 5 Euro drink, it's a steal. Two top spots include N’ombra de Vin, a fantastic wine bar in Brera, built in an ancient basement which used to be the refectory of the Agostiniani friars. Novocento Café on Corso Como is a cracker. The waiter will serve you basic appetisers, but you can fill and refill your plate at the buffet. Radetzky is another cool bar near Corso Como and on Corso Garibaldi, stake out Fioraio Bianchi, a stunning venue inside a florist shop.
Hong Kong's high-density crush of humanity can be a head-swirl. But what I love about this fast-paced, sky-scrapered and futuristic metropolis is the sedate escape a harbour ride on the Star Ferry provides. It's a dazzling crossing of Victoria Harbour on these green and cream-coloured ferries, at any time of the day, but it's also a superb vantage point to take in the laser light harbour show, Symphony of Light, which bursts into life every night at 8pm. Operating since 1888, there are currently 9 ferries in the fleet, and a crossing will cost you just HK$2 (37 cents in NZD).
Public transport in Shanghai delivers a similarly distinctive experience, elevating a ride far beyond being just a means from getting from point A to Point B. The Shanghai Maglev is a magnetic levitation train, that will whisk you from Pudong Airport to the city interchange at Longyang Road. Taking just 7 minutes to traverse the 30km-long track, it’s the world’s fastest commercial train, zipping along at 430km.
The thing that astounds me about the Maglev is just how silky smooth it is. Unlike those high-speed trains in Europe, where you can feel a bit thrown around on the tracks, the magic of the Maglev is the sensation of just hovering in silence as it zips you alone the route, magnetically. Costing just NZ$9 for a ride, (with proof of an airline ticket), I felt like a levitating monk.
The Amalfi coastline is a scenic thriller and boasts one of the world's great bus rides. Hugging the Bay of Naples, sweet and sun-kissed Sorrento is the springboard for the coastal trip down to Positano, Amalfi Village and onto the likes of Ravello, overlooking the Gulf of Salerno. This jaw-dropping, cliffside-clinging bus ride left me full of respect for the prowess of Italian road engineering – and the local bus drivers. Some stretches will leave you gasping and hyperventilating, as you gaze down the 500-feet vertical drops to the twinkling Mediterranean.
Cantilevered garages, hotels, and villas precipitously cling to the vertical terrain, while gorgeous sandy coves tease from far below and out of reach. Traffic is so congested in the peak summer months that local cars are only allowed to drive on every other day: even-numbered licence plates one day, odd the next. (Buses and tourists foolish enough to drive here are exempt.) For just 3 Euro, the public bus along this sky-high cliffside highway is the ride of your life.
Finally, record numbers of Kiwis are flocking to Los Angeles. Beyond the major tourist beat, if you want to sample a cheap and cheerful slice of West Hollywood life, head to the Sundance Sunset Cinema, which has just been taken over by AMC. As the name would suggest, not only is it located on the Sunset Strip, in the heart of WeHo, but you can check out the latest flicks, for a snip, with their 5 Dollar Tuesdays.
This gem of a theatre, which was previously known as the Sundance Sunset Cinema, offers in-seat gourmet snack packs. It also comprises a gallery space for local pop-up art, a glam lounge area, and best of all, an outdoor terrace bar, which is a dreamy spot to soak up a California sunset and the twinkling lights of the Hollywood Hills.
Mike Yardley is our Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.