My favorite thing to do in any new city is virtually free

Summer vacation hack: Here's how traveling off the beaten path saved me...

As my friends and I reflected on our favorite activities at the end of a recent mini-tour up part of the West Coast, we found a common thread: Almost all of them involved either walking or taking public transportation. We never had to spend a lot, but we got a lot in exchange.

Throughout our 10-day, three-city trip, we took buses across San Francisco, saw Portland from above in an aerial tram and went for a windy ferry ride in Seattle. We also walked miles, including a day spent exploring SF's historic Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and a stroll along the Willamette River in Portland.

Taking buses, trains, ferries, trams and any other form of transportation a city has to offer have become musts for me in any new place. And the best part? Rides are generally cheap, costing only a couple of dollars.

As they weave through the heart of the city, buses, trams and streetcars offer an efficient way to take in the architecture, local businesses and outdoor spaces that make each city unique. And there's nothing like the wind in your hair on a boat cruising through a bay or harbor, especially if it only cost you a few bucks for the view.

On a recent vacation, my friends and I took the train from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington.
Emmie Martin | CNBC

Self-guided walking tours are even better. Not only can you walk around for free, but doing so allows you to explore at your own pace and feel more like a local. Nothing beats the leisure of strolling through an unfamiliar neighborhood and taking in each new shop, residence or restaurant — although I can't guarantee you won't be outed as a tourist when you stop to take photos or pull up Google Maps.

Walking or taking the bus also allows you to stumble upon places that might not have shown up in your research or been recommended to you beforehand. See a cute coffee shop while walking to a museum? Stop in for a scone. Pass an inviting-looking park? Get off and check it out.

Spending time traversing a city on foot or by train allows me more room in my vacation budget for the things that really matter, like trying as many new restaurants as I can and finding the best dessert in every city. I'm happy to spend a day walking around for free so I can save my cash for dinner and ice cream.

It's true that some cities are equipped with better public transportation than others. But wherever I go next, if there's a train, I'll be riding it.

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