Things that used to cost money but are now free(ish)

Is it time to wake up and smell the freebies? For although the world is still full of rip-offs and unfair charges, we live in an era where plenty of stuff costs next to nothing

Spotify offers a free music service for those who don’t mind putting up with ads

Last week we published a list of all the ways we are being forced to pay for stuff today that was once free. Well, the flipside of that is all the stuff that we used to have to pay for that is now free – or at least costs us much less than it once did.

Music: We're not talking about the descendants of Napster or any other such service, because, as a spoof poster purporting to be from the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) in the 1990s warned us: "When you download music, you download communism."

No, we’re talking legit streaming services. Until last week, Spotify was the king of the heap, the go-to place for millions of people. While its free service is limited and littered with ads, the premium service costs €10 a month and represents a big saving for anyone who used to buy more than one CD every four weeks.

There's also Tidal, which promises better sound quality at a higher price, although we're not sure it's worth paying double the cost of Spotify. Amazon has its own streaming service, as does Google. And now we have Apple. Last week, it rolled out Apple Music, which will cost the same as Spotify and be a big challenger.


You could listen to music you like from now until the end of the century without spending a bean, making it the most affordable time in history to be a music lover. It’s a bit trickier for many of the musicians, however.

News: Speaking of tricky, let’s deal with the elephant in the room. There was a time when, if you wanted to read professionally produced news or feature content, you had no choice but to pay for it. That time is not now. While the option to pay for content is still there – for example, you can read 10 free articles a week on but must pay for more than that – it can’t be denied that there are a lot of free options out there. How long they will remain out there is hard to say. And if it remains a free-for-all, then how high can the quality be in the long term?

The telly: On-demand television and streaming services have made life cheaper, if not entirely free. Streaming services and catch-up players mean we are no longer at the mercy of television programmers and can watch what we like, when we like, with the added bonus of avoiding the ads. The fines that used to be imposed when we left back videos days late are a thing of memory.

And there is YouTube: a vast amount of stuff to watch, including more cute kittens than you could possibly know what to do with, at no cost. For now.

Text messages: The first text message was sent in 1992 from developer Neil Papworth to Richard Jarvis at Vodafone. It read, simply, "Merry Christmas". As phones didn't have keyboards at the time, Papworth had to use a computer to type and send his missive.

But then, in 1993, text messages became something of a cash cow for mobile-phone operators, who used to charge 11p or so (in old money) for a 160-character message or a large multiple of that price if it crossed international borders.

Today, text messages are often either bundled into phone packages or are available for free through apps such as WhatsApp, Viber and Apple’s iMessage service.

Phone calls: Staying with phones, now that Skype, Viber and all the rest are out there, there is virtually no reason why anyone should spend any money on phone calls again. Admittedly, the broadband needed to use these services comes at a cost, as do the smartphones you need to access such services.

Culture: You are going to thank us for introducing you to this website: It has links to free books, free movies, free language classes, free audiobooks, free courses in philosophy, maths, engineering, and whatever you're having yourself.

In fact, if you were to immerse yourself fully in this website, you could spend years entertaining yourself and learning new things before emerging a far more erudite person than you were when you went in.

Taking pictures. Remember when people used to buy cameras? And film? And then pay to have the film developed? When cameras became an integral part of our phones, we became better photographers because we could see, in real time, the results of our pointing and clicking.

And even if we are not so good, there are always free apps, such as Instagram and Snapseed, to make us seem better.

Post: When was the last time you sent an actual letter? Email has made communication with anyone, anywhere and at any time, effortless and much cheaper than it once was. Do you even know how much a stamp costs now? Admittedly, sending a wish-you-were-here group email while on your holliers is not really the same as a postcard, but it’s a lot less hassle. And it’s free.

Holiday calls: Remember hotels used to charge ridiculous sums if anyone had the temerity to make a call home from a hotel room? Well, the mobile phone sent that hotel cash cow to the slaughterhouse.

Then mobile phone operators stepped in. They started ripping off consumers who called home from abroad, at least until our friends in the EU stepped in. Less than 10 years ago, making a four-minute call home while on a trip to Paris would have cost you as much as €5, while someone in Malta was expected to shell out €9.76 for a call of the same length.

Mobile operators across the EU claimed they weren’t fleecing us and insisted all charges were fair. The EU wasn’t buying it, and revealed that consumers were paying up to five times more than the actual cost the operators charged each other to provide roaming services. It has been chipping away at the charges since 2006.

Earlier this year EU ministers reversed a commitment to eliminate mobile-phone roaming charges by the end of 2015, and instead opted for a transitional period to allow roaming providers to “adapt to wholesale market conditions”.

Instead of the roam-like-at-home proposal approved by the European Parliament in 2014, from 2016 consumers will be allowed an allowance of five megabytes a day as part of their regular tariff, after which they will face additional charges – although these were capped last year to a maximum of 20 cent per megabyte and six cent for text messages, not including VAT.

Sleepovers: The days of hotels dominating the holiday experience are over. First there was couch-surfing, a delightfully cheap way to travel the world. You just sign up, offer your couch or spare room to others for free and take advantage of their generosity too. What’s not to love?

Well, it can be a bit hit and miss, unlike AirBnB, which is is not free. But staying in gorgeous apartments within spitting distance of Barcelona’s La Rambla for less than a hotel room? How brilliant is that?