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Sometimes the best vacation experiences really are free even in pricey New York.

That's what we discovered when we met up with Coreen Bourke, our designated Big Apple Greeter (www.bigapplegreeter.org), volunteering her time to show visitors like us the New York neighborhoods she knows so well.

"I thought I could make a difference in the misconceptions people have of New York," Bourke explains when she meets us at our midtown hotel, the newly renovated Kimberly (www.kimberlyhotel.com).

It seems such a simple idea -- to connect locals enthusiastic about their city to those visiting from elsewhere. Greeters can give tours in more than 20 languages and those with special challenges, whatever their ages, can be accommodated.

Visits can be geared to your interests or the ages of your children. Bourke says she especially likes to show New York to families. "It's fun to see them having a good time playing the giant piano in FAO Schwarz, dipping marshmallows in the chocolate fountain at Dylan's Candy Bar, climbing Belvedere Castle in Central Park, riding the Staten Island Ferry and the subway and having their picture taken with an NYPD officer -- especially on horseback. (Check out www.nycvisit.com to see what else you can do with children.)

Big Apple Greeter has spurred other such programs around the world, as close as Chicago and Houston and as far away as Buenos Aires and Belgrade, Serbia. You also can take a tour with locals in Paris, Toronto and Marseilles (www.globalgreeternetwork.info).

"What I love about the visits are they are exactly what I'd love if I were traveling in another country," says 22-year-old Nikki Padilla, who started greeting at age 19. "Guided tours and museums are great, but I'd much prefer to hang out with a local for a day, and that's exactly what Big Apple Greeter provides."

"I get energized watching the faces of the visitors and hearing all their 'wows,' " adds Nikki's grandfather, Al Riggi, who at 83, leads some 45 visits a year -- including one where a man from Britain asked Riggi to take him to a romantic spot so he could propose to his girlfriend. Riggi led them to the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge. "I was as excited as he was," he said.

It all started in the early 1990s. New Yorker Lynn Brooks had discovered in her own travels that people seemed afraid to visit New York. They'd tell her they thought it was too big, too scary. If only they could connect with New Yorkers, she thought, that would alleviate all of those fears.

"Everyone said it was a great idea but wouldn't work," said Gail Morse, now director of the 300-plus volunteers. Since then, Big Apple Greeters has introduced some 95,000 visitors to New York.

Now, because of the economic crisis, the nonprofit organization has found itself in a financial crunch of its own and must come up with $300,000 in new funding by the fall if they are to continue. (Are you listening major travel companies?)

I'd signed up online for the program (do this a month ahead!) for a trip with my sister-in-law. We got a one-bedroom suite at the Kimberly for what you'd pay for a room at a deluxe city hotel, plus a complimentary cruise around Manhattan Island (Check into the packages that include breakfast -- omelets made to order on the rooftop deck overlooking the Chrysler Building -- and free parking. Packages start at just over $300 a night.)

Bourke met us at our hotel and led us on the short walk to Grand Central Station. Once there, she spread out a map before we hopped on the subway and showed us where she planned to take us -- Wall Street, Ground Zero, the Brooklyn Bridge, Chinatown!

We strolled through Battery Park to catch a glimpse of Lady Liberty and paused at the statue that marks the spot where George Washington was inaugurated. We walked down Wall Street and spent time in St. Paul's Church that became the ad hoc volunteer headquarters for 9/1 1 volunteers and where today you'll see exhibits remembering that horrible time -- the fliers desperate families posted all over Manhattan searching for missing loved ones, the teddy bears sent to give NYC children a hug.

We crossed into Chinatown for a first-rate $6 lunch at the Great N.Y. Noodletown. Fortified, we crossed to the midway point of the Brooklyn Bridge, not letting the heat stop us, for that spectacular view of the skyline.

If Big Apple Greeter is forced to close, Bourke says, "There would be a hole in my heart for having lost the opportunity to meet strangers one morning and have new friends at the end of the day."