When my tour of Slovenia's Postojna Cave started with an underground train ride, I knew it had to be massive. After witnessing the impressive formations, I immediately wanted to see more of the same. For many, experiencing the world's notable cave systems involves a hefty price tag. However, there are several ways to handle cost control.
Destinations: Choosing a cave-rich destination extends your long-distance travel dollars. Virginia for example, has eight large cavern systems, making it a paradise for parents of budding speleologists. Of note are Mirror Lake and Giant's Hall in Luray Caverns, as well as Shenandoah Caverns' bacon formations and handicapped accessibility. Missouri is another speleological smorgasbord, with explorable caves and caverns throughout the state.
Access: Hiking is a free way to access caves suited to your ability level. If there are several in a wilderness area you'd like to explore, plan to pitch a tent. Whether you choose to stay where there's a site fee or not, camping is a fun and frugal way to control your accommodation costs.
Tours: Tours provide an affordable way to discover if you are interested in moving forward with a caving hobby, and are available at many impressive caverns around the world, including Kartchner Caverns State Park in Arizona and cable-car-accessible Jeita Grotto in Lebanon. Guided experiences are available to wild caving newbies as well, providing practice, equipment and skill development. Travel writer Gretchen Kelly had just such an experience in Wales, in a cave called Porthyr Ogof. During a day-long preparatory class with a local adventure company, Kelly learned techniques for safely negotiating tight spaces at an off-site, constructed practice cave. These skills, along with the required caving suit, lighted helmet and gloves, were critical to her successful experience at the actual cave on the following day. You can read more about her Welsh cave adventures at http://www.visitwales.com.
Training: Theactiveexplorer.com's Erika Wiggins, a 14-year vertical caving veteran and high-angle rescue technician, stresses training for conservation as well. Every caver, says Wiggins, should learn to avoid damaging the environment they will be exploring. Touching a growing formation can stop its development forever, and even a dropped sunflower seed shell will remain for generations. Wiggins advises beginners to contact the National Speleological Society (www.caves.org) to find a local caving organization — called a grotto — where you can meet and learn from other cavers.
Theriault is the best-selling co-author of the book "10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget," and founder of TrekHound.com, a website for independent travelers. She also founded TheLessonMachine.com, a website for teachers.