Having traveled the world nonstop these past few years, I can say definitively:
Accommodation is the most important part of your travel budget.
Because it’s a decision with huge financial ramifications that we have to make every night.
Compare that with flights – an expensive but relatively rare expense.
And an expense we control the frequency of for that matter!
Or compare it with food, a frequent but small expense.
Finding affordable accommodation makes a noticeable impact on your budget every day.
Here’s the good news:
Even though the accommodation options may vary wildly from region to region, there is simply so much choice that there’s no excuse for not being able to find an affordable option.
In fact, I wanted to collect all the available options and put them in 1 place, so you can see that there’s more to travel than paying full price at hotels.
As it turns out, in total there are 19 ways to find cheap accommodation all over the world.
You may want to bookmark this resource for future reference, as there’s a ton of information here.
What option is best for you? Let’s find out.
Couchsurfing.org is the quintessential choice for budget travelers. With a massive community of over 5 million members spanning the globe and ready to open their homes to travelers – for free. While they might just have a spare couch to crach on, they’ll often have an entire bedroom for you to use.
Why do people host complete strangers? To meet interesting people from all over the world. To have a cultural exchange from the comfort of their own homes and surroundings. Maybe just to make new friends.
As someone that’s both surfed and hosted on multiple occasions across 3 continents, I can say that the idea that CouchSurfers must be freeloaders with poor hygiene is not the case. The verification & vouching system and detailed profiles makes it rather easy to choose the type of hosts/surfers you’re most interested in connecting with.
Backpacker dorms are a great way to keep accommodation costs down. Because sleeping space and bathrooms are shared by multiple visitors, they’re able to charge modest rates even in relatively expensive destinations such as Europe.
Rooms typically sleep 4-8 people on bunk beds, though you can find situations where there will be 10-16 in a room. In Europe, you’ll often find a very basic breakfast to be included.
One of the biggest advantages (or disadvantages) of hostels is their highly social atmosphere. There is almost always communal space where you can meet new people and plan evening activities out on the town.
And for those who prefer to have a bit more privacy, most budget hostels also have private rooms at reasonable rates.
If you don’t mind a bit of noise and sharing your space, hostels are a great way to save money in practically any destination.
Guest houses are basically slightly more comfortable versions of hostels. You get a basic, affordable room without the noise and crowds of a budget hostel and without the extra frills of hotels.
Unsurprisingly, prices also tend to lie between cheaper hostels and more expensive hotels.
Guest houses are a good option in locations where budget hostels aren’t available or don’t exist – such as many developing economies in Africa.
A recent arrival on the budget travel scene, short term rentals allow travellers to take advantage of a spare room (or entire living space) of a home or apartment owner.
You can rent these spaces daily, or for weeks (or months) at a time. It’s a great way to mimic the local experience in a way you never could with hotels or hostels.
Dollar-for-dollar, no travel strategy is more profitible than house sitting. It’s possible to get tens of thousands of dollars of accommodation for free, all by being the individual chosen for the task of looking after a person’s home while they’re on vacation or a work trip.
Homeowners with pets would often rather have someone stay at their home and look after their beloved animal(s) while on vacation than having to use a kennel service.
One good way to lend a hand to a worthy cause and keep your travel expenses to a minimum is through volunteering.
The challenge here lies in finding in opportunities that truly provide a long term benefit to the people and community you serve.
Unfortunately, many volunteering opportunities don’t honer the value of a fair exchange, taking advantage of the good will of hopeful volunteers. Others simply fail to make a lasting positive impact on the community. As a would be volunteer, you have to seperate out the best opportunities from a very large group.
Here are some popular options to get you started:
Note that many volunteering opportunities carge a fee to help cover the costs of lodging and feeding their volunteers.
Cost: $0 per night (possibly even paid)
You’ve probably stayed in a bunch of them – why not work in one while on the road?
Working in a hostel – whether for free or a small stipend – is a great way to cut your accommodation costs down and make a longer stay in 1 region possible.
Even though there are ways to find openings online, the most common technique is to simply ask when you’re there. It helps if you’ve stayed a while and made friends with the decision maker, or at least shown other staff that you’re likeable and that other guests enjoy your presence.
You might end up cleaning rooms or working the front desk, but usually the amount of time you’ll need to work in exchange for your bed will be reasonable enough.
Hostel Working Tips:
A homestay is a great way to learn about a local culture while keeping costs low.
Even though the per-night cost can be on the high end, your stay will likely include breakfast and possibly other meals as well.
Generally, a host family rents out a spare room for extra income, and in return show you their way of life. It’s also possible to find a free homestay in exchange for some sort of work, such as foreign language lessons for the family’s children.
On the flip side, local language schools often arrange homestays for their students as a part of their program.
Many of us have camped at conventional campgrounds, but few think of it as a way to see the world on the cheap. I’ve met a ton of cyclists who swear by it. They often will ask a homeowner in the countryside if they can stay a night on their property with great success.
The great thing about camping is that you can do it almost anywhere for free – though knowing local laws and getting permission before staying on private property are a must.
When Katia and I stayed in Thailand, we met one man who had been camping on the beach for months. Basically his only expense was (extremely cheap) food!
This technique really only applies to the first or last night in a destination, since paying for daily transport to/from an airport kind of defeats the point of the “free” bed.
Not to mention it’s seriously overemphasizing frugality at the expense of the experiences you could be having if you picked more sensible lodging.
However, if you’ve arrived late at night or are leaving early in the morning, sleeping in an airport is practical from both logistical and financial standpoints.
To have success and not be hassled by security, it’s important you look like a traveller, not a homeless person, so be showered and wear clean clothes. You do this anyway right?
Check out SleepingInAirports.net for a wealth of airport guides.
Squatting refers to living on someone else’s property without their knowledge and consent. It’s actually a sadly/surprisingly common activity for people without other options. Often, squats are abandoned or boarded up buildings.
A more appealing form of squatting is when families or communities build shelters on land they don’t own. It should be noted that this activity is illegal in many countries, though officials will often turn a blind eye so long as the real property owner isn’t being bothered.
I’ve never squatted myself, but Mathew Kaarsten from The Expert Vagabond enjoyed squatting with a Romani (the proper term for “gypsy”) community in Spain.
There’s a website devoted to squatting called Squat the Planet where you can find info about all sorts of free alternatives to conventional lifestyle choices. An eye-opening read.
Not the most glamorous way to get some shut eye, but undeniably effective. Instead of spending an extra night in a hostel before moving to your next destination, why not just sleep on the way there?
Everyone seems to have a unique relationship to sleeping on transport. My buddy Jared from back home can sleep on any transport, no matter how noisy and crowded things are, whereas others might not be able to sleep under any conditions.
I fall somewhere in the middle, but am usually up for trying. I’ve slept on overnight buses, flights, and trains with success. But you’ll have to decide for yourself whether this technique is viable for you.
Cost: $0 per night
Sleeping in public is the most longstanding form of free accommodation. It’s earliest recorded use goes back to ancient Egypt, but experts suspect it was used long before.
Normally sleeping in public would be a move made out of desperation, as sleeping on the street is not the most comfortable, safe or desirable option. I wouldn’t recommend it for the most part.
However, a few years ago I accidently discovered a great strategy for sleeping in public:
When I went to Ibiza, Spain to meet up with a friend from back home, I discovered that after partying until sunrise, instead of going to a hotel, I could pop down to the beach and catch some shut eye until noon (or whenever). Totally inconspicuous to passers-by.
If something has gone horribly wrong in your plans and you really don’t have a place to stay, you might be able to adopt the following strategy: Stay in a 24h McDonalds until morning, and then when the sun rises find a nice tree in a park to sit & sleep under.
Other than that, pick any of the other free options if you’re on a tight budget! There’s no reason for this to be a go-to strategy.
House Swapping is when two home owners agree to live in the other’s house for a period of time. This is an excellent option for anyone with their own home that wants to live more like a local than a tourist, plus save a ton of cash while doing it.
The only downside of this is you have to be a homeowner (or renter) to participate, so chances are if you’re an extreme budget traveler this isn’t the option for you.
If you do own a home though, this could be an amazing alternative to expensive hotels.
House Swapping Tips:
A great way to get free accommodation is to simply ask people you know to stay with them! Most of us have connections outside our hometown, and we can make a point of visiting these locations.
I’ve done this in Hawai’i, Paris, Edmonton (Canada), northern France, and Malaysia – to name a few.
Far more than saving a couple bucks, this is a great way to explore your destination with someone who knows it – and with whom you presumably already have a good relationship.
Tips for Staying With Friends and Acquaintances:
Cost: $0 per night
If you have a credit card that accumulates bonus points, one place you can use them is on hotel accommodation.
While a lot of travelers who accumulate points prefer to save them for flights, this can be a good “once in a while” option to treat yourself above and beyond your normal budget allowance.
Think of it this way: by using a reward-points card for all your normal, everyday spending, you could probably earn a week worth of stays at nice hotels every year.
Travel Reward Tips:
Cost: $0 per night
If you have an RV or mobile home, then this is obviously a way to save money on accommodation, as you can take your bed with you wherever you go.
Obviously this technique has certain logistical limitations – you won’t be flying with your camper, but there’s a lot of world to be seen by road.
On the other hand, you’re also in complete control of both accommodation and transportation with this option, and have a lot of planning flexibility.
I’ve been fortunate enough to drive from coast to coast in Canada (basically equivalent to roadtripping across Europe in terms of distance), and it’s totally worth trying overland travel if you’re used to flying everywhere.
Cost: $0 per night
Here’s one of the most intriguing ways to get free accommodation: working on a yacht or other boat.
Websites such a Find A Crew help match up boat owners and hopeful workers. The great thing is that there are opportunities for hopefuls who don’t have any experience, which can be a great way to travel and sleep for free and learn a new skill.
Cost: $0 per night
Finally, we have press trips, one of the mightiest perks of successful travel blogging.
The premise is simple: Have enough readers, and hotels, airlines, heck – possibly the tourist boards of entire countries may want to invite you to use their service in return for mentioning them.
Obviously, this option isn’t practical for most travelers, but worth mentioning in case you’ve ever considered starting a travel blog.
What’s your favorite way to stay while traveling? Did I leave anything out? Share your thoughts in the comments below.