We all know there’s no such thing as a free ride, but is there such a thing as a free bed? For most travelers, accommodations is their number one trip expense, but it certainly doesn’t have to be that way. You just have to follow this one simple rule: Never stay in a hotel! Hotels provide little more than a bed and a bathroom, and they do nothing in adding a cultural or community aspect to your trip. Instead, try out one of these accommodation options- and save a bunch of money while you’re at it!
1. Friends and Relatives: This is the easiest and cheapest option. All you have to do is figure out who you know that lives near your destination, and call them up. If they’re available, this is a great option because it offers so much more than just a place to sleep. Every time I’ve stayed with someone I know, they’ve offered me a ride, a meal, or even a city tour. Of course, everything depends on whether or not you know someone at your destination and if they’re available, and depending on how well you know them, you may feel as if you’re imposing on them. But this can be a great way to catch up with an old friend, and if you bring a gift from your hometown, it can serve as a unique cultural exchange.
2. Hostels: If you’ve read any of my other posts, you probably already know that I’m a big fan of hostels. This is ideal for the solo traveler, but even couples, families, and groups can save by staying in a hostel. Depending on location, they can range anywhere from $15-45 per person per night, but they’re always a fraction of the cost of a nearby hotel room. In addition, hostels typically provide a guest kitchen, breakfast, WiFi, a commons area, and some degree of concierge service. The cheapest option is to get a bed in a large dorm (which can be co-ed or gender-specific), but if you prefer, many hostels offer private bedrooms and family suites. To save even more, book through Hostelz.com.
3. Guesthouses: If you’re traveling as a family or other large group, this may be your least expensive option. At sites like airbnb.com or vrbo.com, you can book anything from a spare bedroom to an entire house directly through the owner. It’s hard to say what to expect from a guesthouse, because each one is so unique. You have to speak with the owner about what to expect, but one of the reasons that guesthouses are becoming increasingly popular is because they often offer all the comforts of home. Because guesthouses are so diverse, you can choose one that fits your needs and lifestyle best, from a downtown high-rise to a country cottage.
4. Camping: If the goal from your vacation is to get away from it all, staying at a camp will definitely help! Campgrounds are always a low-cost option, and there are many primitive campgrounds that you can stay at for just a few dollars per night or even for free. It is true that the initial start-up costs for camping can be a bit pricey. You’ll need a sleeping bag, food, fire starters, and either a tent or a camper. However, some people convert their van or SUV to sleep in. Others will go to campgrounds where they can rent cabins, yurts, or other lodging, though this can up the price quite a bit. The best part is, once everything is set up, camping can be a vacation in and of itself.
5. Couchsurfing: Couchsurfing is an online organization where people can offer travelers a place to spend the night. Although it could be sketchy and awkward to stay at a stranger’s house, you can get background checks and references, and it’s completely free. I’ll admit, while I’ve heard many positive experiences from others who’ve traveled this way, I don’t think it’s for me. But I do have a Couchsurfing account and I even used it once. I found the owner of a hostel who, instead of offering his couch, offered a free hostel bed for one night. By contacting him through Couchsurfing, I got my first night at a hostel for free!
6. Convents and Churches: These nonprofit faith organizations are not typically thought of as accommodations, but some of them definitely are! Some convents and monasteries, especially in Italy and other European countries, help support their ministry by offering low-cost lodging to travelers. I didn’t know about this until recently, but I plan to try this out if I go to Rome! In any country, if you call ahead of time, you may find a church that can offer you a place to sleep, even if it’s on the floor of their fellowship hall (though some clergy may even offer up their homes!). Churches are more likely to open their doors to you overnight if you are traveling as a group and are of the same faith.
7. Volunteer: I love volunteering while traveling because it gives me a more realistic understanding of what the area is like and gives me the opportunity to “give back” to the community for allowing me to visit. Some organizations will even provide their volunteers with freebies, such as meals, transportation, and, in some situations, lodging! You can search for causes you care about near your destination, or you can download Kirsty Henderson’s e-book, The Underground Guide to International Volunteering: For experiences that go beyond beaches and the backpacker trail. I’m in the middle of reading this book now, so stay tuned when I give you an update on what I think about it!
8. Take an Overnight Trip: Whether you travel by plane, train, or bus, be aware that you can also use these services overnight. It’s not the most comfortable way to sleep, and you’ll likely be woken up in the middle of the night, but at least it’s something! After all, riding the bus during the day costs pretty much the same as riding the bus at night, but at least you won’t have to pay for an accommodation that night. Airlines often even give discounts if you choose a “red-eye” flight! In my opinion, trains are the best way to sleep on transportation. In some countries, it’s required to pay a little extra for a sleeper car, but in other countries (such as the United States), you can choose to pay a lot extra for a sleeper car, or you can just pay for a standard train seat and sleep right there! (Trains tend to have more leg room, better-reclining seats, footrests, and quiet hours, so it’s almost, kind of like sleeping in a bed. If you’re driving, you can still apply this principle by either having one person drive while the other sleeps and switch off, or by parking in a large parking lot (such as Walmart) and sleeping there. (But know that not all Walmarts condone this and may even ask you to leave!)
9. Sleep at the Station: This is more of a plan B, but it will do in a pinch. If you’re leaving the next morning, the airport, bus, or train station will probably let you spend the night, as long as they operate 24 hours. If you’ve just arrived at your destination, you can sometimes stay at the station as well. The major problem with this is keeping your things safe. Some train and bus stations offer lockers for small pieces of luggage. I’ve seen some overnighters use small padlocks to secure all the bag’s zippers, and then use a bike lock to attach their luggage to themselves. Of course, you shouldn’t expect to get much, if any, sleep. Some people are also concerned about personal safety. This probably won’t be an issue if you travel with others, but even if you travel by yourself, you should be fine if you stay within sight of a security guard or employee and just try to blend in.
10. Mennonite Your Way: This is an organization I just found out about last week. Mennonite Your Way is a group that has listings of people who offer lodging to travelers as a way to practice hospitality. When I first heard of this, I thought, “Cool, but I’m not Mennonite.” It turns out that you don’t need to be! Although many of the listings are for Mennonite households, hosts and travelers are not required to be Mennonite, and as long as you’re respectful of your host’s faith, you don’t even have to be Christian. For safety and to ensure that people who use this are aware of the mission, homes are not listed online, but you can order a Hospitality Travel Directory. I was expecting this to be a Xeroxed stack of addresses, but I was surprised when I received a professionally-bound 100-page catalog that started off with more information about Mennonite Your Way and a few articles from the users. Homes are listed by states and provinces, plus other countries in the back. Among the listings are information about things to do in the area and advertising for wholesome supporters. Each listing shows the family’s names, address, phone number, e-mail, how much space they have for visitors, whether they have any kids or pets, occupation, church affiliation, hobbies, and more! Many of them seem to be in rural areas, but some are downtown in big cities. Although staying at someone’s home is donation-based, Mennonite Your Way asks that you offer $10 per adult and $2 per child per night, plus $2 for any offered meals and perhaps a gift from your hometown. I’m tempted to plan a trip just so I can use this great resource!
Travel can be pricey, but hopefully these inexpensive accommodation suggestions, along with all the other resources at this blog, will help your trips to become affordable and attainable!