If you find that the cost of accommodation deters you from long-term or even short-term travel – it shouldn’t.
There are various ways to find a free place to stay on your trip, I’ve tried some of them and they have allowed me to travel even in expensive countries.
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These are all good alternatives to hostels (because hostels can get expensive too) that make travel accessible to anyone and often a lot more fun, as you meet more local people and get to know more about local life.
Here are some tips to help you save money on accommodation when you travel:
Many people are willing to host visitors for a few nights for free in their homes. It may sound unreal, but sleeping on other people’s couches, sofas, spare beds or air mattresses has been one of the most useful ways to travel and save on accommodation costs for a long time now.
The most popular site for hosting and finding hosts is CouchSurfing. It’s so popular in fact that you can find the verb couch-surf in the Oxford English Dictionary. The more general noun is Hospitality Exchange.
There are several hospitality exchange networks similar to CouchSurfing, such as BeWelcome, Warm Showers (for cyclists mainly) and Trustroots (which requires an invitation from another member to join).
I have used CouchSurfing for years on my travels and stayed at people’s homes all over Europe and Australia. I’ve also hosted many guests at my place. The question I get asked most often is: “But is it safe?” Sadly, it’s not easy for many people to trust a stranger.
I found this nice quote on the Trustroots website: “Offering hospitality and welcoming “strangers” to our homes strengthens our faith in each other.” From my experience, it really does.
The concern about safety is understandable, though I have never had a bad experience while hosting or being hosted. You obviously need to take reasonable precautions when using hospitality exchange networks. Generally, use common sense and follow these tips:
- Each user has a detailed profile. You want to read it carefully.
- If they leave their profile blank, that’s not a good sign.
- Check the references left by other hosts and guests to see if they have positive references and to learn more about them.
- You can also chat with your potential host / guest on the site or on Skype or have a look at their Facebook profile (you might find some surprising mutual friends).
The most important thing I want to say about my adventures as a couch-surfer is this: it’s not just about free accommodation.
It’s a priceless opportunity to get to know people at your travel destination, to see what it’s like to live like a local, to see the place from your host’s perspective (including things that tourists don’t normally find out about) and to make long lasting friendships.
Never treat your host as a “free hostel”, because you’ll be missing the point of the CouchSurfing experience.
Staying at people’s flats or houses while they’re away is another way to find free accommodation. The owners need someone to make sure their home is secure while they’re away on holiday. You may be asked to water the plants or take care of the garden or to mind the pets.
On some of my visits to London, I found opportunities to stay at people’s flats while taking care of their cats. This meant I could prolong my stay at one of the most expensive cities in the world. But there’s another advantage.
You will get to know different parts of the city or country you’re visiting through housestting: sometimes you’ll find yourself away from the any tourist attractions in a real local environment (which I find fascinating) and sometimes you’ll find yourself living for free in the most trendy part of the city.
Most homeowners have set dates for their vacation, so to increase the likelihood of finding a house sitting opportunity, you want to plan ahead of time.
Housesitting is generally free. Some owners may charge for utilities during your stay, so this should be clarified in advance. Also, sites that offer house sitting opportunities charge a subscription fee, but it’s very low compared to the cost of paid accommodation.
These are some of the leading websites to look for a place to stay as a house sitter:
Work and Skill Exchange
There’s a wide range of opportunities to exchange your work and skills for a place to stay while you travel. Working on farms, hostels and even boats is a common way to get free accommodation (and sometimes meals as well) in exchange for a set number of hours of work per day.
The work can include manual labour, such as agricultural work or renovation, as well as cooking, cleaning, babysitting etc. It may also include using your various skills, from building a website to teaching a language.
Some websites to look for work exchange opportunities are:
- WWOOF – work on organic farms
- TalkTalkbnb – teach languages in exchange for accommodation
- Tibba – a new skill trading app, with the coolest slogan: “Trade Skills Not Bills”
Tibba: Trade Skills Not Bills
Meet locals and ask them to host you
A more informal way to find a place to stay on your trip is to simply socialise with locals. If you’re open and friendly, there’s a chance they may offer to host you.
Better not use this method on your first day in a new destination, as you never know if you’ll be offered accommodation or not. For the first night you need some sort of backup.
I do these searches about a week before I arrive in a new place, and add any interesting events I find directly to my Google Calendar.
In big cities you’re likely to find many international meetups and other events each day of the week. It might be a language exchange meeting, a cooking class, a guided tour, an arts workshop or just a general social meetup.
Even if there are several potential events on the same date, I add them all to my calendar, so I can choose which one I feel like going to each evening.
If you’re in a big city and don’t feel like spending too much time in public transport, you can simply pick the event that’s closest to the part of the city you might be in on that day.
Attend these events and connect with locals. If you go to events for people who share common interests, this will make things easier. Always be friendly and polite, try to show that you’re going to be a considerate guest, establish trust.
When the time is right, tell them that you’re travelling on a budget or backpacking. You may meet locals who will invite you to stay with them. Other times, you’ll meet people who cannot host you, but can help you find a place to stay with one of their friends.
As with hospitality exchange, remember not to treat people as a free hostel. Show your gratitude, and don’t take their hospitality for granted. Invite your hosts to a restaurant, buy them a bottle of wine or some nice chocolates. Who wouldn’t like that?
You can get more personal gifts for your host, depending on how well you get to know your them. For example, if they mention a book they’d like to read or a show they’d like to see, you can express your gratitude by getting them the book or tickets to the show. This advice is also relevant to hospitality exchange of course.
If you’re on a really tight budget, then forget about buying gifts and just offer help around the house, cook a meal, share your skills, or simply offer to host them if they visit your county.
On your next trip, use these tips to save money on accommodation and enrich your social life at the same time. You can use the money you save to get to know your travel destination more deeply – spend it on activities and experiences that you can’t have elsewhere.
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