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Updated: 12/20/2018 | December 20th, 2018
Accommodation is one of the biggest fixed costs travelers have and reducing that cost can lead to big savings on the road! I’m sure many backpackers would sleep in a barn if it was the cheapest accommodation they could find! Heck, I’ve slept in hammocks in national parks to save a buck!
But that’s not something you have to do.
No matter what your accommodation tastes may be, one thing everyone has in common is that no one wants to pay a fortune for it. Since you have to stay somewhere every night, reducing this expense can save you a lot of money off the total cost of your trip. Next to finding a cheap flight, finding free or inexpensive lodging will have the biggest impact on your budget.
Luckily, there are many ways to find cheap accommodation when you travel. Here are the best ways to do so:
Cheap Accommodation Tip #1: Stay in Hospitality Exchanges
One of the best ways to get free accommodation is by staying with someone who lives where you’re going. Stay with a local who will give you a free place to rest your head, local information, and someone to hang out with! This is one of my favorite ways to save money and one that nets a really awesome cultural experience too! There are a few websites that make this happen:
Couchsurfing is my favorite of them all (it’s also the biggest and has the most active community it). The goal of the site is to help travelers not only save money on accommodation but also learn about the local culture by being able to stay and interact with a local.
I use this site all the time, and I think it’s one of the greatest things to happen in travel. While I love the fact I can get out of hostels and hotels and save money, what draws me to the site over and over again is that I get to see the local side of a city. I get taken to parties, and restaurants, and sites that aren’t in any guidebook.
A lot of times, people are scared to couchsurf because they wonder if it’s safe. I was nervous about it at first, too. There you are, in a new city, with all your stuff — in a stranger’s home. What if they try to murder you in your sleep? What if they steal your stuff? However, I’ve found that people who are willing to open their homes to strangers tend to be very open-minded people, and are also usually former travelers. They know what you are going through. They want to help. Couchsurfing is aware of this and take many steps to provide security. It offers various levels of verification and allows users to rate and leave comments on people’s profiles.
When I am looking for a Couchsurfing host, I use the following criteria:
- There has to be a picture with the profile. This just shows me that it’s a real person.
- The profile has to be filled out. It shows they are interested and involved. Most people aren’t going to spend the time to fill this out if they aren’t going to be comfortable with strangers in their home. If someone hasn’t bothered to fill out the profile, they probably don’t use the site and I simply move on.
- They should have reviews. If other people have stayed with or have at least traveled with the host and had a good experience, you and your stuff will probably be fine. You might not get along with the host but at least you know they aren’t a creep. The more positive reviews, the better.
- Verification helps. Couchsurfing offers different levels of verification. People can be verified by other travelers, with a mailing address, or with a credit card. Knowing that a person has been verified reduces the likelihood that they are going to be a crazy psycho killer. However, if someone isn’t verified but has a lot of reviews, that’s O.K. with me.
No matter what, you need to use your own judgment but I haven’t heard of any really bad couchsurfing experiences, besides the host being a jerk or a little anti-social. Usually, you end up talking with hosts over e-mail to get a feel for them and what they expect. If it doesn’t seem right, don’t do it! But once you couchsurf for the first time, you see that it really isn’t that bad. If you do it frequently, you’ll end up saving hundreds upon hundreds of dollars on accommodation and making friends around the world.
Cheap Accommodation Tip #2: Stay in Hostels
Hostels are another option for budget travelers. In hostels, rooms are dormitory-style with all the facilities shared. Many people think of hostels as a “young thing” and are not interested in sleeping in a dormitory. Yet people do not often realize that many hostels offer small rooms, singles, and doubles designed for solo travelers or couples. I have met people in hostels in their 50s and 60s. The myth they are dirty, gross places to stay designed for young people is wrong. Many hostels offer more amenities than hotels and are really clean as young people expect more comfort. These aren’t the hostels you see in movies or have the horror stories your parents talk about. They come with wifi, tour desks, bars, curtains, lockers for your stuff, big bathrooms, and lots more! I am constantly amazed at how hostels get better and better each yer.
I think hostel dorms are the best value for budget travelers. The bigger the room, the cheaper the cost. Yes, you have to share a room with a lot of people, but if you are on a budget, it is your best way to save money. If you are traveling in a group, you could get one of the dorms for your entire group and not have to share with strangers.
While many hostels are geared toward young travelers and set age limits, some of the bigger international chains such as YHA and Hostelling International focus more on older or group travelers. I’ve seen families, tour groups, and older travelers in hostels all over the world. A hostel is really for anyone who wants to meet other travelers, regardless of age.
Hostels are safe, secure, and cheap. Don’t overlook them — even if you’re not part of the young backpacker set.
My favorite hostel booking website is Hostelworld. They have the best inventory, deals, and interface. Most hostels cost $5-30 USD per night for a dorm bed. They come with private rooms too but those are really a bad value option. Airbnb or a cheap guesthouse is much better bang for your buck. Unless you really want the hostel experience and a place to meet other travelers, I wouldn’t get a private room in a hostel.
Cheap Accommodation Tip #3: Stay in a Home Exchange
This probably works best for older travelers who already own a home. These programs have been around for a long time but are growing in popularity due to good marketing and word-of-mouth on the Internet. Home exchanges are just like they sound — for a set amount of time, you swap homes with a family from another country. It’s a great way to live cheaply abroad.
Most people don’t do this because they worry about security — but remember that the other family is trusting you with their home, too. Sites that facilitate home exchanges usually have various levels of verification and security similar to Couchsurfing. Families talk to each other over phone and e-mail, and there’s no commitment if you find that it’s not right for you. Most people who do this are like-minded, so the chances of something going wrong are slim. Moreover, the family sends a few people to check up on you when you arrive. You can get all the comforts of home (hot water, laundry, etc.) while in another city, without paying for it.
For more information on home exchange, check out Home Exchange. This website was featured in the movie “The Holiday,” which did a lot to alleviate people’s fears over home exchange and bring this travel option into the mainstream. Some of the other home exchange websites are Seniors Home Exchange, IHEN, and Home for Exchange.
If swapping homes isn’t your thing, then consider house-sitting as an alternative. In exchange for watching and cleaning someone’s home while they are away, you’ll get a place to stay in the area you are visiting. Good house-sitting sites include:
One thing to remember about house sitting is that it’s also not meant for the casual tourist. While you can find short options for only a few days, most house sitting is for weeks or months. Remember you are watching a person’s home while they are on vacation and people like to go away for awhile. You are in charge of keeping someone’s house in order and will have to go through a verification process. Growing popularity has made it so there are a lot of options.
Cheap Accommodation Tip #4: Stay in Airbnb
Similar to home exchanges, rentals allow people to stay in furnished apartments while traveling. These apartments are cheaper than hotels and provide many more amenities. They are great if you plan to spend a week or more in one place. You’ll get all the comforts of home without spending a fortune.
These apartments are a nice bridge between a hostel and hotel, though they can get a bit expensive if you are a solo traveler. They are roughly double the cost (if not more) than a hostel dorm room. However, if you are part of a group or a couple and are looking for a respite from the dorms and hordes of travelers but don’t want a hotel room, this is your ideal accommodation option. Another reason to use this method? You get a kitchen, allowing you to cook and reduce your food costs.
My favorite rental websites are:
But let’s face it. Everyone uses websites now. Airbnb is a major thing and one of the primary ways people travel now. If you don’t want a hotel but want don’t a dorm, this is the perfect middle ground. I stay in Airbnb all the time. I love it. You meet people, you get your own space, it’s quiet and clean. Honestly, it’s perfect.
Cheap Accommodation Tip #5: Stay on a Farm
Want to live on a farm but not work like you would with WWOOFing? Try a farm stay. Farm stays allow you to stay on working farms, learn how a farm works, possibly get involved in the workings of the farm (milk that cow!), and enjoy a number of organized outdoor activities. Facilities range from basic camping to luxury rooms depending on the farm, but in general, it’s like you’re staying at a bed and breakfast. Prices vary widely depending on where you are in the world but generally, expect to pay the price of a budget hotel (so at least $40 USD per night).
Here’s a list of resources to find a farm stay:
Cheap Accommodation Tip #6: Stay in a Monastery
Want something totally off the beaten track? Stay in a monastery. Accommodation in these monasteries is often very spartan, containing no more than a bed and desk, with simple meals prepared by the monks and nuns. Monasteries are very family-friendly and quiet (most also have curfews). While many monasteries cost at least $50 USD a night per person (many have dorms for half that price), most simply ask for donations or are free, making them an amazing budget option too.
Resources for finding a monastery stay:
- Monastery Stays Locations
- How to Stay in a Monastery
- 15 great Monastery Stays
- Monastery Stays Around the World (CNN)
Cheap Accommodation Tip #7: Collect Points!
The best way to save on accommodation is to get it for free. If you don’t want to couchsurf but like free accommodation, travel hack.
Collect hotel points through various programs and redeem them for free nights at hotels. I am writing this right now from the Waldorf Astoria in London. Cost to me? $0. Sign up for a hotel credit card, get lots of bonus points, put everything on the card, and redeem! It’s that easy.
And you don’t even need to spend a lot of money because there are lots of ways to earn points without spending money (you don’t have)!
My Favorite Accommodation Resources
Here are some of my favorite websites for finding the best accommodation deals. If I’m looking for a cheap place to stay, these are the sites I always check first: