“You’re so lucky! How do you do it?!” It’s a question I get a lot from friends and family who want to know how I travel so frequently and for longer periods of time than most. Traveling can be daunting and seem expensive (and the way most people do it, yes it is), but it doesn’t have to be. Necessity breeds ingenuity and creativity, and since traveling is something I need to have in my life, I’ve tried almost everything to keep my itchy, restless feet happy and moving.
Accommodation is the biggest overall expense (besides flights, and in some cases accommodation can be more), so figuring out how to sleep cheap is essential for budget travelers and backpackers.
Couchsurfing is one of my favorite worldwide communities for travelers. It’s about much more than a free place to stay, and a way to meet interesting and friendly locals, and probably see the place you stay in a much more intimate way. Maybe I’ve been lucky (I also seriously scrutinize people’s profiles and references), but I haven’t had a bad couchsurfing experience. Weird, yes. Bad, no.
The basic premise: hosts open their homes to travelers, who can stay for any length of time (most hosts have their maximum around 3-5 days). Sometimes they have a free bedroom, other times it actually is a couch. While not required, if you’re a good couchsurfing guest, you’ll want to give back to your hosts, whether it’s cooking them a meal, helping them out around the house, or taking them out for a drink.
Memorable couchsurfing experiences:
- Staying with a young Spanish student in my first few days in Madrid. She had a free bedroom and an adorable dog and even gave me keys to her apartment so I could come and go as I was looking for a room to rent. I cooked her American breakfast; she had never had scrambled eggs before!
- Staying with a Peruvian-Bulgarian fundamentalist Christian couple while staying in Burgos, Spain, which is home to one of the most important human evolution sites, Atapuerca. Nope, they didn’t believe in evolution even though the evidence was sitting right in their backyard. (They couldn’t believe we had come there mainly to see the site, but were still very nice and welcoming – we just tabled that discussion).
- A baby ferret for a roommate in Logroño, Spain
- Exploring the surf town of Mundaka in the Basque Country with couchsurfers
Work exchange is exactly what it sounds like: you work in exchange for accommodation and usually at least two meals a day. The biggest sites to find work exchanges around the world are Helpx.net (€20/two years) and workaway.info ($29/two years), and the membership fee will more than pay off in one work exchange. Housesitting is similar in that (usually) no money is exchanged; instead you watch someone’s house and take care of their pets, plants, etc. while they are away. (You’re on your own for food though). Trustedhousesitters.com ($114/year or $84/3 months) and Nomador.com ($89/year, or you can submit 3 applications for free) are two of the biggest sites (haven’t used either, but looking forward to in the future). Hecktic Travels, a digital nomad blogging couple, has housesat around the world, and has a great resource on housesitting here. Both work exchanges and housesitting are great ways to spend little to no money while meeting interesting people with alternative ways of living.
Favorite housesit/work exchange: Being the hospitelera (host) at The Little Fox House for two weeks in Galicia, Spain. I took care of the house, pets (three adorable cats and a donkey!), and pilgrims arriving after completing the Camino de Santiago, cooking them two meals a day and reflecting on our adventures at night over Spanish wine. This one I got through staying at TLFH the month before.
Coming up: I’ll be volunteering at the Kampala Buddhist Meditation Center in upstate NY this October.
Though only an option during the warmer months, camping is a great way to save money and get your own space (sometimes couchsurfing can be socially exhausting for us introverts). True, you’ll need a little more gear and preparation for this one (a lightweight sleeping bag and tent at the very least, and food), but it’s worth it. In the US, I highly recommend getting the Allstays Camp and RV app which maps all campgrounds in the country, including price, facilities, etc, from a simple forest plot to luxury RV parks with swimming pools. Price is by car, and can range from $10 to $30. If you want to get even cheaper, try dispersed camping, or free camping in any National Forest OUTSIDE of designated campgrounds. No facilities though so you should know the basics of wilderness camping before trying it.
Favorite camping experience: Only one so far, which has been roadtripping from New Mexico to Colorado and back. Using the Allstays app we looked in the morning to where we wanted to end up and then drove there, stopping at whatever we found along the way.
This one shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Airbnb is hardly news anymore, and it’s still amazing to me how many people pay exorbitant amounts to stay in hotels. Personally, I hate hotels; I find them stuffy, boring, and totally disconnected from the city. With Airbnb you can rent an entire apartment for yourself for a fraction of the price, you get to pretend you live there, and it makes so much sense when you’re traveling with even just a couple of people. Depending on where you are, it may be cheaper than a hostel which charges by the bed, you’ll get your own space, and can cook to save money on eating meals out.
Favorite Airbnb experiences: Triple tied. 1) My first Airbnb experience in Krakow, Poland, staying in an interior designer’s cozy studio at Christmas time. She also provided a local’s guide to her favorite cafes, restaurants, and spots in the city, and they were all wonderful. 2) Two weeks in my own studio apartment in central Budapest for $20/night. It was walking distance to everywhere and the hosts left me a bottle of wine, chocolate, and fruit when I arrived the first night. 3) Renting a whole house with a group of friends on the coast of Catalonia, Spain (I still maintain my belief that it was haunted).
This also shouldn’t be a surprise as hostel hopping can be most often what comes to mind when thinking of backpacking. But I actually haven’t stayed in a hostel for quite some time, because although depending on where you are, they can be quite cheap per night, they can also get quite expensive (I paid $45 a night at a hostel in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival) and add up if you’re traveling long-term. I use hostelworld.com, but hostelbookers.com is also a good option. Hostels can be great outside of the US (they haven’t seem to caught on here), but they can also have some severe downsides like loud groups of partyers coming in at all hours of the night, and of course, you’re sharing a room with anywhere from four to ten other people.
Favorite hostel experience: Ironically, one of the most interesting hostels I stayed at was in the US, at the Santa Fe International Hostel. The best part was the food; as it’s a non-profit, the hostel gets extra food from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods once a week, and guests can eat and cook with whatever they want. Think tons of high quality, organic food filling an industrial sized kitchen.
Did I miss any alternative travel accommodation types – what else do I need to try?