When you’re planning a budget-friendly vacation, you can cut a few corners on travel and certainly find ways to spend less on meals and even entertainment. A tough place to lower your expenses, however, is on lodging. When you’re on the road, you still need a place to sleep and regroup.
Traveling with a family of five isn’t like going on a college road trip, so the solutions aren’t one-size-fits-all. Depending on your situation, you’ll have a different threshold for sacrificing comfort for a lower cost. You might be OK with a stranger’s couch, or you might require more luxurious accommodations.
Check out a few of the fresh ideas below, starting with the lowest frills, before you check in to a money-draining five-star hotel.
If You’re Comfortable with Strangers
If you have a strong spirit of adventure, a small budget, and an equally small personal space, join CouchSurfing – the network of thousands of people across the globe offering spots on their couch, in pull-out beds, and on air mattresses. You can create a profile, share messages, form communities, vouch for people who have provided good accommodations, and see people’s reviews before you commit to a stranger’s couch.
In the CouchSurfing community, many hosts are willing to guide guests around town and help you find the best spots to visit, no strings attached. It’s free, and as with eBay, Amazon, and other shopping sites, there are enough online reviews for you to get familiar with your host before you commit.
2. Better than “Just Crashing”
If CouchSurfing conjures images of sleeping on top of crumbs and dirt on beat-up sofas in the corner of the main area of someone’s tiny studio apartment, you might be more comfortable with a new starup: Airbnb. This community does essentially the same thing as the CouchSurfing network, but these hosts will put you up in their spare rooms for rent, apartments, or even entire homes.
This quickly-expanding company is known as the “eBay of space,” where you can find everything and anything from NYC lofts to European castles. Typically, Airbnb hosts put up spare places for a fraction of the cost of a hotel room, and while you avoid those $200 or $300 per night charges, you’ll get access to much more: free Wi-Fi, a stocked kitchen, and your own personal concierge (your host) who knows the best off-the-beaten-path local spots.
If You Need More Privacy
3. House Sitting
If you have good experience keeping a home, and don’t mind staying in someone else’s house, you might be a great candidate for house sitting. On sites like House Carers, you pay a small fee to register and make yourself available to homeowners who are looking for housesitters for set periods of time. From pet sitting to keeping an eye on guest cottage renters, you can find some low-cost but very comfortable accommodations if you’re willing to take on some responsibility.
4. House Swapping
If you like the idea of a site like Airbnb, but you don’t really want someone else around all the time, you can still get some privacy on your trip – if you’re willing to let someone else into your home. House swapping is one of the most popular ways to get dirt cheap or even free access to some of the most expensive destinations on the planet. Home Exchange is your chance to list your home as available for swapping and find what destinations may be looking for you.
If You Say “No” to Strangers
If you skipped the first four ideas because a stranger’s home is just no place for you, then think of your friends who live in amazing locations that you’ve always wanted to visit. With a free place to stay, you can afford a nice host or hostess gift, so dust off your backpack and book that flight now! Not only will you have a chance to catch up with long-distance friends, but you’ll have the best tour guide to take you to the best spots in town!
If You Time It Right
6. Off-Season Rentals
Maybe you just want a conventional place to stay that you can book, visit, and leave as a cleanup crew comes in behind you. If you’re going to spend a long time in one location, hotel rates are out of the question for you. But you can save a bundle when you explore off-season rentals.
I’ve seen fellow travelers score everything from beach-front cottages to chic studios for just a few hundred dollars per month. The prices are comparable to budget hostels, but you get much greater value. You can get the amenities of a luxury beachhouse for a fraction of the cost, just by traveling in April when the weather’s already nice and the restaurant staff members are friendlier anyway. You’ll have a full kitchen, room for a family or two, or plenty of friends. You’ll save so much, you might even schedule a longer trip than you originally planned. Check out HomeAway to search for available rentals in your favorite destinations.
7. Open Dorm Accommodations
You know they’re not fancy, but dorm-style sleeping accommodations can save you major bucks. Also, in some of the more expensive travel destinations, dorms might be among the few places where you can rest your head for less than $100 per night. On a short trip, when rentals and house sitting arrangements aren’t going to work, check out some of the dorm room hostels on HostelBookers.com to see if they’ll meet your needs. I’ve paid anywhere from a couple bucks to $20 per bed. It just depends on where you are and the typical cost of comparable facilities.
If You Want to Get Fancy
8. Boutique Hostels
Boutique hostel? Isn’t that an oxymoron? You’re picturing a bunch of twenty-somethings traveling with big duffel bags, sharing bathrooms, and meeting crazy strangers on your journey, but that’s not true of every hostel. Boutique hostels have hostel pricing, but more privacy and better attention to detail.
If the space between fancy hotels and student hostels sounds right for you and your budget, check out this interactive map of the world’s best boutique hostels. I stayed in one in Kokrobite, Ghana last year and wished that there was a place like this in every city in the world. The place where I stayed was called Big Milly’s Backyard, and for about $20 a night, my friend and I shared a private room with a shower.
We had other options too, including sleeping out in the yard in a tent for five dollars or a hammock for six. The service was top notch. I had my privacy but also met tons of locals and travelers; and above all, the setting was very safe. The hostel is set right off Kokrobite Beach where, each morning, local fishermen catch fresh fish for their outstanding restaurant. Oh, and the outdoor bar is open 24 hours a day and beers cost about a buck.
9. Work for It
You can boost your budget if you’re willing to work while you’re traveling. If you’re looking for a month or more in a new city or abroad, consider temporary employment. It’s not a family vacation, but it’s an interesting idea: work your way around the world. Any Work Anywhere provides a variety of international job postings, from child care to resort positions. And ESL Café lists English language teaching opportunities in a variety of countries. Finally, WWOOF matches folks needing free places to stay with organic farm owners needing part-time agricultural help.
Wasting time is even worse than wasting money, so stop putting off your dream travels. When you’re looking for free and cheap places to stay on your next vacation, think about your comfort level and privacy needs, and decide which area of this range of options will work best for you. However you decide to go, there are many options for cheap places to stay so you can save more and spend where it matters.
What are your favorite options for cheap accommodations when you’re on vacation?
(photo credit: Shutterstock)