Do you dream of seeing the world, but you don’t have a fat travel fund to do it? Today, there are more opportunities than ever before to travel the world on the cheap — or, for that matter, for free.
My wife and I visit an average of 10 countries every year, all on her salary alone. No, she’s not an investment banker or neurosurgeon; she’s a school counselor with a salary comparable to a teacher. Part of our travel strategy is to visit inexpensive countries. We also look for inexpensive accommodations through Airbnb and local guesthouses. But the main reasons we can afford to see the world are on this list of 15 ways to travel for free.
Some of these options offer free accommodations, others offer free transportation, and a few offer both. They all come with their own limitations and tradeoffs, but for anyone looking to travel on a tiny budget, they’re hard to beat.
1. Teach Abroad
This is how my wife and I can afford to do so much traveling. She works at an American school in Abu Dhabi. It provides us both with round-trip flights home every summer, free upscale housing that includes a gym, pool, and jacuzzi, and comprehensive health insurance. Oh, and there’s no income tax in the United Arab Emirates.
Living in Abu Dhabi has allowed us to travel all over the world. We flew nonstop to Bulgaria for $185 round-trip. We spent even less on nonstop round-trip flights to Cyprus. Every time we fly back to the United States, we do a stopover in Europe for a few days to enjoy gastronomy in Lyon, the Christmas markets in Munich, or the nightlife in Amsterdam.
There are thousands of international schools all over the world looking for qualified English-speaking employees, from IT specialists to administrators to teachers of all specialties. If you’re interested, check out international recruiting agency Search Associates.
An amusing acronym to say, WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. If you’ve ever been intrigued by the idea of living and working on a farm, this is your chance to see the world while you do so.
Farming is mostly seasonal work, and farmers need seasonal help. While they often have an abundance of space, housing, and food, many organic farmers don’t have an abundance of money. So, in exchange for four to six hours’ help each day, they provide room and board. You’re on your own for the cost of transportation to get there, though.
You can “WWOOF” by yourself, as a couple, with friends, or even as a family with children. Select which country you’re interested in, and WWOOF will show you a list of host farms and connect you with the farmers.
3. Hostels & Other Work-Stay Options
Many hostels find themselves in a similar situation as organic farmers, with plenty of beds and rooms but short on labor. So, they offer free accommodations — and sometimes free meals — in exchange for work. A few even pay a small stipend of spending money.
And the options don’t end at hostels. There are plenty of employers who provide free housing for short-term or even long-term stays in exchange for work. Check out HelpStay and Workaway for thousands of opportunities all over the world to stay for free in exchange for your services.
4. Long-Term Volunteering With the Peace Corps
An oldie but goody, the Peace Corps offers incredibly rewarding opportunities to live for several years in a community that needs committed volunteers. While the Peace Corps is a large international organization, they do an excellent job of keeping their focus on the grassroots level. Volunteers go to the ends of the earth, living and working in the poorest communities on the planet.
The Peace Corps isn’t for everyone, though. It requires a 27-month commitment: three months of training, then two years in the field. You’ll also be leaving the comforts of Western democracy behind. You may or may not have mobile phone service, and you may not have air conditioning in hot climates.
Yes, you receive a living stipend, which is enough to cover housing, food, and basic spending in the community where you’re stationed. But when you come home to visit, don’t plan on fancy dinners out or hotels; expect to crash with friends and family.
That said, you’ll have the opportunity to personally transform poor communities into livable, sustainable towns and villages. In many cases, you will literally save lives. If you’re truly driven to change the world, and see some of it in the process, the Peace Corps may be a good fit for you.
5. Short-Term Organized Volunteering
If your volunteer travel timeline is measured in weeks or months, rather than years, try short-term volunteer placement services like Go Overseas or Idealist. They offer opportunities all over the world for work ranging from teaching English to building infrastructure.
For a comfortable way to ease into international volunteering, try Diverbo. They host one-week English retreats in Spain and Germany to immerse locals in English-based activities. Hotel rooms and meals are provided; all you have to do is get there.
The are endless ways to volunteer abroad for free travel and rewarding experiences. Spend an hour researching options online, and you can’t help but be inspired by the possibilities to give back while seeing the world.
6. Organize Your Own Volunteer Trip
You can also organize your own volunteer trip. With crowdfunding websites like GoFundMe, you can raise money from your friends, family members, and colleagues to cover the costs of your volunteer trip. Perhaps they’ll even join you on your expedition.
Of course, if you don’t plan your volunteer trip with the utmost transparency and ethics, you’re likely to lose friends. Make sure your trip will genuinely change lives for needy people, rather than serve as a cover story for you to persuade your friends into paying for your vacation.
I saw this happen just recently with a newly arrived couple at my wife’s school. They raised money from their friends back in the United States, inventing the name of an education-based “ministry” they claimed to be leading here in Abu Dhabi. It was an utter scam, as they have the same generous teaching package that my wife does. Whether they got away with it among their friends back home or not, they didn’t get away with it here. The link to their GoFundMe page made the rounds among the school faculty, and they’ve found few friends as a result.
Approach any crowdfunding attempts with complete sincerity and transparency, period.
7. House-Sit or Pet-Sit
Did you know there are entire websites dedicated to connecting house sitters with pet owners? Pet owners don’t want to leave their pets in kennels surrounded by unknown dogs and cats when they travel. They’d rather let them stay at home — a home which is just sitting vacant and unused.
House sitters can stay for free at these homes for the price of caring for the owners’ pets. While it’s a relatively easy job, it does mean you have to schedule your day around the pets’ needs. You can’t leave for a weekend jaunt or go on 14-hour day trips. But for animal lovers, it can be an easy way to stay for free anywhere in the world, often in high-end homes.
And house-sitting isn’t limited to pet owners. Some homeowners sleep easier knowing that someone is minding their home while they’re away, whether that means you care for their plants or are simply there to deter break-ins. However, keep in mind that these opportunities are the exception, not the rule, and most house-sitting gigs do involve caring for pets.
8. Do a Housing Swap
You live in Seattle and want to visit Berlin. Someone in Berlin wants to visit Seattle. Why not swap houses with them for your trip? It’s a win-win; you get to stay for free in an authentic local home rather than a hotel, and your home doesn’t have to sit vacant and vulnerable to catastrophes like break-ins or flooding.
Granted, it’s not always that simple. Perhaps you want to visit Berlin in July, and the Berliner wants to visit Seattle in October. Perhaps you’re worried about the risk of having a stranger stay in your home.
The good news is that reputable home-swapping websites provide a level of transparency, with peer reviews and identity verification to give members greater peace of mind. Some home-swapping websites also offer credit systems for indirect house-swapping. By offering your house to others, you accrue points or credits, which you can redeem at your leisure at houses all over the world.
9. Travel to “The Old Country” for Free
Some countries offer “discover your roots” programs for descendants to come back and visit the home of their ancestors. In most cases, these programs are designed for young adults to come and stay with local host families.
Whatever your heritage, do some research on private or government-funded programs to streamline your visit back to “the old country,” stay for free while there, and potentially even cover your airfare.
While you’re at it, you can also look into citizenship programs for descendants. Italy has a generous citizenship program, through which descendants who can prove an Italian ancestor are generally eligible for dual U.S.-Italian citizenship. A close friend of mine who was born in Boston was able to dig up proof that his great-great-grandfather was Italian, and he now has an Italian passport and the option of living in the European Union if he so wishes.
10. Drive Someone’s Car Cross-Country
During cross-country moves, people sometimes need help moving their cars. That’s where you come in. Some car owners will pay you to move their cars from Point A to Point B within a specified time frame. In some cases, they also cover your flight home. There’s no better way to get to know a country, especially your own country, than driving it.
In my 20s, I spent two years moving across the country every few months with my then-girlfriend, a travel nurse. I drove across the country a half-dozen times and developed a fondness for, and truer sense of, the United States than I ever felt from flying and visiting cities for a weekend. After sitting alone in a car for six hours, when you stop at a roadside diner for lunch, you’re more likely to strike up a conversation with the locals. You can end up meeting fascinating people while eating local favorites.
And these road trip experiences don’t necessarily have to happen within the United States. People on every continent need their cars moved. Start with Auto Driveaway for U.S. and Canada car transports — and a free road trip.
11. Crew a Yacht or Cruise Ship
Just because you don’t know a slip knot from a half-Windsor doesn’t mean you can’t crew a boat. Yachts and cruise ships need crew members of all skill sets, from cooking to security to communications. The ship provides room and board, plus a chance to see the world while sailing the seven seas.
However, expect the hours to be long and the wages to be small. One of my friends, who spent a year working on a cruise ship, reports that she averaged five hours’ sleep every night they were at sea.
If you long for the sea life but are wary of cruise ships, consider yacht jobs instead. There are several websites that help connect yacht employers with crew members; try CrewSeekers, yaCrew, and Find a Crew to explore job opportunities.
12. Sit Through a Timeshare Presentation
The first time I got an invitation to a timeshare presentation in exchange for a free vacation, I mentioned it to my father. He told me, “Brian, they’re the best salespeople you’ll ever meet. Commit before going that you won’t buy, write it down on a piece of paper, and pull that paper out of your pocket and read it when you feel an overwhelming desire to buy.”
And I did feel an overwhelming desire to buy. It was a miracle I walked out of there without being $5,000 poorer. Timeshare sellers have their pitch down to a precise science. Think about it. If it weren’t so profitable, how could they possibly give away a free vacation to everyone who attends?
Here’s what you can expect: The salesmen make the initial presentation and offer. A few people buy at the opening price. Then, you sit down one-on-one with an expert salesperson, who pitches you personally, probing for weaknesses and customizing their pitch directly to you. Then they drop the price — a lot.
After they probe and coax and tempt you some more, they drop the price again, and then again and again. By their final offer, the price is a tiny fraction of the opening price from the original presentation, which is hard to pass up.
I’ve taken plenty of free vacations through timeshare presentations. But it’s playing with fire, and it can cost you far more in the long term if you end up buying. If you understand and accept the risk, you can scope out some of these deals at TimesharePresentationDeals.com.
13. Take Advantage of Overbooked Flights
You’ve probably experienced this one. The airline employee opens the intercom and announces, “We’re slightly overbooked for today’s flight and are offering a free flight voucher up to $500 for any passengers willing to take our next flight at 7:00 this evening.”
It’s not always practical to do this. Sometimes, you need to get home for a pressing reason, such as a big meeting the next morning. But sometimes, it only costs you a few hours at the airport, and you stand to save a lot.
Typically, if no one takes the airline up on these offers, they escalate. They may start at a $300 voucher, then $500, then $700, and so on until the offer is so astounding that people race to the counter to take it. If the first offer isn’t worth the inconvenience to you, but you do have some flexibility, move closer to the counter and keep your ears open. Be ready to jump on the deal if it escalates enough to be worth your trouble.
A little flexibility can go a long way. Here are the best ways to take advantage of overbooked flights for free travel.
14. Maximize Credit Card Rewards
Yes, you can earn free flights by putting purchases on your credit card. And many of the best travel reward credit cards offer some enticing benefits. But that’s far from the only option for maximizing your rewards.
Many travel reward cards, such as the Delta SkyMiles Platinum Card from American Express, offer free or discounted companion vouchers every year. You can score a free flight from your reward points, plus a free flight for your travel partner from the companion voucher.
Then there are sign-up bonuses. Check out these credit cards with the best sign-up bonuses to score free travel without spending a dime.
You can also maximize rewards by using your credit card every time you pay for flights. Some credit cards and partner airlines offer double or triple rewards, or higher, for booking flights.
Read up on all the other ways you can score free flights with rewards. Just make sure you don’t overspend in the name of saving money.
15. Capitalize on Loyalty Programs
Rewards don’t just come from credit cards. Airlines, hotel chains, and other travel businesses often offer loyalty points for frequent travelers.
If you always fly with the same airline, you can rack up frequent flyer miles. The same goes for hotels. These businesses sometimes offer brief promotions with killer deals to score points quickly and cheaply or accept fewer points than usual for flights or stays.
Travel forums and frugal travel blogs are great places to stay on top of current promotions. Start with these tips to maximize your free travel from loyalty programs.
I’ve found that the less glossy the travel experience, the more memorable, rewarding, and authentic it feels. I can’t tell you anything about the Bahamas Wyndham I stayed in when I was 23 and trying to impress a girlfriend, but I can give you every detail of the $19-a-night guesthouse in Telavi, Georgia where the owner poured us homemade wine from her own vines.
Stay flexible and open-minded, and you can travel the world largely for free. Just remember there’s usually some tradeoff to free travel, and you need to understand it completely before committing.
Have you ever traveled for free? How did you do it?