Travel doesn’t have to be expensive. Here’s your comprehensive guide to cheap lodging options, including Airbnb, hostels, hotels, house sitting, couch surfing, workaway, and more.
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Find apartments on Airbnb
Airbnb* has revolutionized travel, letting you rent rooms or apartments from locals for a fraction of what a hotel would cost.
* If you use this link to sign up for Airbnb, you’ll get $25 off your first booking of $75 or more, and the Indie Travel Guru gets a small bonus as well.
Advantages: You can save a bundle by preparing your own meals and coffee, and you’ll be more closely connected to the local culture.
Caveats: Your Airbnb host is not a hotel staff; you’re only renting a room or apartment. Your host will probably provide you with sheets, a towel, a starter roll of toilet paper, directions from the airport and some salt and pepper. Some provide maps, rides from the airport, and tourist advice, but it’s not required of them. A few don’t even provide bed linens, so read carefully. Some people get frustrated with the amount of verification and screening required by Airbnb, but it’s necessary for everyone’s safety.
Best for: Experienced or internet savvy travelers who don’t need a lot of service and will be in one place for a few days or more. Longer stays are easier on your host than a series of short-term guests, so if you don’t see steeply discounted weekly or monthly rates on the site, feel free to negotiate.
How to find the best ones: Enter your dates and destination city on the Airbnb homepage, then refine your search by price, style (whole house, private room, or shared room) and add any amenities you need, like wi-fi or a kitchen. Zoom in or out on the map to see the options in a specific area. Look for photos that appeal to you, and read reviews carefully. Your gut reaction to the photos and reviews is the best way to find extraordinary lodgings. One good review could be a plant, so look for a pattern of genuinely warm reviews. Reviewers are other travelers who know what you need, so they’ll often leave important information about the walkability and safety of the neighborhood. E-mail your host to get answers to any questions that remain, to verify that the space is actually available on your dates, and to make sure the person is responsive and pleasant.
Other sources of houses & apartments
If you don’t find what you’re looking for on Airbnb, try Flipkey, Homeaway, and VRBO. Generally, these sites are better for finding upscale rental homes rather than cheap lodging, but if you’re splitting with a group or family you can find deals. The system is similar to Airbnb, and the same advice applies. Often you’ll be dealing with absentee owners, someone renting out their Italian villa while they’re at home in London, but a local contact should be available to you.
Hostels are mostly aimed at young backpackers looking for a dirt-cheap place to sleep with lots of social interaction. For a rock-bottom price, you get a bunk bed in a dorm room, a towel, a locker for your valuables, and access to community showers and hangout space. Many hostels offer private rooms, like a hotel, but you’ll be getting hostel services rather than hotel services. Hostel amenities might include breakfast, free coffee all day, wifi, access to a community computer or kitchen, cheap meals, tour services, free wifi, transportation services, swimming pools, and more.
Advantages: If you want to sleep cheap, but have help arranging tours and transportation, a hostel is ideal. There is no better place to meet and be inspired by experienced travelers, and they are always happy to recommend a tour, a restaurant, or a destination for your next trip.
Caveats: Hostels operate on very low profit margins, and the staff are often volunteers, so you have to be willing to go with the flow. If you don’t want to live in a frat party, you have to be careful to avoid the party hostels. If you stay in a dorm, you might be awakened several times a night — by the time the last partier has straggled in to bed, someone with an early flight will be getting up. Pack a lock so you can secure your valuables in a locker.
Best for: Short stays. Backpackers on long voyages. Those who want to meet and be inspired by people who’ve been on the road for months. Young people who like to party, and older people who aren’t bothered by young people who like to party. Getting to know a new city.
How to find the best ones: Register for a free membership at Hostelworld.com. Run a search on your city and dates. Use the sliders to select your price range, and limit your results to hostels with reviews of 85% or better. Note that hostels are priced per person, which works great for dorm beds but makes private room rates confusing. If the room is a single, the rate is as listed. If it’s a double, the rate will be twice what’s listed, even if you’re only one person. Read the reviews. Reviews are the single best way to find the right place. Photos give you an instant sense of the mood — if it’s a party hostel, you’ll see photos with lots of people holding beers. If not, it’s probably a quieter hostel. If you like the reviews and photos, read the facilities info to make sure it has everything you want.
Sites like Earthwatch and GoEco offer “voluntourism” activities that can be very fulfilling, but not necessarily cheap. Your cash is often a bigger contribution to the organization than your labor — but if you have the cash to spend, that’s fine. These organizations will help you with travel insurance, transportation, and other practicalities, and offer a controlled, supported journey.
But there is another option for the indie budget traveler. Sites like Workaway and HelpX connect travelers with hosts who need help. Typically, you get free lodging in exchange for 5 hours work a day. The work varies widely; depending on your skills, you might be a nanny, paint murals, pick fruit, help with guests, set up a website, or teach children in a school. Unlike Earthwatch and GoEco, these sites are just lists. There is no central organization to screen opportunities or manage your travel.
Advantages: You’ll have a richly rewarding cultural exchange and get to know your host country from the inside out. You might even make lifelong friends. You’ll be doing good work and enjoying free travel at the same time.
Caveats: The sites do some minimal screening and offer a review system, but in general you’re on your own to research your host. Most people have great experiences, but carry contact info for a nearby hotel and the phone number of your local embassy in case something goes wrong.
Best for: Hard workers, easy-going people, and those with great google-fu to do the research. Great for anyone who wants a meaningful cultural experience and a free place to stay. Best for long-term travelers; most hosts want volunteers who will commit for several weeks or months .
How to find the right one: Sign up for a free account on Workaway or HelpX and use the search tools. Add the countries you’re interested in visiting and hosts will often contact you. If not, send an e-mail that ‘sells’ your experience to the hosts you’d like to work with. Read carefully and ask lots of questions. Volunteers hate to leave negative reviews because the host can retaliate. It’s a red flag if a host has left reviews for several volunteers who haven’t reciprocated, or if the volunteer reviews are brief and lukewarm. A great host should have glowing reviews. If the host is a business, right-click on the photos and run an image search on Google; that’s often the best way to get their name so you can research them. Image-searching the volunteers is a good way to find their blogs, so you can contact them and ask about their experience.
There are an entire social networks full of people who will let you sleep on their sofa — or even in a spare bed – for free. www.couchsurfing.org is the grandaddy of the group.
Advantages: Couch surfing is free, and it’s a great way to meet locals and ex-pats. Some surfers and hosts have formed lifelong friendships.
Caveats: Thousands of people have had great experiences, but the risks are real, so be safety-conscious. See the list of couch surfing victims of crime on Wikipedia. Look up cheap hotels near your host’s home before you go so you have a backup plan, and make sure you communicate clearly about all aspects of your stay with your host.
Best for: Courageous, independent travelers on a very tight budget who are eager to meet and interact with locals.
How to find the right one: Sign up for a couch surfing site like couchsurfing.com. Fill out a profile with lots of detail. Read the host profiles thoroughly, and only choose hosts with lots of glowing reviews. When you’re in a host’s home, it’s customary to offer to cook for them, or at least take them out for coffee. At minimum, clean up after yourself and be respectful of the host’s house rules.
Some people make their way around the world by taking care of other people’s homes and pets.
Advantages: You get a free home — often a gorgeous one! — for several weeks or months. Many hosts welcome couples, and some will even lend you their car or bicycles while they’re gone.
Caveats: You are bound by your host’s schedule. You can’t explore the countryside on weekend jaunts if you’re responsible for pets or a home. It’s hard to get hired if you don’t have the right experience. Housesits are often in country settings, so you may need to rent a car.
Best for: Responsible adults with homeownership experience. A housesitting gig is a job, and in order to be hired, you’ll need to convince hosts that you can manage any emergency that might arise. References are vital.
How to find the right one: First, register for a site or two that match your needs. Expect to pay $20-60 per year per site. Build your profile carefully; it is your resume. Get some friends to write you letters of recommendation. Send a detailed, personalized note to any housesits that seem like a good fit for you. Be patient; it’s hard to get hired at first, but once you have experience, it will get easier.
In some cities, apartment rentals are scarce and hostels almost nonexistent, but hotels are very affordable.
Advantages: Hotels follow a familiar customer/provider business model and are easy to book. They usually help you arrange transportation and offer the most reliable security.
Caveats: You get what you pay for, so ask yourself what you’re willing to sacrifice to save money — you may have to do without elevators, English-speaking staff, air conditioning and a private bathroom. Hotels rarely have a kitchen, and being forced to eat out for every meal and snack will raise your overall expenses tremendously. In countries where terrorism is a risk, hotels that attract a lot of Westerners can be targeted.
Best for: New travelers who want help with directions and taxis. Cautious types who can’t bring themselves to trust an apartment host. Countries or cities where other options are limited. Short stays and airport arrivals.
How to find the right one: Hotels.com lets you compare all your choices side by side and screen them for factors like transportation to the airport, complimentary breakfast, and swimming pool. Booking.com sometimes has better prices on hotels outside the US, and lets you compare hotels and hostels side by side.
The perfect mix
For long trips, give yourself a slow immersion. Book a nice hotel for the first night (two if it’s a long flight) and have them arrange your airport pickup. It’s a treat not to have to figure out currency, language and taxis the minute you land, and a hotel bed is perfect for sleeping off jet lag. Spend a few nights in a hostel whenever you hit a new city, to meet other travelers and get access to tours and information. Then head to your housesit, apartment, room, volunteer project, or couch —where you can dig deeply into the local culture and enjoy your independence.