(Not to worry, none of the alternatives below include pitching your tent on a beach, or sleeping in a train station.)
Stay with someone you know
Obviously, the best way to stay somewhere for free is to know somebody in the town you’re visiting. You probably already have family, friends, and acquaintances living in other cities or countries. And if they can’t accommodate you, perhaps they have a receptive friend or neighbour who could.
While travelling, you’ll also meet a lot of people. When you hit if off with someone, make sure to exchange contact information. (This seems to have become more informal these days, often boiling down to the question “Are you on Facebook?”) The more you travel, the more people you meet, and the more invitations are extended. Try to take people up on their offers if you can, especially if they live in expensive cities. One can never have too many friends in Paris, London, New York, or Tokyo! If someone offers you hospitality, you should be ready to reciprocate of course.
Stay with a stranger!
Even if you lack friends or acquaintances in a place you wish to visit, there is always Couchsurfing, and Hospitality Club, which let you stay for free with strangers. (And as the staying goes, it could turn out that “Strangers are friends you haven’t met yet”.) These organizations are made up of travellers willing to host other travellers for free and in turn be hosted when they travel. You have no obligation to host anyone you don’t want to, but the system is based on reciprocity. Just like AirBnB, trust is created by providing references and getting references after you have hosted or been hosted.
I signed up with Couchsurfing a few months ago because I’ve heard so much about it that I really want to try it out in the near future. They organize regular meetups and events in several cities (including Toronto) and if you don’t want to host people, you can still sign up and offer to meet visitors for a coffee or to show them around your neighbourhood.
Take over somebody’s house
I’m not talking about squatting here. There are two legitimate ways you can stay for free in somebody’s house while they’re away: house-sitting and home exchange.
Several websites let people who are going away connect with travellers willing to stay in their house and take care of their pets. In exchange for the “work”, you get free accommodation, anywhere from a few days to a few months. Since you can also cook your own meals, it’s like having a home away from home.
The site I use is called TrustedHousesitters. You can read about my first house-sitting experience here, where I also list some other web sites. TrustedHouseSitters is a UK site, and about half of the assignments are in the UK, but there are also many in Australia and the rest of Europe, as well as a few in North America, New Zealand, and Asia.
Most assignments involve pets (dogs and cats, but occasionally farm animals or more exotic critters). Many involve garden or lawn maintenance as well. You should put the same care into writing up your profile as you would a resume, as you are in effect applying for a “job”, and need to earn the trust of the homeowner. If this interests you, several bloggers have written e-books on the topic. The one I used is from HeckticTravels.
The basic idea is that you stay in somebody else’s home while they stay in yours, for a predetermined period of time. Some exchanges also involve cars or other vehicles. A popular site for home exchanges is HomeExchange.com but there are others.
I haven’t yet tried home-exchange but am considering it for this summer. (Anybody in the Canadian Maritimes wanting to stay in Toronto during the PanAm Games please drop me an email!)
Try something new
There is a new kid on the block called Trampolinn. It’s like an hybrid of Couchsurfing, AirBnB (but for free) and a home exchange rolled into one. You accumulate points by hosting travellers, either on a couch, in a spare bedroom, or in your whole place when you’re not there. You can then use these points for free stays in other people’s places when you’re travelling. It’s even possible to swap places if the dates work out.
Volunteer / work for accommodation
This is something that younger people on long-term trips tend to do, but there really is no age limit as long as you can do the work.
It involves working in a hostel, guesthouse, retreat, farm, ranch, or wherever help is needed (usually involving some form of manual labor) in exchange for free accommodation and sometimes food as well.
You may have heard of WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), but there is also Help Exchange offering similar opportunities around the world. You could also ask individual hostels or guesthouses if they need help if you decide you would like to stay in a location for a longer period.
Even if no money changes hand, some countries still see these as “jobs”, so you may require a special working visa to be able to do this legally.
There are also the organizations that offers volunteer placement in special projects abroad. Some of these are not-for-profit, but not all. These include free accommodation (and hopefully food), but they often require hefty placement fees/donations to participate.
I am mentioning this here as an alternative, although I’ve never volunteered abroad myself. You really have to do your research if you decide to go this route, as there are a lot of less-than-honest “charities” out there, especially in the third world. Respected publication Transitions Abroad offers the following resource for volunteer work.
In the case of hostels or volunteer organizations, the accommodation offered is usually in a dorm or other shared room, which is another reason why this tends to appeal more to the younger set.
So next time you’re about to give up on a destination because “it’s too expensive”, see if you can use any of these methods first. Let me know how it goes!
Come to think of it, with all these options, I rarely stay in hotels anymore…
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