For most of my “travelling career” I have consumed Europe in 2-week bites, and pretty much stopped travelling in Canada and the US, unless I was visiting friends or family. Why? The cost of accommodation.

Unlike developing and third world countries where one can find a decent room for less than $30 a night (even in the large cities), first world countries are very expensive for the budget traveller, especially when it comes to accommodation. Of course, there are youth hostels, and you may have heard of couchsurfing where you stay at a local’s home for free (not necessarily on a couch) in the spirit of travellers helping travellers. This obviously does not appeal to everybody.

Fortunately, there is now another alternative: renting a room (or a whole apartment) from a local for a fraction of the cost of a hotel, often with kitchen privileges, and sometimes with your own private bathroom. You can stay one night or one month, although some owners have a minimum number of nights, typically 2 or 3. Different web sites now exist to put renters in touch with owners. The one I have been using is called AirBnB. I have used it three times in my home country so far (in Montreal, Ottawa and Kingston) and have had good experiences each time. You will find the most choice in large cities of first world countries.

So, how much can you expect to pay? For a room and shared bathroom, I have paid $25/night in Montreal, $35/night in Ottawa, and $50/night for a private one-bedroom basement apartment in Kingston. Properties a little further from downtown usually come with a reduced price tag. You can email the property owner through the web site and ask questions such as how to get there by public transit, etc.

AirBnB also adds 12% of the total cost as their service fee. They securely hold onto your money until you’ve checked in, let you build your profile (so owners can check you out) and gives you access to listings (with photos), including reviews left by previous guests. Hosts can also review their guests. This provides some bi-directional accountability, where both the home owner and renter can get an idea of each other before committing. Hence, if you want to keep using the system, you’d better be on your best behaviour. The advantage: cheap accommodation and contact with a local person who can help you plan your visit. What’s not to like?

Although each listing displays a calendar of available dates, it is under owner’s control and may not always be up to date. The technique I use is to first contact the homeowner to verify that my dates are still available, and introduce myself. Since you will be staying in somebody’s home, touting your qualities as a clean, friendly, and respectful person will not hurt. Unlike a hotel, who you are (and not just your wallet) does matter. So be sure to build a good profile (it can be just a short paragraph about yourself) and post a headshot.

If you have a spare room in your house, you may also consider signing up as a host and making a little extra money to use on future trips.

If you haven’t signed up for AirBnB yet, use this referral link to do so and you’ll get a US$20 credit on your first booking!

Roomorama and Homestay offers similar services, while VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner) specializes in more upscale properties for a longer periods of time (usually at least one week) but may be worth the cost if you are travelling and sharing with several people.

Have you used some of these services? What has been your experience?