If you’re a long-term traveller, or even a short-term traveller on a budget, hotels can start getting a bit pricey. Since accommodation is generally the largest expense for travellers, the question many face is: How to find cheap accommodation? Enter hotel alternatives. The past few years have seen a rise in the quantity (and quality) of alternatives to traditional hotels, making the ability to find cheap accommodation more accessible to everyone.
Reducing the cost of nightly accommodation enables you to travel longer, and frees up more money for excursions and activities. An added benefit of the cheap (or free) accommodation options listed here is that many of them are in local homes, giving you that true “live like a local” experience that many travellers crave.
So without further ado, here are my tips on how to find cheap accommodation worldwide.
How to Find Cheap Accommodation Guide
While I’ve stayed for free with family and friends many times, and in many locations around the globe, I’ve actually only couch-surfed once. It was in North Sulawesi in Indonesia and it was one of my best experiences while travelling there. Two days into a five-day couchsurf, my host came to my room one morning and said, “I really hate to do this, but I’ve got a very dear friend coming in from Jakarta tonight, and since I rarely get to see her, we are going to a resort I partly own on a nearby island. Would you care to join us? Of course the accommodation would be free.”
That’s part of the reason why I’m hesitant to try couchsurfing again — I mean, how do you top that. And his friend? A former Miss Indonesia. You can’t make this stuff up.
While CouchSurfing.com is the main player in the free accommodation game, there are plenty of alternatives as well.
Servas is the oldest hospitality network on the planet, but suffers from few members and unfortunately it hasn’t been quite as active as CouchSurfing and some of the others as of late.
BeWelcome is another option available that focuses mainly on free stays in Europe.
If you already own a house or condominium, a home exchange makes a very cheap way to get accommodation when you travel. The basic premise is that you switch homes with someone else who has a home in the area in which you’ll be travelling.
HomeExchange.com bills itself as the #1 home exchange website in the world with over 65,000 homes listed in over 150 countries. The cost to join is $150 USD per year, but there is a 14-day free trial available (just go to their site and enter your email in the annoying pop-up.)
LoveHomeSwap has a few plans available starting at $20 per month, and also offers a 14-day free trial.
Stay4Free is another site offering a free trial for new members.
SeniorsHomeExchange is the only website geared towards the 50+ crowd, and a lifetime membership is only $100. The site does look a bit, um, shall we say dated?
I stayed in a 16-bed dorm in a hostel in Israel for 4 months many moons ago, and considering that I’m now closer to 50 than I am to 20, I started telling people that my hostel days are over. Truth is, it’s only my dormitory room days that are over. Hostels are still an excellent choice for budget accommodation for travellers since many of them do offer private rooms nowadays. And some hostels offer amenities that rival many upscale hotels. Add in the fact that most of them offer free WiFi and a shared kitchen with cooking facilities, it’s a no-brainer to add hostels to your repertoire when searching for ways to find cheap accommodation. Some hostels will offer you free accommodation in exchange for doing some work around the place too — a great option for travellers who need a place to stay for free for a few nights.
A few great sites to use are HostelWorld and HostelBookers and Hostels.com (which incidentally are all owned by the same company,) although many of the bigger booking sites like Booking.com and Agoda now include hostels in their search results as well. Just be sure to do your research beforehand — you don’t want to end up at a party hostel on keg night if you’re travelling with kids trying to make an early tour the next morning.
Housesitting offers you to opportunity to look after people’s homes while they are on vacation. The homeowner gets someone to make sure their home is safe and secure, and you get free accommodation while you travel. Housesitting is more geared towards folks who can plan well in advance, and there are usually some chores involved during your stay as well — watering plants or caring for pets for example. Most housesitting sites charge a fee to apply for housesits, but browsing the available accommodations is usually free. Check the fine print in each listing to see what you’re getting yourself into as well — some housesits ask that you pay for utilities during your stay, and I’ve seen a few that expect you to do check-in and check-out of guests at B&Bs or rental properties while the owners are away, or even detailed maintenance (gardening, mending fences, etc.) for larger properties. Even with the extra duties, if you’re a traveller on a budget looking for free accommodation, you should definitely check out housesits in the area you’re aiming for — they make a great (and did I mention free?) alternative to hotels.
TrustedHousesitters is the biggest player in the housesitting space, and also the most expensive at $99 USD per year.
MindMyHouse is only $20 per year for house sitters to join, just remember to search for only available housesits since the search results will show housesits that have already been filled, which can be a tad annoying.
Nomador is a newer player on the market that offers a free option for housesitters wanting to join, and an $89 yearly plan that allows you to apply for unlimited housesits.
House Carers is one of the longest-running housesitting websites one with plenty of listings as well. It costs just $45 per year for housesitters to join. Note that many of the housesitting websites offer discounts for first-timers (usually 10-25%) — just Google the site name and “promo code” and you’re bound to come across a discount code of some sort.
Work/Volunteer Exchange Programs
If you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty, there are plenty of options available for free or cheap accommodation in exchange for working or volunteering.
Originally named Working Weekends on Organic Farms, WWOOF went on to become Willing Workers on Organic Farms, and now they’ve settled on World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (apparently the word “work” in the title caused some grief in certain parts of the world — governments thought it was some shady scheme for migrant workers.) Anyhow, WWOOF is arguably the most popular site to get free accommodation in exchange for work. Generally, you’ll be expected to work between four and six hours per day to get free room and board, and the work is usually manual labour — sowing seeds, making bread, mending fences, that sort of thing. It’s also a stellar way to meet like-minded travellers.
WorkAway is a volunteering and cultural exchange site that has hosts in over 150 countries, and it’s just $29 to sign up.
Listings on HelpX offer food and accommodation in exchange for a few days work on organic and non-organic farms, home stays, farm stays, ranches, B&Bs, hostels, and even some sailing boats.
Most travellers don’t consider renting a timeshare when they travel, but they certainly should add it to their list of cheap accommodation options available. If you’re travelling with family or a group of friends though, the cost of accommodation can be reduced significantly.
Sites like SellATimeshare.com offer reasonable rates for those looking for weekly timeshare rentals in the United States. A quick scan of the site shows a weekly rental in the country music haven of Gatlinburg, Tennessee at a BlueGreen Resort for $249. If it’s destination you or your family visit often, it makes sense to purchase a timeshare instead of always renting hotels, and it’s still a relatively novel method of how to find cheap accommodation when travelling.
First there was camping, then there was glamping (glamorous camping), and now…“gamping.” Think of it as glamping without the glam. (Oh wait, isn’t that what camping is?)
In any case, Gamping.com offers plenty of listings of where you can camp on private land. Homeowners make a few extra bucks by listing a spot on their land for campers, and guests get a cheap place to stay on someone’s private property — far from crowded campsites. Some landowners will even provide the tent. Definitely worth looking into if you’re on the determined to figure out how to find cheap accommodation in unique locales.
There are quite a few traditional camping websites as well that offer budget-conscious accommodation options for travellers who don’t mind roughing it — whether in a tent or camper trailer.
HipCamp is a great resource for those looking to camp on private land in the USA.
ReserveAmerica also lists plenty of public and private campgrounds throughout the United States.
PitchUp is probably the largest resource for listings in the UK, Europe, and the USA.
I sing the praises of Airbnb every chance I get. I’ve used the home-sharing service to find cheap accommodation in Bangkok, Manila, and Berlin among other places. Airbnb has over 2 million listings worldwide, and most are by just ordinary people who rent out extra space they have — whether that be a private room in their home, an entire house or apartment, or even some really unique accommodations like yurts, tree houses, or even castles. Rentals tend to be quite a bit cheaper if you rent weekly or monthly, but watch for any added fees — most listings charge a cleaning fee and a service fee, but some also expect you to pay for electricity during your stay, especially in parts of Asia. Some of Airbnb’s competitors include:
FlipKey — now owned by TripAdvisor.
TripAdvisor Rentals — I’ve just started using this one in addition to Airbnb. I noticed in Bangkok for example it will have listings that do not even appear on Airbnb.
HomeAway — popular mostly for rentals in the United States and Europe, it tends to focus a bit more on upscale listings.
Tripping.com is an aggregator site which searches available rentals from VRBO, HomeAway, VacationRentals.com, Villas.com and others as well. Note that Tripping.com does not include accommodation listings from Airbnb, but it is a great way to see what sort of cheap accommodation options some of the Airbnb competitors have available for your stay, without having to search each site individually.
If you’re looking for some divine intervention in your travels, then consider staying at a convent or monastery during your trip. Many of them throughout Europe and other parts of the globe offer affordable accommodation within their walls. Prices tend to be higher than hostels, but in many cases the atmosphere is well worth the extra few dollars.
Good Night and God Bless (which is probably the best website name ever) has a pretty thorough list of convent and monastery stays arranged by country.
Monastery Stays overs a comprehensive list of religious stays in Italy operated by monks and nuns, and as a bonus, most of them include breakfast as well.
University Rooms lists college and university housing for rent. Accommodation is usually in student residences while students are out of school, although some do list availability while school is in semester as well. Most of the lodging available through the website is in North America, Europe, and Australia, but is generally available for short-term or long-term rentals. And no, you don’t need to be a student to stay there.
Sabbatical Homes is not really university housing, but a means for academics on the move to find cheap, or even free, accommodation while they are on sabbatical or vacation. Think of it as sort of an Airbnb for the academic crowd. In addition to home rentals, the site lists housesitting opportunities, home exchanges, and home shares.
Unused Hotel Rooms
The premise of Roomer Travel is simple — people who cannot use hotel rooms they’ve booked and paid for already post them for other travellers to buy. In practice though, I’ve not had much success with the site. Every time I plug in my dates and destination I have yet to see any “unused” hotel rooms, rather just regular hotel rooms like you’d find on any other big hotel booking site. Still, it’s something to keep in your arsenal of how to find cheap accommodation — maybe one day it will pay off.
If you’re not picky about which hotel you stay at, there are several booking sites that offer “mystery hotels” — you don’t know which hotel you’re getting until after you pay for your confirmed booking. Some sites that offer some sort of mystery hotel deal include:
Priceline — offers Express Deals where generally the name of the hotel is not revealed until after you book (although in some cases it actually gives you the hotel name as well.) It does show you the price you will pay compared to the regular price, as well as a general location of the hotel and its amenities. I’ve used this a few times with excellent success. Priceline also offers a Name Your Own Price function where you bid on hotel rooms and wait for a response from a hotel that will accept your bid, but I’ve never had any success with it (probably because I always bid too low.) Both The Name Your Own Price and Express Deals are separate tabs within Priceline’s search results, making it relatively easy to see what’s available for your particular travel dates and location.
Agoda — offers Secret Deals. The secret deals don’t show up on every location for every date, and they are housed within the regular search results, so sometimes you have to scroll through a bit to find them. Sorting by price also helps.
LastMinute.com — offers Top Secret Hotels with up to 35% off the regular price.
A cycling community of like-minded individuals, Warm Showers is a 100% reciprocal based — you can sign up if you are cyclist looking for a free place to stay, or would like to host a cyclist on their trip. Hosts are expected to offer a room, a couch, or a place to camp. Cyclists get a free place to stay, and as the name suggests — a warm shower.
Here’s a resource that not many people think to look at when they search for cheap accommodation when they travel — Facebook. Many cities and tourist hotspots have Facebook groups dedicated to holiday rentals.
Although many are geared towards monthly or long-term rentals, there are on occasion weekly and nightly rental options as well. The benefit of renting through a listing on a Facebook group is that you’re cutting out the middleman — whether that be Airbnb, Agoda, Booking.com, or any other booking site — which means no booking fees, and you’re also to find properties that often do not even appear on these sites.
I found my current rental here in Ubud, Bali through the Ubud House Shares, Monthly Rental & Sitting Facebook group. It’s a brand new property, so I’m the first one to stay in the villa. If you do a quick search within Facebook for the city you’re heading to plus the word rentals, you’re sure to turn up something.
If you’re still stuck for ways on how to find cheap accommodation, you should also consider local classified ads. The first time I ever rented a non-hotel accommodation was through Craigslist — it was a one-bedroom furnished apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. It was walking distance to Broadway and Times Square, and it was less than half of any hotel in the area.
Craigslist is still around, and for each city or region there is a Sublets/Temporary section for listings, as well as a Vacation Rentals section and the traditional Apts/Housing section. Craigslist does tend to have some shady, scammy accommodation listings so don’t send any money before seeing the place.
In addition to Craigslist, do a search of local, country-specific classifieds websites. For example, Kijiji in Canada, or Gumtree in Australia. If you’re not sure what the local classified ads website is in the country you’re visiting, just do what I do — Google the city name and classifieds (Paris classifieds, Bogota classifieds, you get the picture.)
And if you really want to get super-local ads, use Google translate to translate into the main language of the country you’re visiting (Paris classifieds in French is “Annonces Paris,” Bogota classifieds in Spanish is “Classificados Bogota,” again, you get the picture.) I’ve used this method to find a long-term rental in Portugal before. It’s best if you have an auto translate plug-in enabled in your browser for this one (I have the one for Google Chrome) otherwise you could spend hours not knowing exactly what you’re reading. Also be prepared that you may be contacting someone who speaks no English.