I’ve been writing a lot of really big Travel Lifestyle Guides lately, but I think I outdid myself with this one on free and cheap accommodation. It’s BIG.
Why? Because accommodation is one of the most important aspects of your travels; it dictates both your cost of travel, and your overall experience.
So, it’s worth discussing….in detail.
In this guide, I will outline how to get free accommodation (something that has saved me over $100,000 since I started traveling in 2007), cheap accommodation, short-term rentals, apartments, and more.
I’ll show you the pitfalls so you don’t have to fall into them, and I’ll help you get the best deals and experiences on every place you choose to rest your weary traveler’s head each night.
This guide goes well beyond any traditional advice you could read about getting travel accommodation around the world. So settle in, and learn from my decade+ of experience.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter 1: The 5 Forms of Free Accommodation
Chapter 2: CouchSurfing For Sex (Yes, It’s a Thing)
Chapter 3: Best Countries to Get Free Accommodation In
Chapter 4: Volunteering in Trade for Free Accommodation: Cautionary Tales
Chapter 5: Paying for Accommodation: Hostel or Hotel? Not Always a Clear Decision
Chapter 6: (Sometimes) Cheap Accommodation with Short-Term Rentals
Chapter 7: Accommodation Options and Strategies for Digital Nomads
Chapter 1: The 5 Forms of Free Accommodation
When I started traveling full-time, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.
While I was busy selling everything I owned in Canada, a woman who came to buy my couch blew my mind with one of the most valuable nuggets of information I could have gotten. In retrospect, had I known how that information would change my life and travels, I’d have given her the couch for free.
Starting with that moment, I systematically discovered (and for the most part, tested out for myself) five different forms of free accommodation that revolutionized my travel style – and budget.
What this woman told me about was “WWOOFing” – an acronym for Willing Work on Organic Farms. It’s a website/membership program where travelers can find opportunities that allow them get free accommodation in exchange for work as a volunteer.
Ironically, I never did one official “WWOOFing” position. Instead, I discovered a whole industry that caters to connecting volunteers and hosts in this fashion.
These are often referred to as work-trade or work-exchange gigs; regardless of the location or task at hand, the basic premise is that you work a certain number of hours (generally 20-30 hours/week) on the property where you are staying, in trade for free accommodation and sometimes food as well.
The variety of possibilities are endless. Here is a selection of work-trade volunteer jobs that I’ve enjoyed over the years:
- Milking goats in Hawaii
- Running a hostel and painting murals in Hawaii
- Tending to a country estate and B&B in Australia
- Leading eco-treks on llamas in Australia
- Cooking, cleaning, and designing promotional marketing plans at a spiritual retreat and conference centre in New Zealand
- Speaking conversational English in Spain
- Helping out on sailboats throughout the Caribbean
These were each wildly different and incredibly rewarding ways to stay somewhere for a while and live a slice of local life. Oh yeah, and I got free accommodation too!
Here are a few resources for you to find your own work-trade volunteer deals. Many carry an annual fee, but most are completely worthwhile; just one night of free accommodation will more than pay for it.
- WorldPackers (Features regular work-exchange gigs, and also the ability to search specifically for Social Impact and Eco Program volunteer opportunities, and more. This is my work-exchange website of choice.
Using promo code PROFESSIONALHOBO will get you $10 off membership, normally priced at $49, and I’ll also earn a wee referral fee)
- The Caretaker Gazette (A different – slightly archaic – format to the other sites, but an interesting mix of gigs)
- WWOOF (Not my fav, because you have to pay to join each region/country-specific chapter)
- HelpX (Very popular, but a bit antiquated these days)
- Workaway (This site has grown into one of the better ones around)
- HelpStay (Includes not just work-exchange but volunteer positions you have to pay for)
While the hours can be long and the work quite varied, I found the advantages of volunteering in trade for free accommodation far outweighed any sense of drudgery.
It is also a unique and incredibly easy way to plug into the local culture and community and to experience an aspect of your destination that you would never ever discover staying in hotels or hostels.
And did I say the accommodation is free?
While I adored volunteering in trade for free accommodation, I eventually found the time obligation to be a huge drain, as I was concurrently building this website and my online business as a writer and blogger.
Once I realized I felt like I’d traded one rat race in for another, I knew it was time for a change.
Enter from stage left: house-sitting.
The concept is as simple as it sounds: there are a number of websites that connect homeowners who need somebody to care for their homes/pets/plants/etc in their absence, with travelers who are up for the task and are enthusiastic about living a slice of “local life”.
House-sitting gigs can last from a few days to upwards of a year. Responsibilities – as well as amenities – can vary greatly. Thus, it’s important to apply for house-sitting positions that fit your needs and travel desires; for example don’t rope yourself into a rural house caring for a dozen animals, or somewhere requiring your presence all the time, if you don’t want that responsibility.
And if you think house-sitting sounds cool, get in line. There’s some fierce competition for house-sitting jobs, so you have to be quick on the draw, professional, and present a good face. And you have to apply for a lot of jobs; even if you’re “god’s gift” to house-sitting, you can expect more rejections than successful applications.
Below are some great websites where you can find the perfect house-sitting opportunity.
(Please note that some of the links in this list below will pay me a small commission if you join. I have personally belonged to the sites in question and have gotten house-sitting gigs through them. I thank you in advance for supporting The Professional Hobo by joining using my link!)
International House-Sitting Websites
These house-sitting sites feature positions around the world.
- Trusted HouseSitters (considered the leader in house-sitting sites, but also marginally the most expensive)
- House Carers (the oldest house-sitting site, and a fav for many of my colleagues)
- The Caretaker Gazette (yes, they feature both volunteer and house-sitting gigs)
- Nomador (international, but with a heavy presence in Europe)
- MindMyHouse (smaller, but the price is right)
Australian House-Sitting Websites
You’ll find Aussie house-sitting gigs on the international sites, but if you know you want to house-sit specifically in Australia, you might find a different mix of gigs on the below platforms. (The same applies for the other location-specific sites below).
- Aussie House Sitters (Australia’s largest house-sitting site)
- Mind a Home (has a cool Google Map feature for finding gigs)
- Happy House Sitters (offers a partial refund if you don’t find a gig)
New Zealand House-Sitting Websites
USA House-Sitting Websites
Canada House-Sitting Websites
UK House-Sitting Websites
- House Sitters UK
- House Sit Match (mostly UK, with a few sits in Europe and North America)
Mexico House-Sitting Websites
While you might be scratching your head at the term “hospitality exchange”, you’ve probably heard of its more common moniker: “couch surfing”. I try not to call it couch surfing, because that is a specific reference to one of many websites that offer the same sort of service.
The concept is simple: travelers are connected with and stay with local hosts in their homes.
There are a few websites to pave the way (listed below), but don’t limit yourself to them; you can often create your own hospitality exchange opportunities as you travel and meet people along the way. For example, in two weeks of volunteering in Spain I made enough friends from all over Europe, that for the next four months (solid!), I had free places to stay.
Here are some sites (most are free to join) to connect travelers with free accommodation and local hosts. In some cases, local hosts are only offering advice or a coffee meeting and orientation – which can be equally valuable as a cultural exchange and logistical introduction to your destination.
Now, there’s some etiquette to hospitality exchanges, since they’re not just cheap alternatives to hotels. Some unwritten rules, if you will. Because there’s nothing worse than a bad guest. So don’t be one! Here are the basics:
Don’t Overstay – Good house guests are like fresh produce: they go off after a few days.
Bring a Gift – Although you can buy a gift towards the end of your stay (when you know the host – and what they’d like – better), it’s nice to arrive with a gift. Even a bottle of wine is a lovely gesture.
Help Out – Do as your hosts do; observe them, and pitch in wherever you can. Some hosts will (initially) eschew your efforts, but it’s polite to try and help – and in many cases your help will be accepted and appreciated.
Leave No Trace – Don’t leave your crap all over the house; signs of your ablutions and messy lifestyle have no place here. Store your things neatly and in one place (especially important if you’re sleeping on a couch in the main living space), and clean up after yourself as you go.
Here are some additional tips to help you keep everything on the up-and-up.
Keeping it Safe – Since you’re meeting – and accepting the hospitality of – a complete stranger, it’s good to arrange a first meeting in a public place so you can (both) ensure you’re comfortable. Many of the above sites have a passport authentication element to confirm identities and create an element of safety, but it’s ultimately up to you to trust your gut instincts.
Communicate With Your Host – Contact hosts who have fully completed their profile (because you’ve fully completed yours, right?) and with whom you share common interests, and create a dialog before you meet. This initial period of communication is important to ensure there’s a good (and safe) fit.
Refer to Chapter 2 for more info on how to avoid sticky situations while couch surfing.
LIVING ON BOATS
In 2012, I spent almost three months sailing the Caribbean, living on five boats spanning three countries. I was amazed at how prevalent – and varied – gigs on boats are, and how easy it is to tap into the nautical community and opportunities once you’re there.
It’s a lifestyle unto itself.
Similar to volunteering in trade for free accommodation, living on boats involves pitching in (pun intended) on the boat; if you’re familiar with boats, you’ll know they take a ton of work to keep in ship shape (sorry about that…couldn’t help myself).
Sometimes the boat is anchored and your assistance comes in the form of cleaning and maintenance; sometimes it’s a charter boat and your job is to help tend to guests (in which case there is often some form of pay involved); other times the boat is sailing from X to Y and your job is to help out with the actual sailing of the boat, such as taking shifts at the helm through the day and night.
In all cases, you get a cabin (and free passage) in trade for your assistance.
If you don’t have any sailing experience, no worries – I didn’t. (In fact, I got my feet wet (holy moly, I’m on fire) starting with something of a fear of the great blue). It will take a little more effort to find your first gig, but there are usually captains willing to train an eager volunteer apprentice.
However, two things worth noting:
Running a boat is expensive – The sheer cost of fresh water and fuel is sobering. So don’t be entirely surprised if you’re asked to help contribute to some of the operating costs, especially if you’re receiving free passage to a new destination.
If you can’t sail, consider taking a course – I was lucky and got a volunteer gig on a boat with a captain who valued my online business experience more than my (nonexistent) sailing experience. But on the whole, captains want somebody who knows the ropes (gosh, there really is no end of boat-puns), and you’ll be infinitely more attractive if you have a basic sailing certificate to your name.
There’s more. SO much more. There are safety precautions (since you can’t exactly walk away from an awkward situation with your captain), and a huge variety of boats and types of positions available, from teensy sloops to mega yachts to gargantuan cruise ships.
Some travelers even create an entire career out of the nautical life – and it can be a lucrative one.
For more information on how to travel for free (and sometimes get paid) on boats, check out this article: 7 Surefire Ways to Make Money While Traveling, Chapter9: Working on Boats.
Home exchanges, similar to house-sitting, are a lovely way to enjoy the comforts of home (somebody else’s home, that is). And if you’re leaving behind an empty place while abroad, home exchanges offer the added benefit of knowing your own home (and even your pets) are in good hands.
And don’t worry about the headache of coordinating a simultaneous exchange with people in an area you want to visit; there are sometimes other options.
There are a few dozen home exchange websites, many of which coordinate exchanges that aren’t reciprocal (like three-way exchanges), and in some cases they’ll even help you earn income from renting out your home.
I haven’t tried my own hand at home exchanges (since I don’t have a home to exchange!), but I know a few travelers who do it regularly and swear by it.
Here’s the full scoop on home exchanges, along with suggestions for a variety of different home exchange websites: Home Exchanges: Free Accommodations With Perks
HOW TO GET FREE ACCOMMODATION AROUND THE WORLD
While all this information above will get you started and possibly inspire the flow of some creative travel juices, if you’re serious about getting free accommodation while you travel, I’m going to come out and say it:
There’s so much more you need to know.
- Each free accommodation website has its own flavour, and caters to different types of travelers or geographic regions.
- Competition for most forms of free accommodation is fierce. If you don’t know what you’re doing or how to set yourself apart, you’re gonna spin your wheels.
- Speaking of wheels….don’t reinvent the wheel! Use my decade+ of experience, and exponentially increase your chances of finding the perfect free accommodation gig for you.
There’s so much more, I can’t possibly fit it into this article, which is already ridiculously long. With all the juicy info I’ve got for you, I could write a book!
Wait a minute….I did.
I’ve just released the 3rd edition of my amazing e-book How to Get Free Accommodation Around the World and I’m offering it at a ridiculously low price, especially when you consider that one night of free accommodation will pay for the book many times over.
So, if you really want to try out this whole free accommodation thing….and why wouldn’t you?…..then check out my book and prepare to have your mind blown.
Chapter 2: CouchSurfing For Sex (Yes, It’s a Thing)
Business Insider published an article called Couchsurfing’s Sex Secret: It’s The Greatest Hook-Up App Ever Devised. It discusses various hospitality exchange hosts (and travelers) who use couch surfing as a tool to hook up. And if you land on one of their couches and don’t want to hook up, you might be in for an awkward night.
Note: While I’ve already said that I prefer to use the term hospitality exchange instead of couch surfing, couch surfing is a more accessible term, so I’m using it here. Please understand that this concept is not limited to only the CouchSurfing website.
I posted the article from Business Insider to my social networks to see what other people thought. It evoked quite a reaction. Many people were horrified, and had very few kind words for the article’s main character “Riccardo”, who hooks up with well over half of his couch surfing guests.
Other readers balked at the idea that this could be happening, citing their own couch surfing experiences in dozens of countries, with hosts who were well-behaved, and solely interested in the cultural exchange.
Couch Surfing Profiles: Choose Wisely
Riccardo’s profile reads like an ad in the personals – he even states that he only accepts female guests. I’m willing to bet a good majority of his guests know what they might be getting themselves into well before the lights go out.
Personally, I’ve never had a couch surfing experience that ended up in the sack (nor have I looked for one); but then again I would never have responded to Riccardo’s profile either.
It boils down to what you want, and finding the profile of a person who matches your interests. I only contact people who have fully completed profiles, testimonies from other guests, and something in their profile/interests/career that gives us common ground.
Some people only choose to stay with families. Others prefer a certain age range. It’s all out there; it’s up to you to choose your poison.
Here are some suggestions other travelers shared about how they ensure they have a safe and purely cultural exchange when couch surfing:
– “If I was a single female I would never stay with anyone who says they will only host females.”
– “Be very intentional for who you are and what you are about, and leave no room for others to ‘wonder’ about your intentions. In your profile, you could state that very clearly – at least, that’s what we do.”
– “I stay well clear of the profiles that start speaking like a dating profile and generally keep clear of men, although I’ve just spent two nights at my first male host – he had four of us girls there and one was sharing his bed.”
– “But what if you were 21…might be a different ball park… I don’t think us ‘older kids’ use CS as much as the young ones do…and when I have inquired I only look for peeps in their late 30’s and older.”
Hooking up is natural!
Reading this article was a little surprising, but then again not so much. For any traveler, connecting with locals is a draw; for the single traveler, the heightened emotion of travel in general and the intensity with which travelers connect on the road can easily convert into something physical if the moment and circumstances permit.
Travel accelerates all relationships, be they platonic or romantic. People come into and out of your life at a dizzying pace on the road; so if there’s a connection, it cultivates quickly. And sometimes, that means you end up in the sack while staying with your couch surfing host. That’s totally fine by me – as long as both parties are clear on the terms. (See also: My Sordid Attempts at Finding Love on the Road)
But…What I found surprising about the article was the degree to which some people use couch surfing specifically to hook up. I’m all for going with the moment, but trolling for sex on couch surfing sites? That’s poor taste in my mind. Go use one of the dedicated hook-up sites for travelers (and yes, there are dedicated hook up sites for travelers – read the Business Insider article for links).
It’s not Just Guys
Ladies, before you go and get all up in arms about Riccardo and his sleazy approach, remember it’s not just guys who do this. I was chatting with a fellow when I was in Berlin recently, who had traveled extensively with couch surfing. He consistently stayed with women (often women much older than he) who propositioned him – some even quite aggressively. (I’m still not sure whether he was complaining or bragging).
Chapter 3: Best Countries to Get Free Accommodation In
I’ve had some pretty amazing and varied experiences around the world, getting free accommodation by volunteering, house-sitting, living on boats, couch surfing, and more.
But when a reader recently described her multiple unsuccessful volunteer attempts, I realized that some countries are better than others to get free accommodation in. (You can read her story in the next chapter).
So here are some criteria to consider. For the most part, this chapter refers to volunteering and house-sitting; both being gigs that involve trading your time and effort for a place to stay (on land).
Standard of Accommodation
My standard of accommodation around the world has been hit and miss. I’ve stayed in luxury five star cottages, and unfinished concrete yurts. But even in rustic conditions, I generally got value for my efforts; we’ll discuss this more below.
My reader, by contrast, said all her accommodation was sub-standard, and she wished she had just paid to stay in a hostel or hotel instead.
Determining the Value of a Free Accommodation Gig
The key to evaluating a free accommodation gig is to compare the value of what you get for your time invested versus what you would pay to stay in a hostel or hotel (or wherever it is you would stay if you paid for accommodation).
Consider the hourly value to your time spent working, and the cost of the accommodation and facilities being offered in exchange (if you were paying for it).
I’ve had volunteer gigs that involved an hour a day of work, and others that required six hours a day. I’ve had house-sitting gigs that required nothing more of me than to water the plants and check the mail, and others that involved care of multiple animals, a large house, and extensive gardens – all of which took me hours to maintain every day.
Interestingly, there wasn’t always a direct correlation between my efforts expended and the value of my accommodation received.
And then, there are the intangible benefits. Volunteer gigs often afford a social structure, local connections, unique experience, and something productive to do. Likewise, house-sitting gigs offer you a slice of local life (and sometimes use of a car as well) in a local neighbourhood that you wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to stay in.
If you stay in a hostel instead, you might have a social structure in meeting fellow travelers, but you’re less likely to be living locally (in a culturally immersive way) as you would while volunteering – and with all this extra free time on your hands, you’re more likely to spend even more money.
The Best Countries to Volunteer In
When I compared my volunteer experiences to those of my reader, I couldn’t understand the disconnect. Eventually I connected the dots: I had gotten free accommodation in exchange for work in Canada, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, and Spain. My reader had volunteered in Central America.
You generally get more value volunteering in trade for accommodation in developed countries rather than developing countries.
In places like Central America, the cost of living is cheap to begin with, especially for somebody carrying strong currency (which includes most travelers). So it might not make sense to volunteer for hours every day in trade for a shack you could afford with pocket change.
In addition, many volunteer gigs in Central and South America (and possibly other developing countries too) offer substandard accommodations. Like, a tent, in a rural location with nothing to do and nowhere to go. (This actually happens a lot). If you’re really excited about the volunteer work itself, then go for it. But if your volunteer efforts are financially motivated, perhaps you can find better ways to save money.
The scales start to tip in the volunteer’s favour in more developed countries, where the cost of living/accommodation is higher and your value for time spent increases. In the initial years of my full-time travel, there’s no way I could have afforded to stay in some of the countries I lived in for as long as I did, had I not been volunteering.
The Best Countries to House-Sit In
While the formula for best countries to house-sit in is similar to volunteering, there are a few extra factors to consider, that have much more to do with the specific gig than the country.
Firstly, what is the accommodation like, and where is it located? I house-sat in Panama for a few months. While the cost of accommodation in Panama would have been affordable in general, it certainly wouldn’t have been where I was staying – which was in a gorgeous multi-million dollar home, decked out with a full-time gardener and regular housekeeper.
Secondly, what tasks are required of you? While the house-sitting gig I did on a seasonal resort in the Caribbean seemed like an incredible deal, it came with strings attached. I learned (the hard way) that my having use of the car was so I could take the on-site employees on various errands, from getting tools and supplies for the resort, to being their personal chauffeur. Worse yet, my presence as a house-sitter was to be the “eyes and ears” of the property, which involved having to play the middle-man between the employees (who despised the owner, but who would use me against the owner if I didn’t do what they wanted) and the owner (who didn’t trust the employees). On top of all that, I was also expected to remain on the property all the time. I was literally trapped in paradise!
Chapter 4: Volunteering in Trade for Free Accommodation: Cautionary Tales
The nuances of volunteering in trade for free accommodation are wide. I’ve had a variety of experiences from painting murals and milking goats to designing marketing plans and training volunteers. I’ve done it in Hawaii (in two different places), Australia, Spain, New Zealand, the BVIs, and St Martin.
Other travelers haven’t had the same experiences as I have; in retrospect, I think there is a trick to not only choosing the countries where you volunteer for free accommodation, but also to choosing the specific volunteer gig.
Regardless of where you volunteer, the reality is you are being hosted by somebody – usually staying on their property, even in their home. And as much as travelers are an eclectic bunch that defy categorization, so too are hosts.
Thus, it’s important to know who you’re working for.
A Volunteer Shares Her Experience About Interactions With Hosts
Ann Woodward of East Village Nomad has been traveling full-time since October 2011 after 17 years of working in New York City’s advertising agencies. She has spent a lot of her time in Latin America.
Ann stumbled on another harsh reality of volunteering that I had conveniently overlooked – but have indeed experienced myself.
I won’t ruin the surprise; read on:
“I recently completed a work exchange in Central America. This was my second work exchange, with the first being a two-month stint living with a family in Madrid, Spain. In Spain, I was welcome to join the family’s meals and activities, but I was also free to help myself to whatever was in the kitchen if their schedule didn’t suit mine. It was a very positive experience overall, and I’m still in touch with them.
For this most recent experience, the host contacted me via WorkAway because my professional background was in line with his business needs.
I asked plenty of clarifying questions about food and lodging, as well as detailed questions about what he expected of me as part of this exchange.
When I arrived to work, accommodation and food were not a surprise. The host’s home was located in a secluded area, but that wasn’t a surprise either, since I’d visited briefly before agreeing to the exchange.
What did surprise me was the intensity of the situation: In addition to working together all day, my host and I were eating all of our meals together and sitting together at night in order to use wifi. The only time I was alone was when I was in in the bathroom or in my bedroom with the door closed. Sometimes we would leave the house and drive into town for happy hour and dinner, but this wasn’t really a ‘break’ since I still needed to make conversation.
Spending so much time together is difficult for even the best of friends, so the fact that I didn’t gel with the host made things even more challenging. I am an extremely social person, but this work exchange made me realize just how much I also need ‘alone’ time too.
Every work exchange is different. In many situations, it sounds like volunteers are treated like ‘the help.’ However, my exchange seemed to be the exact opposite. I was treated incredibly well, and in retrospect, I believe this particular host accepts volunteers more for companionship than for actual assistance.
My advice for other folks considering work exchanges is to ask:
- Are there other volunteers on the property?
- Is it easy to get to a town independently? (to run errands during the day and/or to socialize at night)
- Are meals organized, sit-down affairs or are volunteers free to help themselves to coffee and what’s in the fridge?
If you know that you need personal time, I suggest stating that upfront (something like “I prefer to be by myself most evenings”) to identify whether it will be an issue for the host and to attempt to establish some boundaries.
On the contrary, if you’re volunteering in order to make new personal connections/friends, ask questions to ensure you will have the opportunity to interact with other people as part of the exchange.”
Oh, the Variety of Volunteer Hosts
Reading Ann’s story made me remember the variety of hosts I’ve had, with an equal variety of intentions, mind sets, and circumstances. I’ve volunteered for anti-social hermits (a few times, actually), overzealous snobs, men looking for love (thankfully not too aggressively), – as well as some of the most intelligent, caring, interesting, and benevolent people I’ve ever met.
Volunteering in trade for free accommodation is a grab bag, and you’ll never truly have a sense of what the gig entails until you arrive. Thus, it’s generally good to build in a probationary period of a few days before you commit to the full duration; this protects both the host and volunteer from any nasty surprises.
A Volunteer Couple Shares Their Experience About Choice of Location and Experience
Pursuant to my note in the last chapter about how the inherent value of volunteer gigs isn’t always apparent, I will now share the story of the reader I contextually mentioned. Becky and her husband had a rough go of it:
“We had a grand plan to travel slowly through Central America and were very excited to learn about work-exchanging. We thought this would be a great way to spend less money, share our skills, and meet interesting people and projects throughout the region.
Things we have learned:
- Central America may not be as well developed with its projects and volunteering opportunities as some other countries are
- Expect accommodations to be basic, like really basic
- Expect it to be unbearably hot and humid particularly inland unless you are up in the mountains. You cannot underestimate how difficult it is to work physically hard in the heat
- Expect bugs – in the jungle especially, the bugs thought we were awesome and super tasty!
- Really research your volunteer gig before you arrive – what work is expected, what the accommodation is like, what food is provided, any other expected expenses
The first gig we had lined up was with an American expat at her farm in Cayo, Belize. We were only a week into our travels and probably still acclimatizing to the heat and the country.
Unfortunately from the start we had concerns as she regaled us with horror stories of a personal nature for a good couple of hours before we got to the farm. We had traveled for hours to get there and were hot and tired on arrival at the farm which was a little like a secure compound with a thousand raggedy dogs, angrily greeting us. When we were finally shown to our accommodation it was an old workers hut on stilts which had not been prepared at all for us, had a single mattress on the floor and virtually no airflow inside.
Call us lightweights if you like, but we did not feel safe or comfortable so we politely left the gig the next day! Our host was very understanding and took us back to town and helped us find accommodation while we set about securing another gig.
Our next gig was really interesting. A ‘community’ of expats living a sustainable life in the jungle. Part of the way they make money is by people staying in their ‘hostel’ and by providing ‘internships’ and workshops. This was a great place and the people were great too and very welcoming.
Unfortunately the pre-communication was not at all clear and we should have been told to bring in our own food. All they provided was rice, beans and maize flour and the odd jungle fruit such as bananas. In all the pre info it clearly stated that free farm food was provided.
Us and another two volunteers went pretty hungry until we could get supplies in! We did get invited to a few shared meals however and the odd breakfast too which was very welcome.
We knew we had to pay $10 USD per night for the first week which was fine. If you stay beyond a week and want to stay on you can move into other basic volunteer accommodation.
We made rabbit hutches, a quail pen and did other odd jobs. My husband melted on a very regular basis in the heat! We stayed for ten days in the end and it cost us nearly as much as if we had been in a hostel lying in a hammock all day so we were pretty annoyed and felt rather used as we had worked way over the required four hours a day.
I guess you need to figure out exactly what you want out of it and balance it up with what you are prepared to do. Maybe we are simply to old and soft to be toughing it out in the jungles of Central America?!”
Do Your Research, and Ask Questions
Becky and her husband got slapped on all sides by their volunteer experiences. From insensitive hosts, to substandard accommodation, to being overworked, underfed, and even having to pay – their education was of the “hard knocks” ilk.
While some of their grief might have been abated had they asked the right questions and chosen their volunteer opportunities a little more cautiously, sometimes you just can’t anticipate what it will be like until you get there.
My first work-trade volunteer gig was a fascinating one, on a permaculture property on the Big Island of Hawaii. What I learned there changed my life and consumption habits forever, and I’m incredibly grateful for it.
However, the host was incorrigible. My boyfriend and I had daily dramas with him, and even though we had initially committed to a six-month term, the question of whether we could actually make it through plagued us daily.
But we convinced ourselves we were being silly, and that we should be grateful we were living on a little piece of paradise in Hawaii! We could suck it up.
When another volunteer showed up – and left two days later in horror at the circumstances – we realized it wasn’t just us. The conditions really were intolerable, and the host was unreasonable. We handed in our notice and left two weeks later.
My advice based on all these cautionary tales can be condensed down to the following:
- Communicate with your host. Do a video call so you can get to know them better.
- On the video call, ask them to take you for a tour of the property.
- Ask them exactly what they expect from you, from time commitment to work tasks, etc.
- Ask exactly what you will receive in trade for your efforts.
- Assume nothing. Ask everything!
- For volunteer gigs, consider a probationary period of a few days to a week. That way, if it’s not working out for either party, you have an easy out.
- Consider drafting up a written agreement. It doesn’t have to be a formal contract, but it will state expectations of both parties in writing, to help everybody ensure they’re on the same page (yep, another pun. Refer to Chapter 1’s section on Boats for a reminder of my tendency to use puns).
Chapter 5: Paying for Accommodation: Hostel or Hotel? Not Always a Clear Decision
Do you choose a hostel or hotel?
Although you may presume that hostels are cheap alternatives to hotels that are only for budget travelers and backpackers in their 20s, it isn’t always the case. Some hostels cater to a wider demographic, and some are so “hip” they’re more expensive than hotels! Conversely, some hostels are little more than rooming houses for transient folk. I’ve experienced both.
And while you might assume that hotels are on the whole nicer places to stay, that too, is a dangerous assumption!
Your choice of hostel or hotel will largely depend on your preference, budget, travel style, and the people you’re traveling with.
Whether you are traveling solo or with people is a big factor in your choice of accommodation. Here’s what each can offer the solo traveler:
Hostels for the Solo Traveler
- It’s easier to meet people
- If you’re willing to stay in a dorm and share a bathroom you’ll save the most money; hostels are cheap places to stay on the whole, especially for solo travelers in dorms
- You can often get private or semi-private rooms, if you want some privacy in addition to shared common areas where you can relax and socialize
- You’ll save money by preparing your meals in the shared kitchen
Hotels for the Solo Traveler
- You have more privacy
- You generally know what to expect (private room, ensuite bathroom, basic amenities)
- It might be better situated in terms of location (saving you money on transportation)
- If you learn how to save money on hotels with discount sites or with frequent flyer miles, you’ll get more bang for your buck
- You don’t have to make your bed when you arrive nor strip it when you leave (as can be the case with hostels), and you have daily maid service
Click here for tips on Traveling Alone as a Woman.
Traveling With People
The more people you add to the equation, the more a hotel tends to make sense. Depending on the configuration, you might be able to splash out on a suite and still save money over a hostel; and considering you already have company, you might not be too concerned about losing out on the social scene in hostels.
Hostels for Groups
- If there’s space, your group might be able to rent out an entire dorm room (which are as small as four beds) – this may or may not be cheaper than a hotel room
- If you’re worried about group dynamics, it’s easier to stay in a hostel where there are other travelers around to dissipate possible tension and provide distraction
- As a group you can save big money by cooking meals in the shared kitchen (and make more friends by cooking extra and sharing!)
Hotels for Groups
- You might be able to enjoy some luxury with a cost-effective suite
- Your group can come and go as you please (some hostels have curfews)
- As always, you can use aggregator sites or frequent flyer miles to find discounted (or free) stays
On finishing the Ultimate Train Challenge, our merry band of three stayed in a hotel in Saigon for two weeks. It was a plush experience, and although I shared a room with another girl, we still had more privacy than we’d have had in a hostel (which was good – we were exhausted!), we had daily cleaning service, a private shower (a big deal after 30 days on trains!), and the price was only a shade more than hostel accommodation. Little to any money would have been saved in having access to a kitchen, as the street food in Vietnam is both cheap and deliciously cheerful.
Chapter 6: (Sometimes) Cheap Accommodation with Short-Term Vacation Rentals
I may be a free accommodation guru, but sometimes, it’s not worth the time commitment (and occasional hassles, as outlined in Chapters 2, 3, & 4) that free accommodation gigs can entail.
But, you still want the comforts of home that most house-sitting and volunteer gigs provide, right? In these cases short-term rentals can be a solution.
Short-Term Vacation Rentals
For the most part, short-term rentals (or holiday/vacation rentals) are privately-owned homes that are rented to travelers, either in their entirety or on a shared basis (e.g. you have your own bedroom and share common areas with the owner or other travelers). In some cases, you can find creative accommodation options including boats, teepees, tent space, motorhomes, and more.
In most cases, here are the advantages of utilizing short-term rentals:
- You have cooking facilities and can save money (and hassle) on eating every meal out
- This also means you get to do your shopping at a local supermarket – a cultural experience unto itself
- You get to experience a slice of local life by living in a local home
- In the cases when the owner is on-site, you might experience a lovely cultural exchange and local hospitality
- Amenities often include washing machines (which can be a luxury for a weary traveler), decent WiFi, and linens/towels
- The prices range according to area and amenities, but generally speaking, prices are comparable to low/mid-range hotels. And with the added benefits of the kitchen and local amenities, you’ll come out on top with short-term rentals.
Short-Term Vacation Rental Websites
Short-term rentals are increasing in popularity, as are the websites that coordinate such exchanges. In fact, some parts of the world are in a bit of an uproar about short-term rental companies like (AirBnB) disrupting local economies.
I will reserve my personal opinion for another article, as it’s a touchy subject. For the purposes of this guide, let’s stick to the facts.
Here are the main short-term accommodation vacation rental players:
Finding Your Perfect Short-Term Accommodation / Vacation Rental
Although some hosts may cross-post their properties on multiple sites, for the most part you’ll get an entirely different selection of accommodation on each site. So look around, and use the search/filter functions to narrow down your preferred neighbourhood/size/cost/amenities so you can find the perfect place for your needs.
Also, read the reviews thoroughly. User reviews are vitally important to ensuring you know what you’re getting. When visiting Macau, I booked a place to stay through AirBnB. While there were some negative reviews on my ultimate choice, I ignored them, and ended up in a horrible windowless room with dirty sheets and pests and broken furniture, in a flat that was being shared with up to six other travelers with one of the most grotesque (shared) bathrooms I’d ever encountered. (I’m not the only one either; here are some other AirBnB horror stories courtesy of SilverDoor Apartments).
Part of the problem was that there were also some positive reviews, which “canceled out” the negative reviews in my mind. This is a mistake, because homeowners will sometimes “buy” positive reviews from guests. If there are multiple negative reviews, it usually warrants attention.
Lastly, do all your transactions and communications directly on the short-term rental site. There is a scam out there right now where homeowners will encourage you to pay them directly so as to circumvent AirBnB’s fees. Problem is, there is no recourse when you discover that there isn’t actually a place to rent, or that it’s not as advertised.
Renting an Apartment in Southeast Asia for a Fraction of What AirBnB Charges
Some parts of Southeast Asia are known for travelers and digital nomads who arrive and stay for weeks to months at a time. While this phenomenon and my instructions below may apply to other parts of the world, my experience is limited to Southeast Asia, so I will just speak to that.
What I discovered, is that short-term accommodation websites normally list massively inflated prices over what you would pay if you just arrived, stayed in a hotel for your first few nights, and pounded the pavement for a longer-term place to stay, in person.
In Chiang Mai, for example, I was flabbergasted when AirBnB was listing apartments for over $1,000 USD per month, while all my friends were boasting great places for well under half that price. So I waited until I was physically in Chiang Mai, and within a day of walking around, I found a fully decked-out condo in a great neighbourhood that cost me $400 USD per month, including internet, gym, pool, and more.
Want to learn the trick to finding a place like that as super cheap alternatives to hotels? Check out this post: How to Find An Apartment in Chiang Mai – which applies to way more than Chiang Mai. I used the same technique to find places in Hoi An and Koh Phangan as well.
Chapter 7: Accommodation for Digital Nomads
This chapter is a new addition to this article, now that remote work is the new black and people are taking to the road as digital nomads en masse.
Digital nomads and remote workers have more specialized accommodation needs than traveling counterparts who are just on vacation. Things like fast internet and ergonomically-friendly workspaces are key.
Liveable neighbourhoods are also important, since digital nomads tend to stay for a few months in a location.
Access to co-working spaces and a community of like-minded travelers is also important for many.
Companies and services are rising up to meet these needs in a variety of really interesting ways. Here is a list of articles and bookmark-worthy resources to get you started on this journey:
- How to Book Monthly Digital Nomad Accommodation (alternatives to AirBnB)
- Best Coliving Coworking Programs for Remote Workers and Digital Nomads
- Top Digital Nomad Retreats to Level Up Your Lifestyle
- 21 Local Coliving Spaces and Websites for Digital Nomads
- Best Digital Nomad Communities to Get Involved In
- …and a whole lot more of this kind of stuff here.
Chapter 8: How to Decide Where to Live as an Expat
Finding accommodation when you arrive somewhere is one thing, but if you’d like to move abroad in general and you’re not sure where to start, that’s another thing.
A Better Life for Half the Price
Are you thinking about moving abroad to a country where the cost of living is cheaper and the life is better? Then A Better Life for Half the Price is the book for you.
It’s written by Tim Leffel, award-winning writer, and author of Travel Writing 2.0, The World’s Cheapest Destinations and other blogs and books. He has lived in many countries all over the world and now lives in Mexico with his family.
In A Better Life for Half the Price, he interviews more than 50 expats living a variety of lives abroad in 25 countries. Through these personal experiences, he demonstrates how to live an extravagant life for less than $2,000/month (often much less).
It works on the principal of arbitrage, where you leverage a first-world income (either with a retirement pension, or income earned location independently in a strong currency). He also touches upon working abroad (such as Teaching English).
In addition to lots of general information and tips for moving abroad, the book features in-depth profiles of 18 different countries where it’s easy to live and you’ll spend half of what you do right now. Most of these countries are in Central/South America and Asia.
Each country profile starts with an overview of the pros and cons of living there, before going into specifics and advice from expats who live there.
Some of the things you’ll read about include:
- Good logistical information on how to prepare to move abroad (such as arranging your finances), also covering issues of safety, family considerations, and dealing with resistance.
- Tim doesn’t candy-coat anything; he shows both sides of the equation, including the downsides of living abroad, as well as the downsides of the specific countries profiled in the book.
- “How do you feel about super-cheap mangoes and super-expensive deodorant?” If you want special comforts or products that you’re used to from home, you’ll have to pay more for it abroad. Adaptability and local lifestyle choices are important if you want to live for half the price (or less).
- Advantages and disadvantages of living abroad as a family.
- Although this book is marginally slanted towards Americans with some references and resources that are specific to U.S. citizens, most of the information is applicable to everybody.
For more information:
A Better Life for Half the Price
- $22 for a PDF copy and extra reports
- $89 for the above + private FB group, insider’s newsletter, and access to recorded interviews
- $199 for the above + live webinars, conference calls, and two private coaching sessions
Whew! I told you this is a large article. And I far from covered off all the cool accommodation hacks and tips out there. Here’s what we did do:
I merely glazed over the five ways to get free accommodation (click here when you’re ready to dig deeper on that topic).
I touched on some experiential advice and cautionary tales so you can ensure your couch surfing, volunteer, or house-sitting experience is the best it can be.
I gave you criteria to decide if a hostel or hotel will best suit your needs and travel style.
I outlined the basics of short-term rentals, and let you in on some scams to be aware of.
I told you how to land a spiffy apartment for a fraction of what you’d pay through AirBnB.
I showed you where to go if you’re interested in researching where to move to as an expat.
Over to you! Do you have any cool accommodation tips and hacks for me? Please share in the comments!
FURTHER READING: How to Book Monthly Digital Nomad Accommodation (alternatives to AirBnB)
18 thoughts on “The Creative Guide to Free or Cheap Accommodation”
This is a good one!
This was very thorough and well thought out, thank you. Guess I’m a little naive, because the couch surfing for sex totally surprised me, who would have thought.
Definitely cemented our decision that since our retiree budget can afford it to do the short term rental route over volunteering, especially in the developing world, unless it’s an volunteer opportunity, that we’d like just for the experience.
Glad this article helped you choose which types of accommodation to shoot for! Depending on where you’re going and what your budget is, options can change.
For example, I myself tend to rent places in developing countries, and I look for free accommodation gigs (house-sitting, volunteering, etc) in more expensive countries.
Happy travel planning!
The resources are incredibly helpful! Thank you for this
Wow, wow, wow! This is so creative! Really impressed with your creativity you even improved over time!
Your part about hostel vs hotel is quite interesting. It is not always a clear decision, I absolutely agree. Before staying in the dirtiest place, a hotel or other type of accommodation could be a better choice. Yet, a hostel tends to be a more social place. Anyway, you already covered that!
Another consideration with hostels vs hotels is the country you’re in. In the U.S., for example, hostels aren’t on the whole quite as nice as in Europe – where many hostels cater to travelers of all ages (including families).
This post is full of new information. I like the idea of housesitting in other countries- seems like a great way to live like a local.
It is! House-sitting is awesome – often especially for families. 🙂
Another post-ful of goodies, thanks Nora! I’ve just wrapped up my most recent dog/house/plant-sitting gig, in Provence, France. Two dogs, two cats, a non-functioning pool, plants that shriveled under the brutal heat and a lovely house outside a super-quaint village. Despite the occasional unexpected downside (and dogs sometimes pooing in the house), it was the perfect place to hang out and finish writing my book. I’d vouch for house-sitting anytime! As for couchsurfing.. yes, that sex-bit is, as I just recently discovered (after 10 years on CS).. a THING. But if you’re careful and travel-savvy enough, you’ll pick up on it easily enough in the profiles. Happy travels on, girl 😉
I’m glad you found a good fit with house-sitting! Every gig is different, but certainly, if you’re looking for some simple downtime (to do something exciting like writing a book! Wheee!!!), and don’t mind the work involved with caring for animals, then it can be fabulous.
Sounds like you had an iffy couchsurfing experience. Eek!
I truly enjoyed this blog. Thank you for ALL the valuable tips and stories. I am a fairly new traveler, started in November 2014 traveling across America and now am overseas (mostly Europe) since June. I have had a variety of experiences with Workaway, couchsurfing, hostels, AirBnB and hotels. All have been good as I am very discerning with my choices. As you have wisely advised, be aware and make smart choices. Thank you, again. You are encouraging to us travelers and wannabes.
If you’ve been traveling since 2014, and living overseas since June, I’d say you’re out of the “new traveler” category! 😉
Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed my tips and info. And I’m even more glad that your experiences thus far have all been good!
About House Sitting: I’m surprised to see Housesittingworld included here, as it is not a house sitting platform, just a website with a small aggregator section. A far superior aggregator is Housesitsearch, with more platforms and advanced filters – and it is free! There are also country specific platforms and other smaller platforms that are worth visiting, though I don’t see them included in many places: Housesitmexico, Mindahome, Housesittingtasmania, kindredspiritshouse, amongst others.
Thanks for the great suggestions, Matt!
Thanks for such good information! I’m curious if you know how these would work with a child? I’d love to travel with my 4 year old daughter and she would love to milk a goat or be involved in other things like you suggested. Did you happen to see any children traveling to these places during your visits?
While I didn’t see many families at the places where I volunteered, I am aware that there are many places that accept children. It’s a matter of finding a place that’s a good fit for everybody.
First of all thanks for such a detailed overview. You have highlighted each and every point within this article, impressed with your creativity and way of catching things from the surrounding atmosphere.