7 smart ways to find cheap accommodation including volunteer work abroad, free hotel stays, free camping sites, and more.
One of the biggest expenses associated with travel is accommodation. A stay in a hotel or even a hostel can easily cost more than $100 per night and take out the largest chunk from your travel budget, after paying for flights.
As someone who has traveled frequently for the past six years and to over 60 countries, I am always looking for ways to save money. Thanks to these travel hacks, I rarely ever pay the full price for accommodation and sometimes even get a free hotel stay. This means that I can travel to more places or spend longer in destinations for the same amount.
Here are the methods that I use to find cheap and free accommodation.
1. Volunteer work abroad for free food and housing
What if I told you that you could get free travel accommodation by only working a few hours a day? The idea of an exchange of goods or services is not new, however, there are now websites that make these transactions even easier to find.
The most commonly known platforms are Help X, Workaway, and WOOFing. Each of these usually has a yearly subscription fee but once you sign up, you can then browse for exchange opportunities in the location of your choice. I used another platform called Worldpackers, to complete a work exchange in Barcelona. I spent two weeks taking photos of a hostel in exchange for accommodation and some meals.
Alternatively, you can search for exchanges using the old-fashioned way by contacting the host directly. We all have skills that can be valuable to others. Consider your own experience and what could be useful for an accommodation provider then get in touch with them to see if they are interested in the offer.
Jobs can range from manual tasks (such as cleaning and construction) through to experienced (such as website design and photography). Depending on the level of skill required, each job will have different requirements and provisions. The higher the skill level, the fewer hours you will need to contribute and the more you can expect to receive in return e.g. meals, drinks, activities, etc. It is important to note that as these are exchanges, usually no money is paid and it is up to you to secure the correct visa for that country.
2. Free hotel stay with airline points
If you participate in any points programs (hotel or air miles) then you may be able to redeem these points for a stay in a hotel. When visiting Portland, Oregon I used my American Airlines frequent flyer points to pay for a two nights stay in a 3-star hotel with no extra cost for tax or fees.
Before choosing this option, I would recommend considering the value of the points as there may be better ways to spend them, for example, flights with a greater monetary value.
3. Alternative accommodation websites (free nights with Airbnb)
For long-term stays (3 nights or more) I like to use Airbnb. This is a great concept where you pay to stay in a local’s home. Depending on your budget and level of comfort, you can rent a whole house, private or shared room. For my first month in Vancouver, I rented a master bedroom with en-suite through Airbnb. It was great because it’s fully furnished and the utilities are included in the costs. I received a discounted rate because I booked for a whole month.
Airbnb also has a program that lets you earn credits towards your next stay when you refer friends or family. They receive credit by signing up and you also receive one. By using my Airbnb credits, my boyfriend and I spent four nights in an Airbnb in Valparaiso, Chile for free.
Most Airbnb property profiles are filled out in full, however, you can also read references left by previous guests to get a better idea of the owners and the property. As with the booking sites, check for additional fees before booking.
4. Free travel accommodation with Couchsurfing
Hospitality exchange websites like Couchsurfing, BeWelcome, and Warmshowers are more than just about a free place to stay. It is an opportunity to have a cultural experience where you will spend time with and get to know your hosts.
Since 2010, I have used Couchsurfing to host over 20 surfers, stay with over 30 hosts, and make countless friends all around the world. Most recently, Max and I spent three nights Couchsurfing with a fun Chilean couple in their gorgeous apartment. We shared meals, wine, and lots of stories together.
5. Discount and budget hotel websites
Last-minute booking sites will often give great discounts on hotels. In the US, I mainly use Priceline or Hotwire, however, I’ll still shop around at other websites to see if I can find a better deal. By using this method, I was able to stay in a luxurious hotel on the Vegas strip for a fraction of the normal price.
I also like Booking.com because it’s easy to use and usually has a flexible change and cancellation policy (check before you book). When you use Booking, you can accrue points as part of your “Genius” membership for discounts, upgrades, and perks like complimentary breakfast. Recently, I received a 40% discount on a 2-star hotel which saved me over $100 USD.
When using booking sites, always make sure you check for additional cleaning fees, resort charges, and taxes which may not be included the initial listed price.
6. Look for free camping and RV sites
Camping is one of the most wonderful ways to experience the wilderness while traveling. Many countries around the world offer free wilderness camping such as Norway, Sweden, Kyrgyzstan, Scotland, Iceland, Estonia, Finland, Mongolia, and Turkey.
For other countries, they may have designated free camping spots. In the US, you can search on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and in Australia you can use the Wiki Camps app. Camping in national parks will often have a nightly fee attached however it’s a small price to pay to experience the wonder of being close to nature.
Rent an RV (also known as a camper van) for the ultimate freedom while traveling. Not only will you have your own set of wheels, but also a bed and cooking implements. This can help you save money on accommodation and eating out.
7. Staying with friends and family
This might seem super obvious but have you really thought about leveraging your connections while traveling? For my 5-week backpacking trip around Europe, I planned my entire itinerary based on where my friends were living.
The key to making this work is asking in advance and being clear that you actually want to stay with them. If you’re vague, there is a chance that they won’t realize they are hosting you, and not just showing you around.
It helps if you’ve hosted these friends or acquaintances before (this is also where Couchsurfing comes in handy!) so you know already if you get along living in the same space. Staying with friends and family is a huge benefit, not only in saving money on accommodation but also having a local to give you money-saving tips while you’re in their home town.
How do you find travel accommodation? Tell us about it below!