When traveling, one of the biggest expenses is usually accommodations.
If you’re backpacking in Europe, you’ll likely find that hotels are out your price range—even budget ones usually cost at least $70 per night. Hostels could fit your budget better, but their prices vary greatly, with the minimum usually about $20 per night.
Fortunately, savvy travelers can find lodging that’s cheaper than this—or even free! As long as you do your research, maintain an open mind, and stay safety-conscious, you can stretch your cash by staying with locals. Here are different ways to do it.
Stay With Someone You Know
The most obvious one, right? On my first big Eurotrip, my friend and I planned most of our travels around where we would have a place to stay with people we know. Now that I’m back in Europe, I’ve met up and stayed with several people I met that previous trip. Because that’s the secret here: Make friends while traveling.
Two summers ago, I stayed for a night with a local resident I befriended in Berlin after I checked out of my hostel. She welcomed me into her home for a full week when I returned to Berlin this summer. This trip, I also stayed in a Berlin hostel for a few days, and then visited someone I met there, at his house outside London. Just be friendly and offer other travelers a place to stay with you if they ever make it to your home. They will likely do the same for you!
The international Couchsurfing network links travelers with local hosts who have a spare sleeping surface. You can request a place to stay by sending personalized messages to potential hosts. Network users fill out detailed profiles and review the other Couchsurfers they meet, in order for people to get an idea of other members’ personalities and past couch-surfing experiences.
Joining is technically free, but some hosts ask that surfers bring some small contribution to the household, like groceries for a shared meal or toilet paper. You can also spend $25 for an optional “verification” that supposedly improves your odds of getting accepted as a host or guest. However, most of the hosts I’ve stayed with weren’t verified—I relied on user reviews instead!
In my experience, the Couchsurfing philosophy is all about social and cultural exchange—it’s not the best for people who simply want a free bed when they come home from a long day of sightseeing. Couch hosts are also more likely to welcome other couch hosts, so if you want to surf, consider having travelers stay at your home first!
Several online networks facilitate homestays for travelers to take a “working holiday.” Organizations such as WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), HelpX, and Workaway match willing and able workers with hosts who need help during the day, in exchange for a place to sleep and some meals.
Members pay a small fee to join some of these sites, but it costs around the same amount as one or two nights in a hostel. Many of these volunteer exchanges have a minimum stay of about 2 weeks.
Again, this is not a typical tourist vacation option; however, for those looking for an interesting, immersive experience, a volunteer exchange is something to investigate. The most common type of working holiday is farm work, but other opportunities include working at a hostel, cooking for other volunteers, babysitting, website work, and much more.
Save A Few Bucks On Hostels
The arrangements above aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. If none of them is possible for you, I can offer one pro tip for getting a slightly cheaper night at a hostel: Do not use any of the popular hostel booking sites. These are all a bit more expensive than booking directly through the hostel’s personal website.
You can use these booking sites to find a hostel with available beds, but then book through the hostel website. You may need to send an email or make a phone call, which seems like more work, but it’s worth it if you want to save a few dollars!
How do you save on accommodations when traveling? Share your tips in the comments!