When you’re on the road for as long as we’ve been (and will be), you’ll quickly find that lodging is one of the most expensive buckets of your budget. So we’re going to share with you our favorite types of accommodation for long-term travel – particularly the free and nearly-free types that let us keep traveling longer (because that’s the end goal, right?).
Finding a place to sleep shouldn’t cost your entire life’s savings. Fortunately, in only four months traveling the world, our food expense surpassed our lodging. And this isn’t because we absolutely love food (though we do). Rather, it’s because we aren’t spending the money on hotels. Hey, we can’t always afford to stay at a resort!
Read on to discover our favorite programs, what they’re all about, what to watch out for, and how much you can save compared to hotels.
- The Usual Suspects (AKA: not free)
- Free or Mostly Free Lodging (AKA: our go-tos)
- Untested Free or Mostly Free Lodging (AKA: additional candidates)
- In conclusion
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The Usual Suspects (AKA: not free)
Let’s start with the ones you’ve probably heard of and likely pay for. While these aren’t free lodging options, they are our fall-backs for when the other choices don’t pan out (and these are still cheaper than hotels).
Most budget travelers will sing the praises of staying in hostels. You can meet very interesting people, cook as a community, play games, meet friends, and see the sights together. It can be a wonderful experience, and we think everyone should experience at least one hostel in their journey. Hostelworld is a great resource for finding, booking, and guaranteeing your hostel stays.
However, you are usually sharing a room with a dozen other people who might snore, keep odd hours, take forever in the bathroom, etc. Basically, it’s dorm life all over again! Nothing against that, of course – another necessary rite of passage. You also have to lock up your bags. And if you’re a couple (like us), you won’t get to sleep in the same bed unless you upgrade your room; you might not even get beds close to each other.
As more mature travelers, we have grown to appreciate our privacy. And unless you’re working in the kitchen in exchange for your bed, these aren’t free.
Depending on where you go, hostels can run about $20-30 USD per bed (in Europe). For a couple, this adds up very quickly. In fact, we have found that Airbnb is generally cheaper per night.
So far, we have only stayed in one hostel, but it was worth it. When we saw we could actually sleep in one of the famous Rotterdam Cube Houses, we knew it was a must. It set us back about $70 per night for the two of us, but we were willing to accept the splurge for the experience.
Sadly, it wasn’t quite what we were hoping. While the place is modern, and it’s fun to be inside the crooked walls, we didn’t get the hostel camaraderie we were expecting. We didn’t meet anyone in the common room (it felt awkward to try), and we didn’t really jive with the residents. To be honest, we felt a little old for the crowd and a bit put off by one of our roommates who insisted on ignoring us. Couchsurfing is more up our alley for connecting with others – more on that in a bit.
Later on during our trip, we did visit another hostel in Omis. While we didn’t stay there, we could see how this situation could be drastically different and much closer to our speed.
We’ll probably give them another shot in the future to show us their charm.
This needs little introduction, as it is probably one of the most well-known alternative lodging options out there. But in case you are unfamiliar, Airbnbs are effectively renting a room (sometimes more) from an individual owner.
Often, you’re sharing the space (common areas) with the resident. This can be cool or awkward. We stayed with some hosts who were very hands-off and left us to our business. Others laid out the local map (literally) moments after we arrived to point out all the sites we had to hit.
Many times, you’re sharing it with other renters. These are the ones that get on locals’ nerves because the owner buys up an entire building and rents out each room separately – often driving up local housing costs.
Occasionally, you get the place all to yourself. Depending on the unit, this can feel more like a hotel or an apartment. We like these when we can get them, but they aren’t always the most cost-effective.
This also greatly varies by location, but we usually see about $30-50 USD per night. As mentioned above, this is typically cheaper than hostels for more than one person ($40-60 for a couple). And while it’s more than we want to spend each night, it’s still almost always cheaper than the local hotels.
Airbnb is a great failsafe for when we have a gap in lodging and we need somewhere to sleep. However, it isn’t our first choice, as it can be expensive. The hosts have been great for the most part, though we’ve had some less-than-ideal rooms (a tiny cold room with a heart-shaped bed, an adjoining bathroom with no door, and an incessant mosquito). However, we tend to feel a little awkward with the more present hosts, not quite knowing what the expectations are regarding socializing when money is involved.
Free or Mostly Free Lodging (AKA: our go-tos)
Oh, we love free lodging. Surpassed only by transportation (flights, rental cars, trains, buses, etc.), accommodation racks up the most dollars fast. Every night we can stay free is a huge win. That’s why we love these.
Couchsurfing is becoming more of a well-known concept amongst travelers, and it is by far the program we use the most (though it’s not quite our top pick – keep reading!).
The premise is simple: locals invite you into their home where you can crash for free. Most times, we’ve had a real bed in a separate room, but sometimes it’s a literal couch. It is entirely review-based, and they take safety very seriously, so you never need to feel uncomfortable with your stay.
If you’re looking for a genuine cultural immersion experience, couchsurfing is a great way to get it! #freelodging #travelhacks #budgettravelTweet
The beauty of this program is the interactions with your hosts (or guests). If you’re feeling recluse or want your own bathroom, this likely isn’t the best option. But if you’re looking for genuine cultural immersion, this truly is the best place to get it. Hosts will give you legitimate insider tips on whatever city you’re visiting and share with you their own amazing stories of their own travels or of other guests. Some will even personally show you around their cities, drive you to local attractions, and cook for you!
Possibly our all-time favorite cultural experience was had through couchsurfing in Santiago, Chile. This all depends on the host, of course, but these connections are invaluable. And this is on top of free lodging.
Couchsurfing used to be free to join, but they now require a subscription. As of the time of this writing, it’s about $3 USD per month or about $15 per year (which is stupid cheap and well worth what you get in return).
It’s also beneficial to be a “verified” account. This prioritizes your profile in searches and makes you look more credible to potential hosts (and proves you’re really who you say you are). Some cities can be quite demanding on hosts, so it’s really helpful to stand out. $60 will get you lifetime verification.
We have both hosted and been hosted, and almost every encounter has been absolutely stellar. So many people are amazingly generous (sometimes to a fault), some even giving us their own bed to sleep in. We even had one who misread the dates, but refused to go back on his commitment. He let us stay in his apartment while he was away on vacation!
As hosts back home, guests have treated us to the most unique experiences (a couple even taught us how to drink like a Russian!), and we’ve eaten some of the most mouthwatering authentic cuisine we’d never find in a restaurant. We’ve taken guests on crazy local hikes and all the way to our beautiful coast. On the road, hosts have helped us with local transit systems and pointed us to parks we might have otherwise completely missed!
Some of the most memorable experiences have been with fellow Couchsurfers. And where we missed the camaraderie at the hostel, we’ve gotten it in surplus via Couchsurfing.
- Be sure to pay attention to search filters when browsing for hosts. For example, we are non-smokers and highly sensitive to cigarette smoke. Therefore, we watch out for hosts who allow smoking in the home (especially common in Europe).
- Pay attention to reviews, as this will be your indicator of what kind of host you might get. We have never felt unsafe in any of our stays (or hostings).
- Watch out for single men who only host single women (look at who’s reviewing them). If you’re a single female, these hosts are possibly using the platform as a quasi-dating app (yeah, that’s sadly a thing), and that’s probably not what you want to sign up for (unless it is). If you aren’t, it’s not worth the effort of applying as he likely won’t respond anyway.
- Definitely host before your travels, if you can. This is the best way to build up references on the system and be more trustworthy on the road. Some hosts will only consider travelers who have also hosted.
- See more tips on how to master Couchsurfing here.
“Servas” is Esperanto for “we serve,” and that forms the foundation of their mission: to foster world peace through travel. It is similar to Couchsurfing, but it has more regulations on who joins and how stays are conducted. While Couchsurfing stays are fairly flexible in duration and expectations, Servas is fairly well-defined.
Applicants have to go through an interview process with a local representative, but it’s really not bad. Knowing everyone in the program has gone through this really adds to the trust, and you’ll know exactly what to expect in requesting a stay.
Stays are two days – no more, no less – time for cultural exchange without wearing out your welcome. The first night is usually getting to know each other, while the second allows for more in-depth conversations. Hosts can offer a longer stay, but that’s entirely up to them.
Hosts are expected to cook at least dinner for their guests; most provide more. Guests are expected to bring a small gift from their home. The focus really is on cultural exchange, so it can feel slightly more regulated/scripted.
This is usually a much older crowd, as it was started just after WWII, and there is no app for it (yet). This is a bit more old-school with online host lists for each country (used to be physical books that would get mailed around), but it’s a good alternative when Couchsurfing proves difficult.
Unlike many other things, the price of membership has actually decreased significantly since we initially joined (probably due to the pandemic). Annual membership is $33 USD per person per year, and each traveler should have a profile (while it’s more acceptable for Couchsurfing couples to share a profile). This easily pays for itself after a single stay.
This has really been a mixed bag. While everyone has been really kind and generous, we just don’t tend to connect as easily with this group as we do with Couchsurfing (partially because of the generational gap).
One host couple treated us to authentic Portuguese food, and we swapped YouTube music videos until midnight each day. With another, we seemed to get on better with her cat. And with a third, we connected so well that they invited us to stay as long as we wanted and even wanted to come travel with us later in our journey!
Overall, I think Couchsurfing is more our speed, but we enjoy Servas as well when we have some smaller gaps in our accommodation.
Read more about Servas and our experiences here!
While we did camp on our round-the-world trip, it certainly was nowhere near free. But that was because it was Africa, we rented a very expensive (and very worth-it) 4×4 camping truck, and we stayed at established campgrounds.
However, it is certainly possible to camp for super-cheap (or free). This is how we saved loads of money in one of the most expensive countries in the world: Norway. And we’ll absolutely do it again!
The downside, of course, is the need for equipment. If you are backpacking, then this is no issue, as you’ll already have what you need. But if you like to travel indefinitely with nothing but carry-on (like we do), you might need to rent. Depending on where you go and how popular the activity, costs can vary.
This also limits you by seasonality. Unless you’re a hardcore camper, you probably won’t much enjoy camping out in the snow in Switzerland for Christmas.
This is highly dependent on location and season. Most of the cost will be in equipment rental (if you need it) and the campgrounds themselves. The former can run from $13-25 USD per day (in South America), and the latter can be around $10-30 per person per night.
However, if you’re in a place like Norway where you can camp anywhere, skip the amenities of a campground, and wild-camp for free.
Camping is a great option in a region like Patagonia (if you want to cut down on costs) and other backpacker hotspots.
Camping in Africa was not free, but we’re ok with that. We were quite comfortable in our truck, and we liked the convenience of the setup/teardown. It was also good to have the peace of mind being “out of reach” of any potential wildlife.
Camping in Norway was an entirely different experience, and it’s what made the expensive country possible. We stuck to the campgrounds for the comfort, but we could have absolutely cut down further on costs by wild-camping.
We do love to camp, as we enjoy reconnecting with the wonders of nature, but it’s also refreshing to have a real, hot shower and an actual bed, so it’ll never be our first choice indefinitely.
This is our favorite, particularly for long-term travel. With TrustedHousesitters, people around the world ask travelers to come stay in their homes to watch their pets while they’re away on vacation. No money is exchanged between individuals. Residents get a free live-in pet-sitter; travelers get free lodging.
These are usually at least a long weekend, more commonly a couple weeks; sometimes a month or more (think about how long typical vacations are). Most of the ones we’ve done have been about a week or two. We usually like to arrive a day early for a sit to meet the homeowner and ensure a smooth handover.
We love this because we get to explore places at a slower pace, and we love spending time with kitties while we miss ours at home. This obviously lacks the cultural exchange of Couchsurfing or Servas (but we get some of this with the extra initial night), but we also don’t have the expectation of socializing every day. Introverts rejoice! We get our own place to ground for a while. And what better way than with a purring kitty in our laps?
This option is perfect for any pet lovers. Long-term traveling, its the one thing I really can’t get enough of: time with kitties. The app conveniently lets you filter by preferred pet – dogs, cats, fish, rabbits, or even none – so you can be selective in which animals you care for (we obviously have a preference :3).
Housesitting is one of the best ways to travel, because both parties feel the other is doing them a huge favor, so you never feel like you’re imposing! #freelodging #smarttraveltips #budgettravelTweet
And best part: both parties feel the other is doing them a huge favor, so you never feel like you’re imposing! Hosts often stock the kitchen with staples to help you through the stay, they leave recommendations for their city, and some even loan you their car. The entire arrangement truly is a win-win (as long as you really love the pets you’re caring for – which we do!).
At the time of this writing, the program costs about $129 per year to join, but a single multi-night sit more than pays for it. We’ve had no trouble sharing a profile, as we travel together.
This is our favorite for a reason – cats! ..well, more than that, but that’s a huge part! Some cats require more care than others (elderly, for example), and some kittens can be absolute terrors to your “quiet time.” But we accept that as part of the exchange. Overall, we love spending time with the kitties, taking pictures of them, and sharing updates with their humans.
Most have been extremely generous, picking us up at the airport/bus station, treating us to dinner the night before, leaving care packages, or keeping their orange juice deliveries active for us. They give us a full “welcome packet” with all the info on the care of their pets and house, so there’s no confusion on how much food to give or the pets’ temperaments.
And we love having a place to ourselves for a bit. Long-term travel requires balance in rest and activity. As go-go-go-go-go travelers, this forces us to slow down. We actually look forward to the quiet. And we get to cuddle kitties.
We only had one instance where the sit didn’t go entirely to plan. Shortly after we arrived, the kitty fell ill, and we couldn’t reach his humans (who were in China). We didn’t have his vet info, so we took him to the closest one where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. He then required daily antibiotic injections (which required we drive him into town, 20 minutes away, every day). It put a bit of a damper on our travel plans in the area, but the owners were so happy to hear how well he was cared for in their absence. Remember that while we love the free lodging aspect, this is also a real responsibility.
- Be as thorough in your profile as you can. People want to know why you’ll be the best pick for their pets. They need to know they can trust you with their furbabies.
- Don’t neglect distance to local attractions, bus stations, etc. When we first started, we were so excited to get sits that we’d go anywhere.. later realizing that some places are easier to get to than others. Make sure you actually want to go there.
- Really focus your efforts on the listings marked “new” or where you see there are fewer applicants (the app will give you applicant count estimates). These likely haven’t found their sitters yet, and you’ll have a better chance.
- Personalize your applications, and try to not copy/paste (trust me, you will mention the wrong cats’ names). Really read their listing, and if they have them, read other sitters’ reviews for things to which you can relate. For example, if you love to sleep with kitties on your bed, and they mention the cats will cry at the door if locked out, highlight that as something you love about the opportunity. If you have experience with administering medicine, mention that when they say they have an older cat with diabetes.
When housesitting, set yourself apart by doing something special for the hosts. Leave them a meal or a gift from your home. This will help secure a positive review, which leads to more sits! #travelprotips #freelodging #travelonabudgetTweet
- Be prepared to video chat with the hosts. Most like to do this before they’ll even offer you the sit to get to know you a bit and to physically show you their place and pets. Have Skype, WhatsApp, Zoom, or Facetime installed on your device, and know your way around it prior to the call (you really don’t want to give an unprofessional first impression). Be on time, and be certain you have a strong connection to support video.
- Once you’ve secured a sit, don’t let your hosts leave without knowing their preferred local vet. Also make sure to get a contact for a local 24-hour emergency vet. This is not information you want to scramble for if a pet under your care suddenly needs medical attention.
- Provide lots of updates and certainly send pictures – pet owners love lots of pictures (trust me, we do!).
- We also love to do a little something special for our hosts. I’m a photographer, so I love taking some professional-quality photos of their cats and actually printing them (sending digital photos lacks that personal touch). I’ve heard other sitters will cook a meal for their host to come home to (nice to know you don’t need to cook after a long day of travel back home). Doing something like this really makes you stand out and helps ensure a positive review (which helps with getting future sits). But it’s also really appreciated and gives us the warm fuzzies!
There are also several programs that will actually pay you to come sit for them! However, these are usually a bit harder to coordinate with travel, as homeowners usually approach sitters (rather than the other way around), and they tend to encourage more ongoing client relationships rather than passing-through one-offs.
If you’re more of a cat lover (like us!), you could check out Meowtel, but they’re currently only in the States.
We are sitters for both programs. We personally prefer Meowtel (for obvious reasons), but it’s good to have options.
Like petsitting exchange programs, be sure to research the country you’re visiting for any domestic programs.
Untested Free or Mostly Free Lodging (AKA: additional candidates)
We know there are so many other options out there, but we just haven’t had an opportunity to test them out just yet. If and when we do, we’ll be sure to update this post!
Similar to Couchsurfing
Couchsurfing is actually a for-profit application, and many feel this goes against the vibe of a hospitality exchange. These are alternatives that are all non-profit:
- BeWelcome – mostly geared toward hitchhikers (though open to all travelers)
- TrustRoots – strictly no reviews (all based on trust); members are invited by other members
- WarmShowers – specifically for bicycling travelers
- Welcome to my Garden – for sustainable backpackers transiting by eco-friendly means and wanting to camp in hosts’ gardens
- Couchers – attempting to replace Couchsurfing as a “free forever,” community-led (though much smaller) program
- Host A Sister – an alternative for female travelers (just a Facebook group at this time)
- LGHEI – (pronounced “elle-gay”) a rainbow-friendly free lodging exchange
This site includes a few helpful charts comparing these and more, though it might be biased toward TrustRoots.
Work exchange sites
These aren’t exactly free, as travelers exchange work for lodging (and most websites have registration fees), but they’re free in the sense that no money is involved between hosts and travelers. And it’s a great way to give back to the community.
- Workaway – probably the most well-established/well-known; variety of volunteer work available
- WWOOF – “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms” (as it sounds, working on a farm); memberships are regional (so not the best option if you’re traveling the world like we do)
- HelpX – very similar to Workaway in the variety of opportunities
- TeachSurfing – partners travelers with schools and organizations seeking teachers of various skills
- Worldpackers – more prevalent in South America; hosts are verified, and they’ll actually put you up in a local hostel if you have a problem with your host
- HippoHelp – one of the few that’s actually free to join; relatively new, but a great introduction to work exchange without paying anything
- Working Traveller – matches your skills with odd jobs and projects you can do for hosts
This is a pretty good comparison of the most popular work exchange programs.
Similar to TrustedHousesitters
Honestly, TrustedHousesitters could be considered a form of work exchange, but house/pet-sitting really is it’s own category, and there are others if this appeals to you. Note that the main drawback is they’re mostly only available in Europe, The U.S., Canada, and Australia, though many countries have their own domestic programs.
- HouseCarers – first established in Australia in 2000
- Nomador – also includes a “stopover” option for cultural exchange much like Couchsurfing, but with pets!
- HouseSit Match – a much smaller program (with a greater chance for matches)
- MindMyHouse – more about housesitting than petsitting and one of the cheapest on the market at just $29/year for sitters and free for homeowners
Check out this helpful comparison of the different options from someone who’s vetted them.
Home exchange programs
Note, these are really only an option if you are a homeowner. As we are not, this type isn’t something we would consider.
- Home Exchange – a straight-up home exchange program, The Holiday style
- Love Home Swap – uses a point system for better flexibility in swaps
- Intervac – also offers rentals as well as asynchronous swaps
- Switchhome – one of the few completely free swap programs
This is a good resource for a comparison and more options.
There are so many different ways to travel. Do you want to focus on the people? Want a place to yourself? Prefer to give back and help others? No matter what most appeals to you, you’re sure to find a plethora of options aside from a boring, expensive hotel.
What kinds of places do you tend to prefer? Hotels, Airbnb, housesitting, or something else?
Psst… looking for more free things for your travels? You might also enjoy these resources:
- Free Walking Tours – All You Need to Know
- Top 5 Unusual Travel Budget Tricks
- 32 Actually Awesome Free Digital Tours
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