I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve been traveling full-time for the past decade and can count on one hand the number of times I’ve paid for accommodations.
I’m a 59-year-old American woman who likes cushy digs. They don’t need to be fancy, but I no longer trek down the hall to a shared bathroom. Here are my top tips for securing free accommodations:
1. Volunteer For An Immersive English-Language Program
Spend a week chatting with Europeans who need to polish their English skills. You don’t need any training in teaching English, and you’ll receive free accommodations and meals at quirky locations. I spent one of the most fun weeks I’ve ever had at a gorgeous hotel in Aranjuez, Spain, helping Spaniards perfect their English. I was so moved by how hard they worked!
Upside: Great networking, not just among the Spaniards, but among the other volunteers who hailed from around the world.
Downside: It’s not a free ride. I worked hard that week, with days starting at 9 a.m. for conversational breakfasts and stretching into the evenings for group exercises.
Check Out: “The Rich Rewards Of Volunteering Abroad As An English Immersion Facilitator” by fellow TravelAwaits writer Penny Zibula. It includes company-specific recommendations!
Note: Some of these programs require an administration fee.
2. Care For Someone’s Pets
My go-to choice for no-cost accommodations is pet sitting, where I care for someone else’s home and pets while they travel. I’ve housesat in 19 countries during the last decade -- from Mexico to Mozambique, from South Korea to Southern California. Housesitting gives me a chance to live like a “local” and become part of a community.
Upside: I love the pets! I also enjoy meeting the homeowners’ friends. While housesitting in Reunion, a French island in the Indian Ocean, a new friend took me snorkeling with a baby humpback whale!
Downside: It’s a big responsibility to care for someone else’s home and pets -- and sometimes those responsibilities trump tourist plans.
Check Out: Trusted Housesitters, HouseSit Match, or country-specific sites such as HouseSit Mexico. Plus my book How to Become a Housesitter: Insider Tips from the HouseSit Diva.
Note: Be sure to schedule a video chat with a homeowner before agreeing to the housesit. Ask for a tour of the home, and be sure to learn about all the pets’ requirements and habits.
3. Be A Guest
Couchsurfing conjures an image of scroungy backpackers crashing on grungy couches. But that couldn’t be further from the truth! I “couchsurfed” in Memphis and Nashville during a cross-country road trip and found myself in comfortable guest rooms with lockable doors. Each host was welcoming and enthusiastic about showing off their hometown.
Upside: It’s fun to tour off-the-beaten-path places with locals!
Downside: You are a guest in someone’s home, so that means arriving at a reasonable hour and being respectful of their schedules.
Note: Generally, guests stay for only a night or two, so this is limited to shorter visits. For your own safety, be sure to research your host (online reviews, etc.) ahead of time.
4. Connect Based On Your Interests
I haven’t engaged with Servas, the international hosting program that was founded to promote peace and social justice, but my friend Rita Golden Gelman, author of Tales of a Female Nomad, swears by it. She loves the ability to connect with locals who are as passionate about promoting peace as she is. Other homestay programs are geared toward traveling cyclists, hitchhikers, or journalists.
Upside: Unbeatable opportunity to meet local people whose interests match yours.
Downside: You are a full-on guest in a stranger’s home, expected to interact. That might be too much for some travelers who might wish to be more independent.
There are many worldwide volunteer programs that offer free accommodations and meals in exchange for part-time work -- usually conservation work, farming, or hospitality support. Sometimes, the work requirements can leave little free time to explore. But they also can provide unforgettable experiences. When organizing a trip to Madagascar, I volunteered for an organization in Nosy Be that rebuilds coral reefs. I’m an avid diver, and the thought of learning to plant coral was quite alluring. My accommodations were a bit rough, but the meals were “local” and plentiful, and the diving was superb. Plus, I learned how to grow coral reefs!
Upside: Giving back to communities. Learning new skills and meeting other interesting volunteers.
Downside: Accommodations might be a bit rustic, schedules might be quite regimented, and the work might be very physical, leaving little time or energy to sightsee.
Note: Some volunteer-travel programs are quite pricey, requiring the volunteer to make a substantial payment in order to participate.
6. Post On Social Media
As a journalist, I wanted to cover the 70th commemorations of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By the time I organized my trip, every possible accommodation was gone. No hotels, motels, AirBnBs -- not even a park bench was available.
I posted my lament on Facebook. One of my “friends,” a woman I have never met in person, tagged a Japanese “friend” of hers who lived in New Jersey. The New Jersey woman tagged a former English student of hers, a Japanese woman who lived in Nagasaki. Incredibly, the Nagasaki woman invited me to stay in her home for two nights.
This story gets better: The Nagasaki woman met me at the train station and invited me to dine with her family. I smile when I remember “reading” a Japanese book to her two young children -- I made up a story in English based on the pictures. They cracked up. We all cracked up. And the woman arranged for me to visit the school in Nagasaki that was at “Ground Zero” of the horrific, unnecessary attack. The school is not open to journalists, but this local woman made my visit possible. I heard schoolchildren sing peace songs, saw their paintings imploring peace, and watched them react to the searing videos of the bombing. I could not have imagined a more impactful or immersive experience.
Upside: A social media connection might just lead to free accommodations!
Downside: Some people have security concerns about posting their travel plans so publicly.
7. Engage Your Professional Network
Prior to that same trip to Japan, I emailed the editor of Hiroshima’s English-language magazine (I often write for an expat magazine in Mexico) to ask if he could spread the word that I needed accommodations. I was shocked when he replied that he and his family were willing to host me. It turned out to be an extraordinary homestay. I really hit it off with his kids, and he invited me to events I would never have discovered on my own, as they were events he was covering for his magazine. One such event was an exhibit of photographs of clothing that people had been wearing when the bomb killed them.
Upside: An opportunity to expand professional opportunities.
Downside: Staying in someone’s home who may not be used to hosting strangers.
8. Network Among Expats
To make those overnight trips to Hiroshima and Nagasaki possible, I knew I’d need a steady place somewhere in Japan to base myself. I posted a notice in expat forums and Facebook groups. I got some fantastic travel tips -- and one offer to have me care for two semi-feral cats in Osaka that would allow me to be gone for a few days at a time. Expats love to travel, and they’ve often adopted stray pets that need to be cared for!
Upside: You get valuable tips from a former outsider on how to experience their city.
Downside: You might end up in an expat “bubble,” missing a more immersive experience.
Check Out: InterNations, websites of American universities
9. Get In The Spirit
Monasteries, temples, and convents throughout the world offer free or inexpensive accommodations, sometimes in exchange for work. They are tough to find, but here’s a list of region-specific guidebooks. Often, the accommodations include meals shared with the monks or nuns.
Upside: Provides a unique immersion into the lives of monks and nuns.
Downside: Rooms are spartan, and sometimes strict curfews are enforced.
10. Exchange Your Home For Another
Back when we still used postage stamps to convey long-distance communication, I exchanged my studio apartment in Los Angeles for a bedsit in Paris. I stayed in Paris six weeks -- for free! I loved having my own kitchen and crash space for a traveling friend. This is an especially great option for families.
Upside: You truly have a “home away from home!”
Downside: You need to find a comparable traveler who lives in a place you want to visit and who wants to visit your location -- at the same time.
Note: Most of the home exchange web sites charge a fee to join, but the accommodation exchange is rent-free.
11. Barter Your Skills For Housing
If you have a special skill you can teach your host (playing guitar, cooking, learning a new language), you can create your own personalized homestay, arranged directly with the host.
Upside: Unlike some of the more formal “work away” programs, these are more flexible, based on the guest’s and host’s individual needs.
Downside: Without that formality, misunderstandings -- complicated, perhaps, by language or cultural differences -- can occur. Always have a plan B!
Note: Some web sites collect a fee to join.
12. Hop On A Boat
If being on the water floats your boat, then crewing in exchange for bunk space might be perfect for you. Captains need volunteers to help with cooking, maintenance, and guest support.
Upside: Enjoy the seas!
Downside: If it’s not an experience you expected, there’s no escaping.
Note: Some captains require prior boating experience, so read the fine print carefully.