Finding cheap accommodation or free lodging for travel: Busbud’s full guide to saving money
So you’re finally taking that well-deserved trip. You’ve saved your money and bought a bus ticket. But you’re hit with a dilemma that many travelers have to confront: where to stay to maximize your travel budget?
If you stay in a classic hotel, accommodation can set you back a hefty sum, costing at least 700 USD to 1000 USD a week, and we’re not even talking luxurious amenities. With smart thinking, some planning and useful expert tips (this is where we come in), you can bring that WAY down … by half, or even down to zero.
Read on and learn how to get the cheapest accommodation or even surf on free lodging for the duration of your trip.
Free places to stay & cheap accommodation: our top 10 tips
Budget accommodation doesn’t necessarily mean uncomfortable, dirty or deprived of intimacy. To help you figure out what’s the best fit for you, we’ve highlighted a few facts for each of the 10 options listed below.
1. Couchsurf or experience a homestay
Couchsurfing, Hospitality Exchange or Homestay: all you need to know
You may be reluctant to sleep on a stranger’s couch, but by browsing the Couchsurfing website, one of the biggest and most active online communities in this domain, you can find host profiles with reviews by other couchsurfers. On top of that, you get to meet locals, which is one of the best ways to get to know a city. Oh—and COUCHsurfing doesn’t mean you’ll literally be sleeping out on a sofa… Some hosts offer a full guest bedroom!
Is Couchsurfing free?
Yes, 100% free! Hosts shouldn’t ask for money, and guests shouldn’t offer any. So, what’s in it for the hosts? Well, these generous souls are usually looking to connect with people from around the world and share their local culture. They are usually interested in providing more than a couch for the night, so consider this as you approach them via email. Showing interest in them and their city will increase your chances of establishing trust and connecting with potential hosts. What’s more, they’re usually travelers themselves as well, so who knows? On top of scoring a free homestay, you might find a new travel buddy!
Is Couchsurfing safe?
Couchsurfing has been up and running for quite some time now and the Couchsurfing website has set up various security steps to ensure your experience is as positive as can be. These include:
- User verification.
- Ratings and user comments.
If you’re curious about hospitality exchanges, you can also try being a host first, and experience it from the other point of view!
> Couchsurfing tips
- Look for a full profile. You should be able to find out more about the person and see a photo of the host. If the person is taking this project seriously and has taken the time to fill out their couchsurfer profile, chances are that the user is active and has experience. With that in mind, apply these rules to yourself too! If you want your potential host to trust you, you’ll want to take the time to present yourself, include one or preferably more current profile pictures and rack up a few positive reviews.
- Read the reviews. This will tell you a lot about the person you’re about to meet and you’ll most likely detect any potential problems through reviews. If there are no comments, skip it.
- Bonus points for verification. If you’re a rather prudent traveler, opt for a verified host. This simply means that Couchsurfing has verified the user’s identity by validating ID or credit card info. It’s extra safety points, but if the reviews are good, you could let this one go.
- Chat with your potential host beforehand. Chatting up your host through a few emails before you confirm your stay will help you get a sense of who you’re dealing with and will help you evaluate if the fit is right.
> Pros and cons of Couchsurfing.
- Pros: Trusting a stranger and discovering a new place and culture will leave you more open-minded. You’ll most likely be invited to places you’d have never discovered otherwise and meet lots of great people! If you’re traveling to a country with a language you hope to learn, it’s something to try, as they’re no better way to learn than living in another language!
- Cons: You may not get along very well with your host—in which case your stay may not be as pleasant as you hoped. But hey, no one’s forcing you to stay, you can just couch hop onto your next destination!
Want more options? Here are more websites like Couchsurfing.
- Homestays. Similar to Couchsurfing, homestays allow you to stay at a local’s home while you’re traveling, but there’s an added element of interaction. You’re encouraged to spend time together so you can learn more about your host’s lifestyle and customs, which might be strikingly different if you’re visiting from another country!
- Warm Showers
- Hospitality Club
- Global Freeloaders
2. Do a farmstay or opt for a work exchange
Cost: free or <50 USD
Similar to a homestay, you experience your host’s lifestyle and customs up close in a farmstay, but instead of simply sharing meals, you pitch in with the household chores by feeding livestock or working in a vineyard.
> Insider tips for your farmstay
If you can, select an organic farm, although you may not be doing this all your life, pesticides can be harmful to your health, so you’ll want to make sure you work under the best possible conditions!
> Pros and cons of farmstays
- Pros: Great if you love nature and the outdoors. You’ll gain precious insight on farming and perhaps even discover a new passion! Plus, people on farms are usually friendly and laid-back. And you’ll get to drink delicious wines and enjoy loads of fresh goods, perhaps even harvested with your own hands!
- Cons: If you suffer from allergies, you might want to avoid the farm altogether with all the hay and animals.
Websites: If you want to pick up some handy life skills, check out WWOOF, which sets up volunteers with organic farms around the world. Other websites, such as Farm Stay UK, Farm Stay US and Farm Stay Australia are also worth checking out!
Cost: free or <30 USD
Instead of paying for lodging, why not work for accommodation? Similar to farm staying, work exchanges entail you work in exchange for housing. Various organizations across the world are set up with exciting volunteer opportunities. Not only is this useful because it gives you a glimpse into the local culture, but it’s also a great way to acquire new skills and meet new people. These opportunities include schools, shelters, lodges, ranches, sailboats … and you can even work in hostels for free accommodation.
> Work for accommodation: insider tip
Make sure the commitment is clear and you know what will be expected of you in terms of tasks and schedule. Don’t forget to ask if meals are at your charge or if they are included in the deal.
> Pros and cons of free housing in exchange for work
- Pros: An amazing opportunity to learn a new skill!
- Cons: Some organizations charge a small lodging fee anyways, so you’ll get low-cost accommodation, but it won’t be completely free of charge.
Websites: WWOOF, WorkAway, HelpX, Worldpackers, Hippo Help, Help Stay and Nomads Station.
3. Check out hostels
Cost: <40 USD
The deal about hostels
As long as you don’t mind giving up some privacy, hostels are an excellent way to save money. Also referred to as a backpacker hostel, this cheap accommodation solution offers various options, ranging from a shared dorm to a basic private hostel room. It’s often a fun way to meet other travelers and have a party crew ready for nights out exploring. It’s also a great solution if you’re traveling with friends!
Are hostels only for young travelers?
They are often considered as such, but they’re not, even if they’re sometimes called youth hostels! Sure, your dormitory days may be over, but most hostels offer various types of rooms and not all come with their reputation of being dirty and crowded with loud raucous parties! If you opt for a hostel, you’ll most likely meet people of all ages, from teenagers to seniors. And surprisingly, you’ll notice that many hostels are in fact, much more comfortable and clean than cheap hotels.
How much do hostels cost?
The price range is broad, but the principle is quite simple. The more people you share your room with, the cheaper it is. The more privacy you want, the more you’ll pay.
> Hostel tips
Bring a lock to secure your belongings (personal lockers should be available!), and earplugs if you’re planning to share a room with many strangers! Eye masks can also be lifesavers if you’re sensitive to light.
> Hostel pros and cons.
- Pros: Like many sharing accommodations, you might very well run into friendly travelers and share stories, or even perhaps part of your trip! Plus, most of the time, a basic breakfast is included in the night fare… One less expense to deal with!
- Cons: Unfortunately, there is always the possibility that you’ll end up rooming with guests that don’t share your travel values. To avoid this, you can try looking for a hostel intended for older travelers, they tend to welcome experienced travelers who may well be more sensitive to others.
Hostel app & hostel finder.
As you search for a cheap place to stay, check out the following hostel websites:
- Hostelling International
- Hostel Bookers
4. Swap your house
Cost: free (excluding website subscription fees, approx. 150 USD per year)
The Gist on Home Exchanges
Home exchanges are super interesting if you’ve got a place of your own that you are willing to share. You can set it up through friends or social networks, or go through a specialized home swap site. The great thing about this cheap accommodation solution is that it’s free aside from website subscription fees. What’s more, the person you swap with will have as much to gain or lose as you—so the balance shouldn’t be too hard to find!
> Accommodation exchange insider tip
Plan in advance… Most house or apartment swaps are planned more than a year ahead! And as you begin the process, make sure to write to several homeowners and call or write a few times to see how the contact flows and how comfortable you are with the other owners before you settle on one.
> House Exchange pros and cons
- Pros: By swapping your home with someone else, you ensure that your place doesn’t stay unattended while you’re away… A perk to avoiding unwanted visitors! What’s more, you can sometimes even swap vehicles, too—and in some cases, animal care. If you’re traveling with children, this is a cheap travel arrangement to consider.
- Cons: Like with most person to person arrangements, appearances can be deceiving… So make sure you vet your potential home exchange candidate closely to build trust before going all in!
Home Exchange Sites
- Home exchange
- Home for exchange
- Travel Home exchange
- Love Home Swap.
- Homelink (French only)
House sitting is an option to consider if you don’t have a place of your own to swap, or if you’re not comfortable with the idea of having a stranger live in your stuff. By offering to housesit, you benefit from free accommodation in exchange for care, giving the house owner tranquility of mind while they are away. This means that you’ll most likely have to water plants, care for an animal, and be around enough to fulfill your end of the deal! The best way to go about this is to ask around in your network to see if anyone is looking for a long term house sitting first. If this doesn’t work out, check out specialty house sitting websites!
> House sitting insider tips.
- Planning. Start planning your stay well in advance. And make sure you create a profile that makes you look trustworthy. Include as much personal info about yourself, several photos of you looking directly at the camera (no eye contact does not inspire trust!), and mention any relevant house-sitting, pet sitting or house-cleaning experiences you may have. In the same frame of mind, give out any references you can to reassure potential homeowners, such as past and current employers and landlords. Be positive, clear and enthusiastic about this “job” opportunity and make sure you address yourself to potential homeowners personally (aka, don’t copy paste a generic message).
- Timing. Remember, you snooze, you lose. Many people will be looking for an awesome house sitting jobs, so create alerts, visit house sitting sites often and respond quickly to any messages to maximize your chances of success!
- Confirming. Once you’ve found the perfect gig, make sure you have everything in writing, as per what is expected of you to avoid any surprises along the way.
> Home sitting pros and cons.
- Pros: It’s free! And most people looking for house sitters usually have nice homes… Plus, you might get a vehicle in there for free, too! The great thing about house-sitting is that it allows you to settle into an area and live in it like a local, usually for an extended period.
- Cons: House sitting is usually set up for longer periods, so if you’re planning on moving around, it may not be the best solution for you. What’s more, you’ll have some responsibilities to meet, such as caring for pets, plants and maintaining the house in great condition (pool, outdoor landscaping, indoor cleaning, collecting mail, the likes).
House Sitting Sites
- Mind my house. One of our faves, and one of the cheapest options (some websites have expensive annual fees to cover!). Mind my House is a good bet if you’re searching for a place in North America, with a few options in Europe, too.
- Nomador. Nomador is super popular in Europe. The website features trusted user-profiles and even offers a Couchsurfing option.
- Houses Carers. Boasting a large inventory of homes across Australia and New Zealand, House Carers also works for North America.
- Trusted house sitters. Mainly rocking in Europe and the UK, but the website also features properties in North America and even Australia.
- House sitters America. This family-owned platform is quite popular… You guessed it—in the USA!
6. Discover monasteries, churches, temples and the likes
Cost: <50 USD
Sober but comfortable, and peaceful, monasteries are unexpected lodging solutions that you shouldn’t overlook! Plus, they usually include meals. They are quite cheap, ranging from free to some 50 USD a night, and include single rooms or dormitory-style lodging. In some cases, a donation will be asked, so you can give according to your budget.
Religious organizations offering free or cheap accommodation include:
> Monastery stay insider tip
If you’re traveling with a loved one but aren’t married—note that certain religious organizations do not allow unmarried couples to share a room.
> Pros and cons of monastery stays
- Pros: Peace and quiet like you’ve never experienced it. A great place to resources yourself and perhaps even enjoy a silent retreat.
- Cons: If you’re not comfortable around religious organizations or if you’re not a spiritual person, this may not be the right travel accommodation for you!
7. Rent a room or apartment
Cost: <80 USD
The real deal on short-term rentals
Your vacation might last longer than a few weeks and in that case, you might want to look into a short-term apartment or room rental. This form of accommodation provides more amenities than the previous options, such as furnishings, a private bathroom, and a kitchen to prepare your own meals. It’s a cost-effective option for a group, who can share the rental costs (cheaper than booking several budget hotel rooms).
Many people heart this type of cheap accommodation, for several reasons:
- Comfort. It provides access to full amenities and it can feel a little bit like home.
- Budget-friendly. Most options are cheaper than local hotels and since you can buy groceries and cook your meals or snacks, you can save on food, too.
- Long stays. Short term rentals are suited to accommodate you over longer periods than hotels or hostels. You can usually do your laundry on the premises too!
- Fine for friends. Practical if you’re traveling with one or more people and want to share accommodation, without opting for a dorm room in a hostel!
What is the most popular option out there?
Airbnb seems to be the leader of the pack right now. Why?
- Their rating and review system is efficient and transparent.
- They offer trusted verification.
- They have a vast inventory, worldwide.
- You can rent a room or a full place, depending on your budget and travel style.
> Short term rentals insider tip
In big cities, you can often get a good deal on boats (such as barges in Paris) or trailers. They’re often located in a prime location and cost less than an apartment.
> Pros and cons of short-term apartment rentals
- Pros: It’s like a home away from home. You can rent a whole apartment if you need to get work done or if you crave privacy and you can share a space with a local if you’re feeling sociable or need to save more money. Plus, you save on food and you can usually do your laundry while you’re there! If you’re planning a long stay, don’t hesitate to bargain with the host!
- Cons: Sometimes, rentals can be deceiving (smaller, dirtier or noisier). To avoid this, remember to read the reviews, and avoid booking a rental with no reviews at all!
Other short-term rental sites
- Short-term housing
8. Try these travel hacks
Cost: free or <100 USD
If you’re not into sharing accommodation with friends, strangers or hosts, we promise, you can still find a cheap hotel room. Same if you prefer the rustic coziness of a bed & breakfast!
In any case, to redeem free accommodation, you’ll need to set yourself up for success and plan ahead. It’s not rocket science, many programs offer the possibility of collecting points that you can exchange for free nights in specific hotels.
Travel hacks include:
- Getting hotel credit cards. These work like any credit card—you simply pay with your hotel credit card and stock up on bonus points that you can later redeem with a free night.
- Collecting free nights. You can do this via websites such as Hotels.com on which you can collect nights and get free stays.
- Searching the best deal. Websites such as Booking.com will offer special rates on hotels, hostels and apartment accommodation, according to your specific criteria. You can also compare options with sites like Hotels.com and Trivago.
- Get last-minute deals. By booking on Hotwire or the likes, you can get amazing last-minute deals on great hotels.
> Insider tip
Remember: the price isn’t everything: get the firsthand account of fellow travelers’ hotel experiences on travel review sites like TripAdvisor.
> Pros and cons of travel hacks
- Pros: It’s FREE.
- Cons: You have to spend money to get free accommodation, and it’s not optimal for long stays. Or, if you don’t spend a fortune, you’ll be spending lots of time figuring out how to maximize your spend and points. Some get a thrill out of it, some feel overwhelmed. You’ll either love it or hate it!
9. Camp out into the wild or in a campground
Cost: free <35 USD
For the outdoorsy type, camping is a great option, especially for road trips. When deciding where to camp, consider what facilities are important to you. National and state parks (which usually charge a bundle) offer restrooms and picnic tables, but not all of them provide electricity. If you’d rather find someplace free, backcountry camping or wild camping in a remote area is an option for you adventurous souls (but make sure you’re prepared).
> Cheap camping insider tip
If you’re into wild camping, get a hammock! In warm weather, these are just fantastic to set up for the night and will ensure you don’t end up with a colony of ants or other undesirable bugs crawling up your body as you snooze. A tent is also a perk, especially if you are traveling in a country where it rains often. Last but not least, avoid camping out on private properties… You might wake up to an angry landlord!
> Pros and cons of free campgrounds
- Pros: You’ll get the full experience, discover remote areas and have complete peace and quiet, and if you’re adventurous, you won’t spend a dime.
- Cons. You may not meet many other adventurous souls and you may be kicked off certain grounds if wild camping is not authorized. Oh, and you’ll have to carry that camping gear around, too.
10. Sleep while traveling
Cost: your travel fee (which you’d pay in any case!)
Traveling at night can help you save loads on travel accommodation! Whether you’re getting around by bus or by plane, or even boat or train, book your trips overnight if you can and avoid lodging fees altogether.
> Overnight travel insider tip
If at all possible, book a ticket with extra leg space so you can set up as comfortably as possible. If you need to get off at a specific time or place, set your alarm or kindly ask your neighbor to wake you up a little before!
> Pros and cons of overnight travel
- Pros: Spend more time exploring during the day and less traveling!
- Cons. Sleeping while traveling takes a while to master. Bring earplugs, a secure bag and perhaps even an eye mask and snooze away.
Bonus Tip> Ask the Locals
There are also lots of awesome hole-in-the-wall places that aren’t easy to find online but that offer great deals. Ask locals about good affordable spots or ask your fellow travelers for their favorite recent finds and see if you can track down a phone number to book a bed. If you’re traveling in the off-season, leaving some options open in your travel itinerary for these unexpected recommendations adds an exciting element. (But be careful during the busy holiday season, everything gets booked quickly!)
Another secret to finding cheap places to stay & free travel accommodation
Many people erroneously think that finding cheap accommodation relies only on the type, quality and general condition of the place, but that is not the case. Other criteria impact your accommodation budget. If at all possible, consider the following before booking your trip:
- Time of the year. Some periods are more popular than others (school vacations, holidays, to name the main ones), so during these times, you’ll likely be paying way more for accommodation than you would offseason. If you can, travel against the tide! You’ll enjoy sightseeing a lot more and will avoid overwhelming crowds while enjoying some low-cost accommodation.
- Time of the week. Various hotels have more free space on Sunday evenings, so know that you can most likely catch the best hotel deals on Sundays! Otherwise, note that rates tend to soar on weekends (Fridays and Saturdays, mostly), so you’ll find the best hotel rates midweek. Food for thought!
Ready to hit the road?
Remember, there are all kinds of options for offering cheap accommodation out there. But most importantly, Busbud’s got a cheap travel plan for you. Book your tickets today! Oh—and before you hit the road, be sure to check out our ultimate packing guide!