Free or Low-Cost Lodging Anywhere in the World
In more than a decade of frequent travel, I’ve stayed everywhere from five-star hotels to sleeping on the ground—and I don’t mean camping, I mean sleeping on the ground with my bags next to me.
As I roamed the planet during my quest to visit every country, I had all sorts of difficulties—especially with visas—but finding a place to stay was surprisingly easy. There was always somewhere I could stay, often without spending a lot of money.
We’ve previously looked at how Frequent Flyer Miles can help you travel for free. But it’s also possible to stay for low-cost, nearly free, or even completely free all over the world.
If you’re just beginning to explore the possibilities of worldwide travel, fear not. There may be obstacles to overcome in your journey, but finding a place to stay shouldn’t be one of them.
My Travel Life: The Early Days
When I first started hitting the road, I was on a tight budget. Most of the time I stayed in hostels or guest houses. Sometimes I found a place after touching down in a new place, but after I officially began working on the goal to go everywhere, I was often visiting two or more countries in a week.
Since I had less time to plan on the ground, I began booking my rooms in advance, often using Hostels.com or just searching online for “[city name] + hostel” and then booking directly. This usually worked well, and if I didn’t love the place when I got there, well, it was just a night or two. If I really hated it, I could always go and stay somewhere else.
Side note: Thanks to Frequent Flyer Miles I was often flying Business Class, which led to the strange but frequent scenario of traveling in style before transferring to a room that cost $20 a night or less. Sometimes it’s good to mix it up.
Once in a while, things went wrong. In Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia, I had the unfortunate experience of being kicked out of my guesthouse room upon arrival. I couldn’t quite tell what was happening, but it seemed that another foreigner had arrived who was willing to pay more for the room. It was nearly midnight and I was put out on the street despite my protests. The situation was stressful, but eventually I found another place willing to take me in.
Thankfully, experiences like those were the exception. Most of the time, everything was fine with hostels. Even in Mongolia, when I woke up the next morning in my new place, I felt pleased that I had handled the situation without panicking. Confidence grows through experience, as I learned throughout my travels. Onwards to the next stop!
If I was on the road for a while, I would break up the stays in hostels and guest houses with a nice hotel. At that time I was a big fan of Priceline, where it was (and still is) easily possible to stay in great properties for much less money than booking directly.
One time in the early days I stayed at a very nice place in Budapest for $60 a night. $60 was more than a hostel, but a lot less than the $200+ that other guests were paying. I enjoyed exploring the city during the day and having a nice place to return to in the evening. This became a common pattern in the future as I visited more and more countries.
Tip: When using Priceline, be sure to chose the “Name Your Own Price” option, not just the general listings. Also, check out BetterBidding.com first, to learn what you should bid.
My Travel Life: The Later Days
As the years went on, I kept flying off to places like Mongolia, and I continued to stay in all sorts of places. But I also transitioned from traveling exclusively for my own enjoyment and pursuit of the goal to traveling for “work” commitments like book tours and speaking engagements.
Over the past few years I’ve been staying more often in hotels, and have grown attached to holding elite status with several major properties. These days, I have Diamond status with both Hyatt and Hilton, and Gold status with Starwood. Elite status is fun, both for the benefits (free upgrades, breakfast, lounge access, and more) and for the experience of working toward a goal over time.
Hotel chains are very good about status matching, where you can effectively gain “one status to rule them all,” at least for a time. Thanks to status matching I’ve also received Inner Circle status (the highest possible) with Kimpton hotels, in addition to various elite statuses at random chains.
What If You Have NO Money?
Staying in nice hotels for much less than other people pay is great, but what if you’re totally broke? All is not lost! Thanks to the Couchsurfing phenomenon, you can stay for free in more than 100 countries.
I’m not a Couchsurfer myself, but many people in our community are. They tell me that Couchsurfing isn’t only about staying for free, as great as that is. It’s also about connecting with people in their home cities, being part of a shared culture, and seeing aspects of a city that you might otherwise miss as a tourist.
All of this sounds great, but my introverted self usually prefers to make sure I have some alone time so I can work in a hotel. It may be perfect for you!
Tip: I’m not usually a fan of sleeping in dorms with a dozen strangers, but many hostels offer private rooms. These rooms cost more than dorm accommodation, but usually much less than a room at a hotel.
One more note: others in our community are big fans of AirBnB, the house-sharing service that allows individual owners (and sometimes renters … it’s confusing) to rent out their rooms or entire homes while the owners are away. I’m not an expert on the best use of AirBnB, but I’ve used the service a couple of times and had good experiences.
Our Own Resources
In the business side of AONC, we also offer a few paid resources for people who want to travel affordably. These resources developed out of frequent requests for more detailed information.
- Travel Hacking Cartel: a monthly service of Deal Alerts (more than 12,000 members served so far!)
- Frequent Flyer Master: a written guide for those who prefer to learn on their own
- Cards for Travel: current info and application links for the best available credit card bonuses
Note that we earn affiliate commission on some of the credit card referrals. You’re never obligated to use our links to apply, of course. Also, coming this fall: a complete rebranding of all travel resources! Fun things are in the works.
The bottom line is, there are plenty of options. If you don’t care about nice hotels, you can find no shortage of alternatives. When you’re ready to upgrade, that’s possible too.
You really can go anywhere! It’s not just me… many, many people are taking advantage of the opportunities for a connected world.
Where do you like to stay when you travel? Where is your next trip?
Feel free to share in the comments.
We are across the board when it comes to lodging when we travel. We are life members of Hostelling International and stay in private rooms at hostels. We have used Airbnb in Seattle, Orlando and several cities in Spain. We are actually staying in an Airbnb property when we come to Portland later this week. For most places we visit, the lodging is just a place to get a good night’s sleep and stash our stuff. We spend most of our time out and about exploring. No matter where we go, reliable wi-fi is a must.
I prefer to stay with friends, family and/or friends of friends whenever possible. I usually have a much richer experience whenever I stay with a local.
My next trip is to WDS 2013 in Portland- can’t wait
I don’t travel very often, but when I do, I just pick a random hotel or stay with friends/family. I’m on my “next” trip right now! I’m visitng Portland and its surrounding areas this week, finishing up with the float on the 5th!
My own early days of travel consisted primarily of as much as I could fit into a bag smaller that an airplane carry-on. My claim to spending the night in exotic locales includes the Chungking Mansions in Kowloon and a love hotel in Tokyo. Speaking of hotels in Tokyo (where I’ve spent quite a bit of time), weekly mansions are an excellent inexpensive alternative to hotels. Capsules are ok in a pinch.
Also, if you get creative you can find other options as well – working at hostels, homestays, house sitting. Maybe even camping.
Some countries have other interesting options. In Japan you can stay in a Manga cafe for a pretty affordable rate – it’s usually cheaper than a hostel I think.
Also, I’ve slept in a lot of bus stations and airports – also taking overnight busses and trains always seemed like a good idea to me, especially if you going that way anyway you can think of it as saving on accommodation for a night, since what you’re actually paying for is the transit.
I just discovered HelpX, not even a week ago and it has my attention.
You get free housing (accommodations vary) and sometimes meals in exchange for working. The work demands vary wildly, but sometimes it’s only three hours a day/five days a week cleaning and cooking for someone in a big city, and sometimes it’s eight hours/five days as a farmhand, but there are also side benefits sometimes like use of their train pass or lifts to the nearest city for the weekend or one of them mentioned free use of their ski pass in certain months.
I’m traveling to Austin, TX (it’s not Mongolia but it’s somewhere I’ve wanted to visit) later this year and I’m planning to use Airbnb. I was gonna take the hostel route at first but Airbnb turned out to be cheaper!
Next trip: Portland, OR – on Wednesday 🙂
I’ve used AirBnB a few times and I was really happy with it. I don’t like hotels (I much prefer private villas whenever possible:) so renting a house or an whole apartment is great for that. In places like NY where the hotel rooms are smaller than my wardrobe + super expensive AirBnB is really worth it I find.
Next trip? Italy!
Next trip is Boston to Portland for #WDS2013. Can’t wait!
I have found that the range of options really differs a lot depending on which country you’re visiting. For example, in Sweden I Couchsurfed my way around. But in Japan, the number of people on Couchsurfing was so small that it was impossible for me to find Couches to stay, but I found camping (I did have my own equipment with me) could be very cheap, and sometes even free. I think if I had known that before, I could have visited more free campings. And in the cities there was the option of sleeping in internet cafes, which often was cheaper than a hostel. But in Thailand everything was different again and there the cheapest hostels, guesthouses and resorts proved the cheapest (and camping was more expensive), so that’s were I stayed. I found the Couchsurfing supply was a lot bigger there than in Japan, but it was still too difficult to find a place to stay with that.
I almost always couchsurf. I don’t have much money so it helps me a lot. But it’s absolutely not just about saving money – connecting with people is a huge part of it and I really value getting to know them and learning about the place I’m in through their perspectives. I reckon about 50% of the hosts on CouchSurfing are migrants themselves, so often I learn about specific migration experiences too.
Besides couchsurfing, I’m a house/pet sitter. So I do my best to be engaging and gregarious when I’m couchsurfing, and store up all my anti-social hermitness for when I’m looking after someone’s place by myself. It works well. Next trip: cat sitting in Amsterdam. I’m flying into and out of Paris on the way, so I’ll couchsurf there and quite possibly take a detour elsewhere as well, as I’ll have some spare time.
I have just recently decided that the next step in my life is going to be world travel. I have no money and have been excited to find out about things like couchsurfing and travel hacking in my research so far.
I want to go to Australia first (when it becomes winter here in just a few months) and the challenge right now is how to get there b/c I’ve already found a nice couchsurfing host to start my journey 🙂
Where I stay depends on where I’m travelling. In North America: with friends or AirBnB. In Europe, Australia, New Zealand: friends, hostels, budget hotels (if I’m travelling with someone), possibly AirBnB next time. Cheaper countries (Asia, South America, Africa): guesthouses and small hotels, where a room with bathroom can be had for $25 or less.
Summer is a good time for domestic trips since it’s finally hot up here in Canada! Next I’m going to Montreal via Kingston. And later this summer to Victoria, BC where I got my first house-sitting gig (another way to stay somewhere for free!)
I’ve been using AirBnb on my current trip and am finding that one of the things I like most about it is having a host in each city I go to.
How involved they choose to be varies, but having a local happy to offer advice on local attractions, the best local food options, and maybe even make dinner for me makes me feel like I’m getting a more authentic experience of the place.
I know Couchsurfing offers the same kind of experience, but as I’m working while I travel, I don’t want to feel like I’m imposing by spending most of the day in someone else’s home working.
I also like being able to be a little picky in advance to make sure there’s a kitchen I can use, a washer, and internet. The latter’s a requirement, but the other two make life much easier on a longer trip.
I’m surprised that home exchanging hasn’t been mentioned! My husband and I have been exchanging homes for 4 years, and will have completed 13 exchanges around the world. It is the BEST way to travel not because it is “free” but because of the deeply rich experience we get from really living like a local. Right now, we are staying in an beautiful, modern flat in Mallorca, Spain for 3 weeks, before we move into a villa in the country near the center of the island for 2 weeks, and then head to another modern flat in the heart of Barcelona for 1 week.
When we arrive in an exchange home the fridge and pantry are stocked with basics, along with a welcome bottle of wine (or beer). There is always a pile of brochures & maps with notes and suggestions of where our exchange family recommends shopping, eating and hanging out. Better than a guide book.
This also means there is a family staying in our home which, yes, requires a large amount of trust. We try to cross paths with our exchangers if possible to get to know them a bit first. So far, we have only met the nicest people that have also become friends.
I’ve stayed in hostels when I was in my 20’s and didn’t like the dorm rooms — Too chaotic for me (introvert). Private rooms were next but still found them to not have great sound proofing. Then when I started making more money, I stayed in hotels and now I like to rent apartments via Homeaway. I’ve considered AirBnB but didn’t particularly jive with the culture of the site.
Just got back from northern Norway — Tromso, Honningsvag, Lofoten Islands. Doing a bit of exploring of the arctic this year. Western Greenland was a few months ago. Northeast coast of the US is next.
This is great, am going to have to use this in planning ahead for my travels in future, am actually a Couchsufer though I have not really used for travels but I have folks I know who have.
WDS 2013 is my next trip, but I plan on coming in a couple days early so I can see some of the sights around Oregon. I can sleep almost anywhere, but for overnight accommodations, it’s definitely nice to have a bed! That said, I am going to rent a car for a couple days and sleep in the car at campgrounds. I don’t have room to bring a tent, but I feel like a car is more secure anyway and I would rather save for other things. I did learn my lesson to pack warmer clothes from the last time I visited the Pacific Northwest and slept very poorly in the car, mostly because I was so cold. Then I will stay in a hostel for my stay in Portland.
I will take short naps outside during the day sometimes (aside from camping), but only in well populated places. I am a very light sleeper, so this has not been a problem, but I would not do at night and I do check out the surrounding area first.
I haven’t tried couch surfing yet, mostly because I don’t live in a place where I could have people stay in return.
I do look for more unique places, but this can be good or bad. For example: St. Vincent Guesthouse in New Orleans, former Civil War era orphanage, very cool…except for the bedbugs.
Thanks Chris! This is so helpful!
Be it a hostel, hotel or other place you lay your head,
How do you handle the bedbug issue when
I’m in route to Punta Cana in Dominican Republic can you suggest places to see while I’m there?
I travel solo and tend to use points to stay at hotels and take advantage of the amenities. The hotels are definitely nicer than I would normally be able to afford which allows me to use the savings elsewhere on my holiday.
My first Airbnb try was canceled by the host and that left me leery of trying again.
Next stop: WDS!
One thing to keep in mind is that renting a furnished place for a month or more is way cheaper than doing so on a nightly or even weekly basis. If you are willing to have a home base and explore a region that way, you can save some major bucks. Also, if you just want to take a two-week vacation and you have a friend who wants to take a two-week vacation, consider renting a place for a month and splitting it up. Way cheaper than renting shorter.
Well written and informative post. I would like to add on another new site that the budget travelers might find of interest. It works like airbnb but it is campinmygarden.com
I prefer hostels because you are forced to meet people if you stay in a non-private room. I’ve met some of the nicest and most interesting people in hostels.
My next trip is my study abroad for the Fall 2013 semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina! I leave in two weeks and I’m super excited because my girlfriend and I are both studying at the same university and we’ll be there until December.
My Prince Charming is really amazing at finding a great place to stay everywhere we travel. We love AirBnB and have used them to find everything from a small condo on the beach to the venue for our wedding reception! I find that the more you can stay with locals, the more of a genuine and fun experience you can have of a place. It’s also usually cheaper than a massive hotel.
Congrats for the website. I was looking for something like that when i found it. I live in a touristic place in the middle of Brazil, wich is unknown for people around the world but very apreciated by brazilian people. Is a small town named Caldas Novas, wich means something like “New Hotsprings”. I have an apartment here for rent, its a small fee compared to other places, and it has 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, and many pools, filled with natural hot water from the springs. If you are interested in spending some relaxing days here, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org, write me and I can give you more information. Thank you!
I’ haven’t used any of the above mentioned links/services except hostels yet, but I did often use homestay which arranges accomodation with local people in very different countries and cities. 🙂
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