Finding a place to spend a couple nights away from home isn’t a difficult task. Nowadays, hotels and motels line the streets. Inns and guest houses are steps away. Yet, with the increase in tourism, locating decent budget accommodation can be a daunting challenge- especially for cultural travelers like myself, who like to lounge around a country for months on end.
Yet, in the past two years, I’ve been able to maneuver around 15+ countries while paying off my student debt. Undoubtedly, cheap stays have caused little damage to my pockets and given me the luxury to focus my monetary efforts elsewhere.
So I decided to share some experiences with these increasingly popular, yet nonetheless unconventional budget accommodation methods.
Couchsurfing is a platform that provides members the opportunity to host guests, stay at other’s houses, and meet travelers at various events. It’s free to join the site, but sadly, they are slowly moving towards a paid service with accesses that are now only granted to paying members. Nonetheless, it remains one of my favorites since I’ve met too many life-long friends while living abroad.
In the past couple of years, I’ve slept in teepees, bungalows, apartments, beach houses, and cave rooms, on floors, couches, and unwashed mattresses. I was hosted by lawyers, professors, hippies, bikers and many more. Because of strangers I’ve met, I’ve witnessed hot air balloons in Cappadocia for free, rode a motorcycle up into the Himalayas, slurped fresh oysters by the harbor of Santa Barbara and got free entrance to Disney, amongst a number of other events and places.
Of course, there are pros and cons to living with strangers–so I’ve invited some travelers to share their tales.
Kathy from Walkabout Wanderer
It is strange how things happen, and how friendships grow.
Victor hosted me for three nights when I was traveling in Taiwan. Such a lovely guy who took me all over the city after work on his scooter to show me the sights.
When he told me he was coming to Europe, I eagerly invited him to come and stay with me in the North West of England. He came especially to the UK to see me for the long weekend before heading back to mainland Europe. I wanted him to have a great experience, therefore, asked him on the first night, where in the UK he had always wanted to go to.
His reply. . . Edinburgh, Scotland.
After sending a request, we found Jain, a host in Edinburgh. Jain is from India. Unfortunately, he was only able to host us for one night as he was preparing to move. After exploring Edinburgh, Victor and I met Jain and soon we were off to the movies to watch our first Bollywood film.
A reunion of two friends who met through Couchsurfing resulted in a random last minute request, which formed friendships that have lasted over two years.
The next day, Jain invited us to stay a second night. After having a yummy Indian lunch and meeting a group of his friends, off we went into the National Park of Scotland – an English girl, five Indians and a Taiwanese guy. We had a blast.
A reunion of two friends who met through Couchsurfing resulted in a random last minute request, which formed friendships that have lasted over two years. It’s had me travel to India for one of their weddings, visits to my home by Jain and friends for many a BBQ and many a good time in Edinburgh.
This isn’t the first time and I am sure will not be the last time that I make amazing friends through Couchsurfing. As for the other important Couchsurfing friends . . . you know who you are.
Kathy is the face of Walkabout Wanderer. In 2008 she went from package holidays to traveling solo around the world. Having visited over 60 countries, her passion is exploring the road less traveled and being immersed in different cultures. Last year, after quitting her job as a nurse, she set off on a trip to discover more of the world. She discovered her passion for writing and love helping other people pursue their dreams of traveling. You can follow her on Facebook or Instagram.
Maria from 203challenges.com
Couchsurfing has introduced me to good friends and amazing people (although sometimes a bit strange) from around the world.
My first Couchsurfing host was a boy from Luxembourg who had just got home from a 2-year hitchhiking trip around Africa and South America. He had experienced so much hospitality along the way, that he wanted to return the good karma and showered me with attention. His aunt even took me on a road trip in the wine region along the Moselle River.
In Munich, Germany, another host had little space in his home but much in his heart, so I slept on the floor, which wasn’t clean, in sheets, which hadn’t been washed. When my friend and I cooked a huge dish of Bulgarian national dish moussaka, he liked it so much, that I swear he ate more than a kilo. On his free evening, he took us around the legendary Munich Christmas markets and introduced us to the burning mulled wine known as feuerzangenbowle.
In Rio de Janeiro, I came across a marketing specialist who was stoned from dusk till dawn, who gulped down beer after beer as he was recovering from a recent break up with his girlfriend. Yet, we shared good laughs in and around the hammock he had hung in his room.
On the other side, I have hosted tens of people in my small apartment. Couples from Germany and Belgium, short Indians, and tall Australians. My first guests were two guys from Australia and New Zealand who stayed for more than two weeks. When they finally left, they had decided to remain in Bulgaria, because they liked it a lot. Another guest of mine is at the moment the proofreader and editor of my books and, I’d say, a life-long Australian I can rely on.
Maria is a 20-something traveling disaster roaming the world. She’s crazy about Mirto from Sardinia, speaking in foreign languages (even if she can’t) and studying fortune-telling. You can follow her adventures on Facebook and Pinterest.
Couchsurfing is a wonderful platform that connects travelers and locals. Not only does it provide free stays but it is also a great way to explore the city through a local’s eyes and tongue, and to understand the lifestyles of people there. I have used Couchsurfing several times, both hosting travelers and surfing at other’s places. I have also used Couchsurfing around my city by exploring the ‘events’ option and using ‘hangouts’ to meet new people. As a solo traveler, I find Couchsurfing extremely useful for my trip. This is because I can meet different people on the road and not feel lonely. I can also save some money instead of staying in hotels or hostels.
Nonetheless, I’ve had good and bad experiences with Couchsurfing.
I have met several people on Couchsurfing, and one of them became a really good friend that I still keep in touch with. She hosted me during my trip to Berlin, Germany, and showed me around the city. We cooked meals together, ate out at her favorite vegan restaurant, had great girls nights. We became best friends even though we just met! My trip to Berlin could not be fulfilled without meeting her.
We became best friends even though we just met!
Yet, not all of my experiences have been good.
Since most of my hosts are guys, sometimes they put me in an awkward situation. For example, a guy in Spain kicked me out of his house at night when I did not agree to let him massage me. He said he was a professional masseuse, and asked me to take off my shirt for a free massage. Even though I left and spent a night at the airport, I still found myself lucky that he did not harm me. Of course, I reported him after.
Ha is a Vietnamese expat, lifestyle and travel blogger. She started to live abroad at the age 18 and have been wandering around the world since. She loves discovering amazing destinations with delicious cuisine and exotic cultures. You can find her on Facebook or Instagram!
The Sikh community is one of the most generous I've met. Gurdwaras not only provide free accommodation for the needy (aka me), but also food and drinks. Not to mention that Mr.Singh here brought medicine and biscuits to the room when I fell ill. Do stay at a Sikh temple, it's such an amazing experience 🙏🏼🙏🏼
It is a cultural treat to stay at a Gurudwara and interact with those who constantly open their doors to others.
The Sikh religion has nurtured some of the most generous people. Gurdwara is a place of worship, yet, it also provides free accommodation and meals for others. The space is inclusive of anyone regardless of their faith, ethnicity or racial background. While amenities provided by the temple may not meet standards to that of a hotel, they are beautiful, respectful and safe.
Mr. Singh, pictured above, became our host during our stay at the Gwalior Fort Gurudwara. He was such a generous man, showing us the temple space and the seamless preparation process for meals in the langar hall. When I caught a mid-Sunday, he came in with tea and biscuits wishing me well.
Gurdwaras are spread around the world and trust me, it is a cultural treat to stay here and interact with those who constantly open their doors to others.
Free accommodation in exchange for time working on a farm. From what I hear, it’s a relaxing atmosphere with time spent at a lavish farmland. Great program for those who’d prefer to travel at a slower pace.
Similar to WWOOFing, Workaway is the exchange of labor for food and accommodation. Workaway has a greater range of job selections when compared to WWOOFing’s focus on farmland.
If you like the idea of free accommodation yet question the whole idea of sleeping on someone else’s floor, home exchange is for you. The concept is simple- trade your home for someone else’s. These places range from townhouses to luxury stays, beachside views to mountain-foot getaways. I’ve never used the site, but after watching Holiday Stay, it seems like a perfect alternative to Couchsurfing.
Enikő from Travel Hacker Girl
We were just a few minutes walk from the ski lifts, which was extremely convenient. Our view from the bedroom and living room was simply stunning, overlooking the snow kept mountains and piste.
Me and my family are avid home exchangers with over 15 exchange experiences. The concept is simple-you stay in other people’s house while they stay in yours. Exchanging your home has many advantages. You save a lot of money and get to have a home away from home, as you will be staying in a proper house, with kitchen, toys, TV and other amenities. In most cases, you can use the exchange partner’s belongings, such as their bikes, kayaks, surfboards etc. We have also exchanged cars in the past. In this case, proper insurance is needed to avoid any inconvenience.
A lot of the houses that are listed on the site are quite luxurious and have a pool, jacuzzi or an awesome view. In many cases, we would not be able to afford to pay for a hotel or apartment with similar amenities. Most members also have second houses, which often provides more flexibility with dates.
One of my favorite home exchange was staying in Andorra for our skiing holiday. We were just a few minutes walk from the ski lifts, which was extremely convenient. Our view from the bedroom and living room was simply stunning, overlooking the snow kept mountains and piste. We loved waking up in the morning with our coffee and breakfast while enjoying the lovely view. Then we would walk to the lift and start skiing. Andorra has many slopes for all levels. It was probably the best ski resort I’ve ever been to.
Homestay equates to time spent in the home of a local family- comparable to the conceptual descendant of Couchsurfing and Airbnb. While it garners the community-vibes and local experience as felt on Couchsurfing, it also guarantees certain facilities and amenities as seen on Airbnb. For those that like some company but need personal space (or a guaranteed bed), homestay might just be what you are looking for!
I do love Airbnb. Really, most of the places I’ve stayed at had beautiful rooms with great hosts. They generally resemble the tidiness of a hotel, with many hosts kind enough to throw in a few maps to help navigate the streets of a foreign land. Yet, Airbnb remains a place for romantic getaways or group vacations. There can be too little interaction with hosts and too much alone time for a solo traveler like myself.
But, I tend to use Airbnb when with friends or family.
Sierra from Passport Voyager
As an avid Airbnb user, I have experienced a little bit of everything! I have stayed in a family home on Lake Como, a cozy, comfortable room in Cinque Terre, and a perfectly styled Scandinavian townhouse in Copenhagen (just to name a few).
I have now stayed at 21 different places, and truly enjoyed each one! During my two-months European adventure back in 2015, I stayed primarily in Airbnbs, for an average of about $25 per night. These experiences often included breakfast, snacks, even bottles of local wine (and of course, fantastic hospitality). I’ve never had a truly negative experience using Airbnb and always recommend it to friends and strangers (and anyone else who will listen!) because I think that it provides such a unique cultural experience that just can’t be replicated by staying at hotels or hostels. There is something special about connecting with the individuals who have opened up their home to you.
One of my favorite Airbnb memories is of a place I stayed in Sorrento. It was run by a sweet family, who prided themselves on going above and beyond to make their guests feel welcome.
One of my favorite Airbnb memories is of a place I stayed in Sorrento. It was run by a sweet family, who prided themselves on going above and beyond to make their guests feel welcome. On my last morning there, I had the nicest chat with the owner, Bartolo, who helped me practice my Italian and gave me all the best tips for visiting Capri and Positano (over a couple of espressos and a beautiful breakfast, of course). Those are the types of personal moments you simply won’t get when you stay in hotels or hostels!
However, I do preach careful research when scouring Airbnb for the perfect listing – when you’re on a budget and also looking for a safe, quality place to rent, it is vital to read the reviews thoroughly, assess the location, and ask the host questions when necessary. Booking blindly can lead to some harrowing experiences, which no one on a budget can really afford. Take your time and really put in the work to find the best listings. You’ll thank yourself later.
Sierra is a travel blogger and photographer based in New York City who has an unhealthy obsession with London and spends way too much time on Instagram. She balances her day job with traveling as often as possible. Sierra travels and blogs in her spare time, enjoys pesto more than anyone probably should, and loves to write in the third person (just kidding). You can also follow her adventures on Facebook!
How can we speak of cheap accommodations and not mention hostels? There are tons of dorms cheaper than the likes of Airbnb and homestay. It’s generally a fun environment with loads of youngsters, drinking and chatting. But it can be a bit too much when you try to adapt to 12 stranger’s sleeping/ non-sleeping habits. Personally, hostels can get too crazy when traveling long term.
Still budget not cheap
The accommodations mentioned above isn’t for everyone. For those that enjoy the anonymity of hotels, sites like Booking.com have decent deals. My favorite would be Tripadvisor. The site provides you with recommendations/comments from other travelers, just for a peace of mind.
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