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Paying for accommodation is usually one of the larger outlays of cash that you have to make whilst traveling. Discounted or free accommodation can save you a ton of money, so you’ll have more to invest later – or to spend on the holiday itself.
There is a huge range of ways to obtain discounted accommodation, but you’ll need to keep in mind that hotels don’t typically hand out free stays.
The free options aren’t your typical travel options, but they are options nonetheless! So, without further ado – here are my methods for spending less on accommodation:
1. House Swapping
House swapping is a great concept. Two families (or people) who want to visit the location of the other’s house, switch houses instead of paying for accommodation.
Obviously, this is better suited for a quiet getaway for a few weeks instead of a whirlwind tour of Europe, but if you’ll be content with a cliff-top villa in Bali or a waterfront home in West Maui, Hawaii – then you might just be in luck.
By far the largest site catering to this market is Love Home Swap. You can get a free two-week trial, after that you need to commit to either a Lite, Standard or Platinum membership.
If you’re not in a rush to get the service, my advice is to wait until they have a sale on their membership.
The sales roll around frequently enough and there are big savings to be made! At the time of writing this article, there was an offer of 33% off Standard memberships and 50% off Platinum memberships.
You can also accumulate Points via the site which you can exchange for a ‘swap’ where you pay with points instead of your home.
2. House Sitting
House sitting is when you look after someone’s house whilst they are away. It usually means that you have to care for their pets, plants and generally keep the place maintained in their absence.
The positions are not usually paid, but you do get free accommodation and the bills paid during your stay.
The family who lives in the house provides all of the food for the pets and equipment for garden maintenance (or some cash for you to purchase it).
There’s no expectation that you pay for anything for the house during your stay, except your own food.
The people who own the house (and pets) will usually want to meet you before leaving their pet in your capable hands, so you’ll need to factor in arriving a day or two earlier than their date of departure.
The sites usually arrange for the delivery of a pre-prepared welcome pack that provides the details of a vet, emergency contact and anything that you might need to know about the house.
Check out Trusted Housesitters, House Carers, Worldwide House Sitters, Nomador, or Mind My House. They have different referral programs and fees, but the fees are usually around what you’d spend on one night in a hotel (read: very reasonable).
The standards of housing vary widely. I spent six amazing weeks in an incredible Swiss mansion overlooking Lake Geneva and the French Alps.
I’ve spent time in a cute overgrown beach cottage, underwhelming apartments in the city and everything in between. If you’re only after luxury stays, use Luxury House Sitting.
3. WWOOFing and Work Exchanges
WWOOFing is where volunteers are linked with farmers who need assistance.
The volunteers are provided with accommodation and food in exchange for providing help on the farm. WWOOF stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms. Over 55 countries are involved in the program.
The positions usually entail manual labour and require you to work a few hours a day for a few days per week (anything more, you should be considering a paid position). You can search for opportunities at WWOOF International.
Another similar option is to complete a Work Exchange. The difference between a Work Exchange and a WWOOFing position is that a Work Exchange can be any type of work, whereas WWOOFing is limited to working on Organic Farms.
Work Exchanges can mean assisting with renovations, teaching languages, administrative assistance, home help, farming, ecological projects or whatever else people desire assistance with. The usual sites for these types of work are WorkAway and Helpx.
4. Work at a Hostel
Hostels need staff and the typical working arrangement means that you get free accommodation plus some perks in exchange for a few hours work each day.
The work isn’t glamorous and would typically mean that you’re changing sheets, cleaning and greeting guests for a few hours a day if you’re a newbie. Travel guide roles and administrative roles do exist, however.
The pay (if there is any in addition to the free accommodation) usually leaves something to be desired – but the package is enough to stretch out your trip for a bit longer.
Positions at the more popular hostel chains and hostels in popular locations are coveted and competitive. You’ve generally got a better chance of getting a job if you show up and prove yourself worthy of it, however, it is possible to score a role in advance.
5. Take Advantage of a Cash Back Program
There are a bundle of Cash Back Programs that allow you to get cash rewards for booking via their sites or apps. The range is usually about 5-10% back on whatever you spend.
Dosh is an app that was released in 2017 that provides cash back on a pretty broad range of products – including hotels. You can register for free and get a $1 sign up bonus plus referral bonuses.
TopCashback is a site that earns affiliate commissions for sending traffic through to providers. The twist is that they pass on this commission to the customer, so you receive the full benefit of the commission – without TopCashback taking a cut.
Ibotta is an app that gives users cash back rewards for scanning receipts for their purchases.
They make money by selling the data that you provide them via the receipts for market research purposes, so they pay you as an incentive for you to provide the data.
You even get a $10 bonus when you scan your first receipt.
Couchsurfing is a really beautiful concept. Hosts sign up and allow strangers to sleep in their living areas or spare bedrooms in exchange for… nothing but the pleasure of the traveler’s company.
Plenty of hosts sign up because they want to pay forward the kindness that was shown to them whilst they were traveling, or simply because they’re longing for their next holiday and want some inspiration.
Whatever the reason, there are plenty of hosts available.
I’m a host myself and I get a heap of requests from travelers that I have to decline, so it isn’t the most reliable accommodation source.
If you’re lucky enough to find a host, it’s a really great way to make new friends, find out about places you would have missed or overlooked otherwise and generally just to get a little bit off the tourist trail.
I’d suggest making your profile as complete as possible, putting in some effort to read your host’s profile and really making sure that you’re a good fit for their lifestyle before sending through a request.
Also be sure that you’re willing to give back to the community!
7. Take Advantage of Countries that Allow Wild Camping
If you aren’t familiar with the concept of wild camping, it’s where you’re allowed to camp ‘wild’ outside of camping grounds.
It means different things to different people in different countries, but the general consensus is that it means it isn’t illegal to camp in wilderness areas or public areas where no formal campgrounds exist.
You’ll need to check with the appropriate bodies before leaving for your adventure because rules change – but at the time of writing wild camping is legal in Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Romania, France (with the landowner’s permission) and in Canada (to a limited extent).
There’s a longer list of countries where it is not legal but tolerated nonetheless. A Google search will help you uncover these, if you’re interested.
Camping is a cheap accommodation option in any event. Even if you’re traveling somewhere where wild camping isn’t allowed, you can save yourself on campsite fees by using either Camp in my Garden or Gamping to find a space for your tent.
These sites connect travelers with hosts who are happy to rent out space in their garden to campers. Often the hosts will let you use their facilities (bathroom, kitchen and laundry), but they aren’t required to.
8. Book a Mystery Hotel
Booking a Mystery Hotel means that you book a hotel without knowing what it is until you’ve paid for it.
This might seem terrifying, given the potential for the provider to rip you off, but the mystery hotel deals are usually made up of luxury hotels who offer empty rooms on the site last minute so that they can fill them.
There is no difference at the hotel between the mystery rooms and the regular rooms.
Details, like the star rating and the facilities, are not withheld while you’re browsing. This means that you know (approximately) what you’re getting and can compare the facilities with hotels that you know.
If you’re really lucky, you might even be able to guess the Mystery Hotel.
You can use sites like Hotwire, Last Minute, Expedia, Groupon and Scoopon (Australia) to find Mystery Hotels. They’re sometimes known as Secret Hotels, so keep an eye out for that filter function when doing your searches.
9. Travel during the Shoulder Seasons
You can save a lot of money by simply changing the dates of your holiday. You can often visit the exact same attractions, restaurants or hotels and pay substantially less.
Why? Because the demand is lower. People travel more during school holidays, over long weekends, during ski season and during summer – so hotels and hostels can put up their rates because the demand is much higher.
During shoulder season, hotels and other providers need to entice people to visit them.
People are more likely to be choosing between a number of different locations during shoulder seasons, so they need to compete with other venues for customers, rather than customers competing for the venues.
This means you’re more likely to get perks like upgrades or welcome packs as well!
10. Stay in a Hostel
If you’re unfamiliar with hostels, they’re basically places that provide no-frills accommodation for prices much lower than what hotels offer.
You can book accommodation in a dorm and share with friends or strangers.
The more people you share with, the less you pay. You can often pay more for additional extras like a bathroom attached to the bedroom, a private room or a single-sex dorm.
The hostel is sometimes linked to a restaurant or bar that offers discount prices for guests. If not, they have probably made deals with local providers, bars, entertainment venues and the like offering discounts on specific services. The majority of hostels have kitchen facilities and wi-fi.
Be sure to read up on what is provided and what isn’t to make sure you bring the right stuff. Sometimes additional fees are charged for linen, towels or whatever else may not be provided so it pays to be informed.
Do yourself a favor and do the research incognito or clear your cookies before booking because these sites are known to put up pricing based on the cookies.
11. Stay Outside of the City Center – or Outside of the Town
You pay premium prices for hotels in the city centre. The further out you go, the cheaper the accommodation is likely to be.
I’ve discovered quite a few hidden gems by doing this. Tourists usually hit the towns known by other tourists. Sometimes, booking outside of the ‘main attraction’ means that you find the place that the locals keep all to themselves!
Alternatively, if you can find Couchsurfing hosts in nearby towns, they’re less likely to be overwhelmed with requests and are therefore more likely to host you.
Before you book an option outside the city center, make sure that it’s easily accessible via whatever form of transport you plan on relying on.
You’d also benefit from checking that the total cost of the transport doesn’t add up to whatever you’ll end up spending on public transport or petrol getting to wherever it is that you actually want to be.
You’ll also have to do a cost-benefit analysis of the time you’ll spend in transit vs the savings at some point.
You can use the distance from city center filter in most search functions to see options that are further out of town. Otherwise, just use Google Maps to search for nearby towns.
12. Take Advantage of Referral and Loyalty Programs
There are no shortages of referral programs to find on the internet and hotel booking sites are no exception. The programs range from discounts for return customers, access to special rates, free nights and rewards for referrals.
Both you and your referred friend receive a $50 discount on Hotels.com when they make their first booking of $200 or more.
Booking.com allows loyal users to receive Genius status. The status doesn’t entitle the user to any specific reward, but hotels are alerted to the status and frequently hand out freebies, discounts and upgrades.
The Best Western Rewards is a pretty generous program that offers to match rewards status for customers from other hotel chains, as well as offering a $20 gift card after your first stay, no blackout dates for free nights and room upgrades.
Expedia Rewards offers free nights in exchange for rewards points with no blackout dates, personalized offers and the potential to earn points when booking for others.
Be sure to read the program details. The tendency at the moment with points programs around the world is to reduce the value of the points, so make sure whatever you’re signing up for is as good as it sounds before committing.
13. Grab an Overnight Bus/Train
Using the cover of night to move between countries is beneficial on two fronts: firstly, it saves you the trauma of spending an entire day on a bus/train or at an airport; and secondly, it saves you the money that you would have otherwise had to spend on accommodation.
The prices on overnight trains are often much cheaper to boot!
I’m not promising that all overnight trains are fun, but there’s often a great sense of camaraderie amongst those in cattle class that translates to the development of lifelong friendships.
That said, if purchasing a spot in a bed or a more comfortable chair (on the bus/train) is an option for you financially – I certainly wouldn’t be turning my nose up at it.
Rome2Rio is a great resource that you can use to check out the transit options (and compare their prices). I use it to learn about a range of providers who can transport you from A to B. Then I check out the websites of the providers to see what their low price calendar has in store.
Flixbus has a pretty extensive network across Europe and is expanding aggressively into America and Scandinavia.
You can also check out Megabus for the UK, Europe, America and Canada, Greyhound Canada, Greyhound Australia, and Greyhound America. For trains, check out the Interrail list of overnight trains in Europe.
14. Stay at an Airbnb
To say that Airbnb disrupted the short-term accommodation market is to make a dramatic understatement of its impact.
Airbnb allows hosts to advertise their homes and make them available for short-term tenants – much like a hotel would, but with more flexibility, range and personalized service.
If you want an apartment that caters for several families on holiday, a penthouse suite for a pre-wedding night out, or anything in between then it’s likely that Airbnb will have something suitable for you.
The range of prices on Airbnb also varies dramatically. If you’re a solo traveler, you can save by booking a single room in an apartment and share it with the family or other guests. If you’re a family you can save by finding something affordable instead of paying the often extortionate hotel fees for family suites.
There are a bunch of lesser known sites that offer the same or similar services to Airbnb. Check out VRBO, HomeAway (although the reviews of the site aren’t too inspiring), VacationRentals, or Wimdu if Airbnb isn’t to your taste.
Save more by signing up for Airbnb using our referral code. You’ll receive a discount on your first booking.
15. Rent Out Your Place
You can reverse the logic of Airbnb and rent out your place whilst you’re away to make money on your empty house, thus decreasing the overall cost of your trip!
If you combine this with our discounted accommodation options you can double up on the savings!
Airbnb has a pretty good reputation for its insurance offered to those who rent out properties via the platform, but you should make sure you read the Terms and Conditions beforehand.
If you’re considering an alternate platform from the point above or a different one that you haven’t heard of, be sure to check out reviews of other hosts and the Terms and Conditions as well. You don’t want to be shortchanged if something goes awry.
If you’re planning on relying on Airbnb in the future, remember that the guests leave reviews, so be honest about your listing.
Also, don’t underestimate the value that guests place on some perks (like shampoo, fresh towels and linen, and a good atmosphere).
Be sure to check the legality of Airbnb and similar platforms in your area. Fines from local councils can be hefty, so it’s not worth it if you are likely to be given a fine.