The Ultimate Guide to Finding a Place to Stay when Traveling (free, cheap or fancy)
“I need a place to stay and I have no money”
“Traveling is too expensive, the accommodation costs are way too high”
“I can’t find the right lodging for me”
I’m pretty sure that at least one of these thoughts has already crossed your mind - until not so long ago, I was still thinking this way.
If you have expensive tastes, then accommodation can quickly turn into one of the main expenditure items of your travel budget, along with your flight ticket (except if you know how to book a cheap flight). If money isn’t an issue for you, that’s great! You will still find some helpful tips and tools to find the perfect place to stay in this ultimate guide.
But sleeping doesn’t have to be expensive! You just need to get out of the hotel mindset and consider alternative overnight accommodation. This guide will help you find places to stay the night, the week or the month.
A lot depends on your tastes, budget, destination, but also the way you travel, what kind of comfort you require, how many fellow travelers you bring along and what your interests are.
If you want to know the best accommodations for the way you travel and get some tips to free up some money, read on!
THE BEST ACCOMMODATIONS DEPENDING ON YOUR TRAVELER’S PROFILE
For budget travelers looking for free places to sleep
This is the first reflex of open-minded adventurers who don’t want to spend a cent on lodging but are interested in meeting new people. Couchsurfing has the most popular and largest community. Hosts open their house or apartment for free. They are often former travelers or explorers settling down for a while.
Whether you get a whole bedroom or a simple couch, don’t just think of it as a free place to crash: even if you’re not traveling alone, make some time to get to know your host, that’s why they are welcoming you for! Go for a drink, learn about the local cuisine, a few words… This really is the best part of hospitality networks: you get to see a city through the eyes of a local, know more about places to hang out you couldn’t find anywhere else, without spending anything for accommodation.
I had an amazing Couchsurfing experience in Tanzania, where I stayed 3 nights with an Egyptian guy working there. Since the night is free, I think it’s always a good idea to bring a small gift: nothing expensive, just a little something from a previous trip or your own country.
People who shy away from this option often do so because they think it’s not safe. But think of it this way: these people open their door to strangers! Plus, Couchsurfing has several levels of verification that ensure the quality of a host. They also have a system of review, both for the host and the guest. It’s really an amazing way to build yourself a network of friends across the globe!
- Send requests only to people with a profile picture and a thoroughly filled profile: it’s a (sort of) guarantee that they are involved in the network.
- The same goes for you: take the time to fill your profile to build trust.
- Check the reviews to get an idea of what previous guests thought about their stay. If they’re not verified but have tons of reviews, that’s fine.
- Send customized requests: show that you are interested in the host, not just in getting a free place to stay the night.
- Join Couchsurfing’s local meetups: they can help you get your first few references.
See this accommodation option as a way to stay at someone’s house and learn more about their culture, stories, and experiences.
Couchsurfing is by far my Top 1 choice among all services that belong to the sharing economy, but here are some more websites that offer the same options: Trustroots, Stay4free.com, Globalfreeloaders.com and Hospitality Club. Don’t forget that if you just need a place to stay tonight, you can also get in touch with your own network of friends: that’s what I did in Amsterdam, where I ended up at a friend of a friend’s. We exchanged stories about our respective trips and everyone had a great time, for free.
The concept is very close to Couchsurfing: while everything is free in the latter and you can get hosted without hosting in return (although once you settle down it’s nice to become a host), night swapping consists of earning points for every night that you are a host. In return, you earn points that let you book nights for free at someone else from the community. You can also turn these points in cash if that’s your choice.
NightSwapping boasts a 250.000 members community spread across 160 countries. Not only can you earn nights or money by hosting, but also by traveling: every trip you book to a member’s place grants you points as well.
In terms of security, users are verified, a messaging system lets you contact your host and the accommodation is covered up to 450.000€ through a partnership with Allianz. In their welcome guide, NightSwapping encourages the hosts to provide local information and advice so that you can make the most of your trip.
Obviously, to exchange your home, you need one. That’s why this concept is usually better suited to senior travelers. The idea is that if you need a place to stay for free at your destination, you can swap your house with someone else: they come to your home, you come to theirs.
Again, don’t forget that your counterparts will also trust you with their home, so don’t worry too much about safety. Most members are on the same page and you can talk to them over the phone and via email beforehand. I understand how scary it can be, but it’s also a question of trust in people. Choose to see the good in them! To make sure everything is going fine, neighbors or friends will also come to pay you a visit.
If you want to hold on to the comfort of home even when you’re abroad, consider Home Exchange, it’s the most popular website, with over 65.000 homes available in 150 countries. You only need to find the right one.
Monastery stay & Religious housing
On the contrary, if comfort isn't your top accommodation criteria but you still need a free place to sleep, monasteries offer free of costs accommodation to budget-minded travelers.
A few things to consider before opting for this alternative. As I mentioned, don’t expect much more than a mattress on the floor and a basic meal prepared by the religious occupants. Also, despite the lodging being offered free of charge, a donation is evidently much appreciated. Abide by the rules when you’re there: they are peaceful places that often impose a curfew. Note as well that you may need to be affiliated with the religion to stay, so do a little bit of research before knocking on Heaven’s door.
Matador Network built a list of 15 monastery stays around the world. If none of these work for you or if your destination country isn’t there, simply google “monastery stay in [country]”.
They are a great substitute to hotels for adventurers, from solo travelers to families. It’s definitely a must-try for budget vagabonds looking for an unusual experience!
You don’t need a place to sleep if you sleep during your journey! That’s also one of my best tips to buy cheap flight tickets and airport hacks: a red-eye flight (when you fly by night) is usually cheaper. The price of the night is only that of the airfare and you arrive fresh and ready to explore. Ok, shower first, if you can.
That’s actually one of my top free places to sleep. I book all the flights I can by night, especially long-haul ones. This way, I arrived in China fresh like a cucumber and had time to enjoy Beijing right from the morning, when the city wasn’t buzzing too much yet.
But the same goes for buses, trains and even boats. A trip from Paris to Berlin by bus took me roughly 14 hours: that’s a huge loss of time when you do such a trip during the day, especially for short-term trips.
Be warned, however, that managing to sleep in overnight transport is a skill that needs practice to master. My train ride to Inner Mongolia in China was the longest and most exhausting in my life, especially since the wagon was crowded.
- Bring some equipment: earplugs and eye mask, some water and a blanket or something to cover yourself with.
- Make friends with your neighbors: they can wake you up if you drop off before the final destination, and you’re less likely to have your stuff stolen. Still, secure them as much as you can.
- Whenever possible, select a spot where you have decent legroom.
For road trippers, do not miss the opportunity of the free place to sleep that is your car (or RV)! A simple parking lot will do. The best morning of my road trip from France to Bulgaria going through the Balkans was when I woke up in the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro. It should be on your bucket list, by the way.
In the line of less comfort but free accommodation for travelers, wild camping is a terrific way to reduce your expenses. Comfort actually depends on your gear. Consider investing in some quality equipment that you will satisfy your needs. Camping is open to every budget: you can get a standard 2-people tent for about 20€, even less with second-hand, or a camping hammock like the Expert Vagabond.
The big plus of this housing option is that you can sleep basically everywhere you’re allowed to. I encourage you to stay away from private property. There are already plenty of places to go to in the wild: it’s an opportunity to get closer to nature. It’s your chance to try out remote areas since you can basically go anywhere. Even better if you’re traveling only with a backpack.
- Bring some equipment: a torch lamp, toilet paper, mosquito repellent
- Camp close to a water source
- Keep your food in a tree (or at least away from your tent)
- Don’t be an ass: leave the place as you found it, be respectful
If you’re not sure about wilderness camping, you can always opt for a campsite. It won’t be free, but still cheaper than a hotel.
Camp in my Garden is also an awesome website that connects campers to people who have a backyard they are willing to let you camp in (for a small fee). You only need your own equipment, the spot is already found! The website used to work mostly in Europe but it gained popularity worldwide, so make sure to check it out whenever you need to find a place to stay the night.
For travelers on a budget looking for cheap accommodation options
”It’s dirty, noisy, only for young people...”
WRONG! It’s the same as a hotel: it varies from one place to another. Far from being reserved to the young, hostels are open to all ages. Each hostel has its identity, just make sure to check for reviews before booking. I always had great experiences booking cheap hostels with Hostelworld: in Sozopol, at the seaside of Bulgaria, the manager prepared an awesome free breakfast and helped me find another place when I had to leave because I wanted to stay longer but they were packed. I also use Booking.com, which is a good alternative to find an affordable place to stay when traveling, with their large inventory of hostels.
Hostels mainly offer dormitories with bunk beds, with between 4 and 10+ beds: usually, the bigger the room, the cheaper the price. If you do mind your privacy, some also provide small rooms. In any case, the facilities (bathroom, toilets, kitchen if there is one) are shared.
They are a great place to meet backpackers and fellow budget travelers with stories to share. The atmosphere is usually convivial and people are open-minded. Nonetheless, take advantage of the lockers that the hostel provides for securing your belongings: don’t forget to bring a lock! I recommend that you avoid hostels which don’t provide lockers: trust in people, but not blindly. If you’re traveling as a group, you can ask for a whole dormitory for yourselves: it’s also worth asking for a discount.*Nomadic Matt: How to Pick a Good Hostel*
Airbnb is the most popular of the short-term rental options. I love their website and the philosophy of the company. If you’re still worried about security when it comes to staying at a stranger’s, check out the Ted Talk of one of co-founder Joe Gebbia below, to see how they designed their service around mutual trust.
I stayed in an old house that had survived the earthquake of 1906 in San Francisco, California. The owner had inherited the house from her family and was thrilled to tell us more about the region. Airbnb encourages hosts to provide people more than just a place to stay when traveling, but a whole experience.
Short-term is all relative since you can even book a place for the month. This sleeping option has the advantage of offering a fully furnished lodging, including most of the time a kitchen where you can save more money by cooking your own food. They’re in between hostels and hotels. Short-term rentals’ costs vary greatly but they’re on average the same price as a budget hotel. You usually get a discount if you stay longer than a week.*Ted Talk by Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia: How Airbnb designs for trust*
- Check the pictures and the reviews left by the previous guests.
- Make sure that you have a way to contact the host at your arrival so they can give you the keys.
- Keep in mind the location and transportation system before you book: city centers are usually more expensive, but don’t need to use common transport as much. Find your balance.
Get a 35€ discount on your first booking of at least 65€ with this link!
If you’re a solo traveler, you might find it expensive compared to hostels, but Airbnb is perfect when you’re a couple or a group. Other alternatives include Wimdu and Roomorama, but once again, I’m all for Airbnb.
They offer a great alternative to hotels by providing more amenities, such as a kitchen and a laundry. Prices vary depending mostly on the type of lodging and location - if you can split the costs among a group of travelers, vacation rentals can make your stay very special.
HomeAway, VRBO and Airbnb offer over 1 million places to sleep for a night or more to tourists around the world. Types of lodging are very varied: you can probably find something that suits you or that’s a bit more exotic than what you’re used to.
This solution is one of the cheap alternatives to hotels that are not often enough thought of. Many universities around the globe provide their students with free or low-cost accommodation. When comes the time for holidays, these lodgings are left unoccupied: some universities are then willing to rent them to travelers looking for affordable sleep options.
While it’s harder to find something on weekends during the school year, do check if the local college dorms are open to renting student rooms or dorms during term breaks or in the summer. The best option is to do your research on the local universities and colleges and contact them directly. Just google “academic housing in [city]”. I know that my university in France opened their doors to budget travelers between July and August. Facilities won’t be of the same standard as a hotel, but your wallet will thank you for it!
You can also check out Academic Homes for North America, University Rooms for Europe, and Sublet.com for South America.
Guesthouses / Budget hotels / Inns
I love guest houses and inns. Backpackers on a budget usually praise these affordable lodgings for the special attention they are given during their stay and the local cuisine they are served. During a day of trekking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge, in the province of Yunnan, South China, we stopped at Tina’s Inn for the night. The place was large enough to welcome about 15 travelers. We all ate at the same table, sharing our journey’s story while eating homemade food.
The setting of guesthouses is often amazing. Many are located in remote places to provide a safe haven for tired hikers in a need of a place to stay after or in the middle of their expedition. When I woke up at Tina’s Inn, the sun was rising behind the mountains that were no further than 100m away from my bedroom door.
The rooms are usually simple without many amenities, making them very affordable. They are shared the same way as a hostel dormitory to facilitate bonding between travelers, although some do provide a private room as well. I took one when I needed a good night rest after another trek among the rice terraces of Dazhai, in the province of Guangxi.
- Ask in advance if the breakfast is included. I always choose inns and guest houses where it is. Then again, a Frenchman needs his morning meal.
- Ask to see the room before actually paying.
- If you’re booking online beforehand, make sure to check reviews and pictures.
- Ask for the door’s key to keep your valuables safe.
Prices are usually the same as budget hotels, which I think lack the charm of a guest house in comparison. So once in a while, why not? I usually book guest houses, inns and budget hotels via Booking.com.
Cabins and cottages
They shouldn't be forgotten by budget-minded travelers since the most primitive ones are even cheaper than campsites. As highlighted by WikiVoyage, cabins and cottages are located in remote areas, often in rural destinations. Most are actually close to hunting or fishing camps or camping sites. They can turn out to be expensive for solo travelers but they are great for couples and groups.
For travelers ready to get involved
You might already have had a local homestay experience when you were at school: I had a foreign correspondent in Bristol, England as part of a school program. I stayed at her place for a week and then she visited me in France.
Local homestays are a great opportunity if you want to learn a foreign language and share a family’s culture and daily life. Provided that you work with them, you can even make some extra bucks. Travelers who need a place to stay for a month for free and who look for a truly immersive experience love this option. In Istanbul, I stayed for a week with a family with two children. I taught them English and in exchange, I was hosted and fed for free.
- Learn a few words of the language before your stay: it will make things easier and be appreciated by your hosts. Smiling will also help when you don’t understand: you might look like an idiot, but a friendly one at least.
- Enquire about which meals are provided. Breakfast usually is, the rest of them not always.
- Be open-minded: these people welcome you in their home and they will treat you as family. Be respectful and take every opportunity to learn.
- Bring a small gift from your country: I usually bring sweets typical of my region and my hosts love this. It’s also a nice ice-breaker.
To find a host family, google “homestay [country]” or “homestay [city] and choose a website that looks trustworthy. You will be put in touch with a family.*What is a homestay, by Homestay.com*
It’s the same as baby or pet-sitting: in exchange for keeping someone else’s house, you get a free place to stay when traveling. People going away for a while indeed trust strangers to take care of their property in their absence: if you’re ready to work a little to pay for your accommodation, it’s a fantastic option! Obviously, “strangers” is not the right word, since you need to provide solid references (why not start with house-sitting for family and friends first?).
It’s true that you won’t be as free as you would in a hotel where you can come and go as you please: house-sitting includes looking after and cleaning the house, sometimes even taking care of a pet. But it can definitely be worth it for travelers looking for a free place to stay for a fortnight or a month, with the comfort of home. Plus, it’s not a prison, you can go around of course! Just make sure that the owners signed on all your tasks and responsibilities.
All sorts of homes are available for house-sitting, giving you access to a wide range of luxury levels. It’s not uncommon to find villas next to the sea in the south of France and Italy for instance. Popular travel accommodation websites for house-sitting include MindMyHouse, House Carers, Luxury House Sitting, and TrustedHousesitters.
Volunteer & Work exchange
“I need a place to stay, I’m homeless. I can work for my accommodation”. If you’ve got the profile, consider volunteer work or paid work exchange. The most popular, especially in Australia, are farm stays. In exchange for your work and involvement with the farm’s activity, you are provided with cheap accommodation. Your work usually earns you more than just your rent, so you even get some extra cash.
Before signing up, bear in mind that the work is physical and exhausting. But it’s also extremely rewarding and enriching: you get to help a family or a community with a project, be it their farm or the construction of a school for young children for instance. If you’ve got an interesting skill set, make the most of it and work for your accommodation rather than paying for it. Consider it as yet another opportunity to do some good while getting insights into the local culture and lifestyle. And saving money at the same time.*Some advice for first timers from The Hatchbackers*
Friends of mine swear their humanitarian mission in Madagascar, where they built a school for orphans, was their most amazing travel experience. My cousin left for Australia where he’s making enough money on a farm to pay for decent accommodation and even travel around from time to time. I seriously consider a work exchange for one of my future trips and regret I didn’t do it sooner!
- Check which meals are included.
- Make sure you agree on the number of working hours: if you have time to visit around on the weekends, it’s a golden opportunity!
- Ask how your work will be remunerated: money and/or free accommodation?
- Inquire about extra fees that could be involved.
If you’re interested in a farm stay, check out WWOOF, which brings together volunteers and organic farmers, Farm Stay US or Farm Stay Camping Australia.
Work Away and HelpX are dedicated to finding volunteer work for people looking for a place to stay when traveling and ready to help, not exclusively on farms.
Live on a boat
It’s also a work exchange, but I think it’s slightly different than the section above since you are bound to stay on the boat while you’re at sea, therefore limiting your freedom in a sense. But on the other hand, websites such as Find A Crew don’t just grant free lodging for travelers by living on a boat: you also get the transportation!
Nora Dunn has sailed on 5 boats for three months in the Caribbean and provided a detailed guide on how to get a job and a free ride working on boats. She explains how easy it is to network in the nautical community once you got your first experience. You might even make some extra bucks in the process for your work.
Living at sea is not for everyone, but I can barely imagine how thrilling it must be to learn how to sail a boat and exploring the sea rather than the land for a while. Plus, you still get stopovers to bond with the earth again! Just don’t think that it will be chilling and tanning all day long: it takes a lot of work and you need to be committed. If you don’t want to be tossed overboard, that is. Ok, I did watch Pirates of the Caribbean a lot.
For travelers who don’t have problems with money
Writing a guide on finding a place to stay when traveling wouldn’t be complete without hotels, would it? Let’s just get something out of the way: as a budget traveler, I do not like hotels. Yet, there is no denying that they do provide comfort and can ease your trip in many ways, if only by guaranteeing a transport from the airport.
That being said, they are still a few ways to make sure booking a hotel will not ruin you when you’re looking for a place to stay when traveling. Tingo is a great tool: it refunds your money if the price of your lodging drops after you booked. You can do some research on more popular websites and cross-check with Tingo: if prices are lower or the same, you might as well book with it.
Based on a deep analysis from Nomadic Matt, Booking a cheap hotel requires different websites depending on where you're traveling. In general, anywhere in the world, look at Expedia or Priceline. If you’re traveling specifically to the US, TravelPony is your travel accommodation website of predilection. And for having used it on a few occasions, Agoda is working miracles in Asia.
I wouldn’t use Booking.com which usually doesn’t return the best prices for hotels compared to the rest, nor Trivago which overrate their hotels (see blog post of Nomadic Matt).
Travelers that don’t worry too much about money will enjoy their stay in nice hotels. I still recommend to check for reviews and enquire about fidelity programs when it comes to large chains: you might as well get rewarded for booking at a more expensive rate!
These upscale hotels usually offer a unique setting and focus on offering an unforgettable experience rather than basic accommodation. Expect them to be rather pricey, although they cover very different price ranges. But you’re sure to make an adventure out of your stay!
You can book this treehouse from i-escape for 219€ per night. Pricey but magical
GoUnusual lets you book a place in a treehouse, underwater, and even in a teepee or an igloo! It's worth a glance to get an idea of a “life less ordinary”, as they seek to promote. Doris & Dicky want to make boutique hoteling affordable and offer budget options without compromising on quality. Their very flexible booking system lets you get a refund without fees and pay only when you check-out, for most of their lodgings. Check out i-escape’s extensive inventory spread over 50 countries for even more options. Booking.com also has a nice selection of boutique hotels worldwide.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett built a more extensive list of the best boutique hotel websites for The Guardian. Travelers looking for an off the beaten path experience should give boutique hotels a go. Adventures like that should be one your bucket list, if only for one night!
For travelers who don’t have a choice anymore: Last resort solutions
Believe it or not, there is a website for the squatting community online: Squat the Planet is surprisingly full of inspiring stories! According to the Expert Vagabond, 1 out of 7 people in the world is estimated to live as squatters, meaning that they live on a property owned by someone else without permission.
It’s in the last resort solutions for a reason: the options above and tips below should be enough for you to find a free or cheap place to stay when traveling, and I do not recommend it.
We’ve all done it to some extent, right? I cannot count the times I slept at the airport during a long layover. If you need only a few hours of sleep before hitting the road again (or taking off), don’t bother with a hotel or anything else: sleep at the airport, or at the train or bus station.
As long as you don’t smell too bad and you have a backpack or suitcase showing that you travel, security officers should leave you in peace.
- Check if you have a free WiFi network (check out the map below for airport passwords).
- Find your spot early before all the good ones are taken: you don’t want to sleep where there is too much passenger traffic but not too isolated either.
- Use the public bathroom for a quick wash-up session and teeth brushing.
- Bring your own food: as I mentioned in my airport hacks, food can be pricey in airports and bus stations.
By the way, the airline screwed up your flight and you were delayed, canceled or overbooked? We help you get up to 600€ of compensation. Something to spend on your next flight or accommodation in future trips!
THE BEST TIPS AND HACKS TO FIND AFFORDABLE ACCOMMODATION
1. Search for your place to stay in private mode
My tips to buy cheap flight tickets include navigating incognito when booking your flight ticket. The same goes when you need a cheap place to sleep.
2. Don’t forget Facebook
There are always groups dedicated putting travelers in touch, where you can find accommodation for a few days or more. This is how I found my summer rental last summer in Sofia, Bulgaria.
3. Take transportation costs into accounts
Don’t go too far away, but maybe not in the very center either. Find the balance with a cheap rent close to the main attractions of the city.
4. Stay more than one night
Hotels and Airbnb will give you discount rates if you stay for a longer time. If you’re staying in a free place abroad, it gives you a chance to talk with your host and the locals, to truly make the most of your trip.
5. Look at the booking and payment terms
Keep an eye on prices even after you booked and be on the lookout for better deals. Booking.com offers free cancellation, they have a 24/7 customer service and they let you book now and pay later for example. Or book your hotel early with Tingo and get refunded for the difference if the price drops after you paid for your room
6. Ask for group or family deals
Especially in hotels, don’t be shy and ask for an upgrade, free meals, or a discount when you’re traveling as a group. What’s the worst that can happen: they will just say no and you’ll still have your regular booking.
7. Join an accommodation reward program
Hotels are expensive but if you book often with the same chain, you can get a few advantages in the process, allowing you to book your next stay with a discount. It works also on Booking.com: after a certain amount of reservations, you’ll see cheaper prices with your newly acquired status.
8. If you’re a student
Check out STA travel, they find special deals for you. However, double check on your own: STA doesn't always offer the cheapest flight tickets.
9. Risk last minute deals
Prices can drop in the late evening when hotels see their rooms have not all been booked. Hotel Tonight will help you if that's your plan. Then again, I wouldn’t bet everything on this option.
10. Sell everything, buy an RV and travel in your home
Ok, don’t sell everything, but an RV can be a great option for medium to long-term travel. You get a free place sleep wherever you can park!
Last words (I swear)
Traveling doesn’t have to be expensive. You can get cheap flight tickets easily with some organization and you’re now an expert at finding a place to stay when traveling. You are ready to save money on your lodging and actually make the most of your trip!
Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook for more travel hacks!
Congratulations, and see you around, traveler!
The airline screwed up your flight and you were delayed, canceled or overbooked? We help you get up to 600€ of compensation. Something to spend on your next flight or accommodation in future trips!
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