As you can probably tell from my how to travel on a budget series, I’m passionate about roaming and exploring and particularly interested in ways to keep costs down while doing it.
Recently, I wrote a piece on low budget transport which outlined ways of getting where you need to go without it costing an arm and a leg. This post is going to focus on finding accommodation while you’re abroad that won’t break the bank. Here’s a few ideas on how to rest easy at night knowing you can afford to eat in the morning!
As always, feedback and comments are most welcome 🙂
As comfortable and swanky as a hotel room may be, it's just not worth the fortune you spend on it and, in all likelihood, you'll have a far better experience slumming it like the rest of us than you would sitting in a posh room by yourself! Now, by some chance of fate, you could head to the local bar and be picked up by some tall, dark and handsome local who sweeps you away to his pad and shows you the time of your life but, if like me you live in the real world, here are a few handy (and cheap) ways to stay with people from the area.
Couchsurfing: As a surfer and a host (it's free to join as both), I can wholly vouch for the couchsurfing platform as a means of staying for free with interesting, friendly locals. I've used the website to find sofas in Croatia, Slovenia, Denmark, Italy and the UK and met some really wonderful people along the way. I stayed with an amazing couple in Zagreb in January this year and, while it was the middle of winter and the days were dark, they went completely out of their way to help me experience the area. On one sub zero morning we hopped into their frostbitten car and drove the 2.5 hours to Plitvice Lakes National Park where we spent the day wandering around in awe of the vast frozen lakes and frosty waterfalls (photo above). While it's not uncommon to stay with homeowners who want nothing more than to show you around be aware that occasionally your host just won't have the time. Even if their schedules are busy though, you'll generally get a chance to share a meal together at some point and get some tips about what to do and see in the area. When looking for a host on the website you can search using a number of criteria such as their age, gender (as a woman I tend to look for female hosts), reviews (obviously, try and pick hosts with positive reviews from people who have stayed), sleeping arrangements (I always avoid a host who advertises a shared sleeping surface - you'll find creeps anywhere) and even their hobbies and interests.
Globalfreeloaders: This website is pretty much the same idea as couchsurfing although it seems a little less active. I've signed up as a member (for free) to globalfreeloaders but only ever received one request to stay and never gotten any response from prospective hosts. Having said this, there are definitely people out there who use the website regularly and find it a valuable travelling tool.
Airbnb: I've spoken a little about Airbnb before and was deliberating about which heading to put it under in this post. While, on one hand, it is paid accommodation, on the other hand, it's a chance to stay with local people and get an authentic experience of the place you're in. On the website, residents advertise their free couch, bedroom or even entire home which you can stay in at, usually, a much lower rate than the surrounding hotels and B&Bs. Generally you'll have less interaction with your Airbnb hosts than you would with couchsurfing but it's still a great opportunity to get some tips and ideas from someone who knows the area.
Although not the most glamorous type of accommodation, tents provide you with a dry, sheltered and cheap/free place to rest your weary head after a day full of adventures and sure what more do you really need? There are a few things to bear in mind though before you decide to go camping. One of these is the weather conditions you're likely to come up against at your destination. If it's likely to be wet and windy it's probably worthwhile investing in a strong and waterproof tent (I learned the hard way that water resistant does not mean water proof!). Another thing to consider is the size of your tent. If you're moving about lots on your travels you'll want something lightweight and portable. If you're planning on staying in the one spot for a while then something slightly bigger might suit you better.
Wild camping: Camping out in nature can be a very freeing and liberating experience, your home is literally where your heart is. There's something wonderful about tuning into nature and learning to rest and rise with the sun. And lets not forget, it's free! My partner and I had a fantastic experience hiking and wild camping along the Wicklow Way trail in Ireland earlier this year, despite our mistake of pitching at the top of a mountain one night during a thunderstorm! Now, in Ireland, wild camping is not strictly legal although, if you stick the leave no trace guidelines, you generally won't be kicked off your spot. Check the laws in whichever country you're going to and, legal or not, always show the environment the respect it deserves. Also, before disappearing into the forest with your tent on your back, be sure that it's safe to do so. As I've mentioned before, camping in the bear filled woods of Brasov, Romania is probably not recommended.
Campsites: While maybe not as daring and exciting as wild camping, campsites are usually quite affordable and there are definitely benefits to pitching up in one. Aside from having access to toilets, showering facilities and electricity, you get a chance to mingle with fellow campers. Most campsites nowadays also have activities and entertainment for their guests - I have many fond memories of family holidays spent in France playing bingo at our campsite.
Another great way to find cheap or free accommodation in an area is to research the local organisations there and see if they are offering beds in exchange for a few hours work or a small donation. I have had some of my most rewarding travel experiences doing this. Here are a few ideas on where to try.
Ashrams/monasteries: A lot of these types of establishments warmly welcome those wishing to learn about daily ashram or monastery life. They will normally provide a bed, meals (sometimes) and permission to take part in their day to day activities and ceremonies for a nominal fee or for a couple of hours service in the garden/kitchen etc. The photo above is from my month long stay in the Ananda Gaorii ashram in Denmark where I spent 4 hours a day helping out with the cooking, cleaning and gardening and, in exchange, got a bed, vegetarian meals and the opportunity to take part in their daily meditations and kirtan (spiritual singing)
Hostels: On my travels I've come across many hostels seeking people to man the front desk and help with the cleaning in exchange for a bed in one of their dorms so I decided to give it a go in Youthink Hostel in Cluj Napoca earlier this year. While I'll admit the freezing cold month of January is not the best time to visit Romania, I had a nice experience and enjoyed my time there. The workload was small and I got to meet some amazing people from all over the world.
Volunteering sites: Spending hours searching online for appropriate organisations in your destination can be tiring and off putting. Thankfully, some clever souls decided to put together websites where organisations, businesses, farms and families can create host profiles and offer meals and accommodation in exchange for your work. There will be a small fee for any volunteers looking to join the site but, once a member, you can access all of these hosts for free. My absolute favourite site is Workaway but other popular platforms are Helpx and Wwoof. I won't delve into too much detail here (we'll save that for another post) but I will say that the absolute best travel experiences I've had have been while volunteering.
I'm leaving this section to the end as staying in paid accommodation such as hotels or B&Bs is normally a last resort for me. I find them generally overpriced and a bit boring but, having said that, you can sometimes pick up a decent deal. If I'm really stuck and need to book something I tend to use the Booking.com website.
If you're looking for low prices, shared dorms in hostels are the way to go rather than private rooms in hotels or B&Bs. Low budget hostels can be a bit.... sticky.... and definitely come with their downsides but, as the saying goes, 'you get what you pay for'. Sometimes they'll have breakfast included and they're always full of weird and wonderful people so, when you get home, at least you'll have some interesting stories to tell!