The Thrifty Traveler: 4 Low-Cost Alternatives to Hotels

In February, I introduced a new blog series, The Thrifty Traveler. In case you missed it, each post focuses on ways to save money while satisfying your wanderlust. Last time, we learned tips for booking airfare on a budget. This month, we’re tackling another popular topic: how to find low-cost lodging.

Accommodation is one of the biggest fixed costs you’ll face while traveling. And because lodging is a daily necessity, finding ways to cut costs in this area can have a noticeable impact on your overall budget.

Historically, camping or staying in a motel were two of your only options for a cheap stay. But for some—like those who prefer a real bed and a private shower (me!) or have watched too many horror movies to ever consider booking a motel (also me!)—those weren’t really options at all.

Now, thanks to some clever innovators, finding cheap alternatives to hotels is easier than ever. Read on to discover some of my favorites, which can be enjoyed by people of all ages and situations.

Book an AirBnb

I almost always stay in an Airbnb while traveling. For those who don’t know, Airbnb allows people (just like you!) to rent out their homes, apartments, or other properties primarily for homestays or tourism experiences. (Read all about how it has affected the real estate industry here.)

You can choose to book a shared room, private room, or entire home. Your cheapest option will be a shared or private room. Though sharing a home with a stranger sounds awkward, it can make for an incredibly authentic experience. Hosts will often recommend the best local spots and may even invite you out with their friends.

Though I’ve booked private rooms a handful of times, I prefer to book an entire house. Surprisingly, this is often cheaper than the cost of a hotel. Plus, you have access to a full kitchen (often stocked with all the gadgets you need to cook a meal) and other amenities like laundry machines, a garage, and yard space (exact amenities vary by home).

And, because Airbnb hosts rely on positive recommendations to advertise their properties, they do everything they can to make your stay enjoyable—one host left me a fully stocked fridge and a sample of local chocolates!

Stay in a Hostel

OK, I know what you’re thinking. “She’ll stay in a hostel, but a motel is too scary?! She clearly hasn’t seen Hostel.”

The truth is, I have seen Hostel, but thankfully, I’ve had enough positive experiences with this type of accommodation to rid my mind of the negative connotations that movie creates.

While studying abroad, my peers and I would book hostels for our weekend excursions. Though I was wary initially, my first hostel experiences put my mind at ease.

In Brazil, I shared a quad with three other girls. The room was clean, bright, and cheery. We even had a private bathroom! In South Africa, we stayed in a dormitory-style hostel with 10 bunkbeds and a shared bathroom. While that set-up wasn’t ideal, the shared dining space, complete with a gorgeous deck with a view of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, made it worth it. Plus, it cost less than $20 per night!

My favorite hostel booking site is Hostelworld. The inventory is pretty comprehensive, and the interface is user-friendly. Plus, you can read reviews from other travelers to ensure you’re booking a safe, clean, and pleasant space.

If nothing else, I encourage you to at least take a look at the options. I think you’d be surprised to see the amenities some hostels offer—like free Wi-Fi, pools, onsite bars, and more.

Try Couchsurfing

I’ve personally never tried Couchsurfing, but I know people who love it. With Couchsurfing, you can connect with locals around the world who will share their homes and lives with you. Through this connection, Couchsurfing aims to foster cultural exchange and mutual respect. The bonus? It’s completely free!

Friends have told me they appreciate the opportunity to truly live like a local while Couchsurfing. Hosts will take you to parties, restaurants, and other sites you won’t find in any guidebook. And in some instances, you may even gain a new friend!

Couchsurfing is committed to your safety too. Much like AirBnb, users have profiles where you can find reviews and ratings on their hosting abilities. Plus, members are required to go through a verification process upon joining. You can learn more about Couchsurfing and safety here.

Find a Farm Stay

Farm stays have been growing in popularity over the years. Unlike WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), which requires you to work four to six hours per day in exchange for free food and lodging, farm stays charge you money to stay and let you interact with farming activities as much or as little as you want.

Accommodations range from cabins, cottages, and guest rooms, to tent camping and yurts. Activities vary by location, too. Some farms may offer cooking classes, horseback riding lessons, and even spas. And, of course, most will let you indulge in their farm-fresh eggs, fruits, vegetables, and meats. It’s important to note that while farm stays can be cheaper than a hotel, prices vary widely. On average though, expect to pay the price of a budget hotel.

Farm Stay Planet has the most comprehensive inventory of farm stays that I’ve found. However, it doesn’t show prices. Once you choose an accommodation, it takes you to a third-party site, which reveals the price and allows you to book. Farm Stay US and Farm Stay UK show prices but are limited to farm stays in their respective regions.

Learn to Love Low-Priced Lodging

I like hotels just as much as the next person. They’re familiar, comfortable, and consistent. But if you’re looking to save money and have a super-authentic experience while doing it, consider one of the options from this list. You never know, you could end up falling in love with a new way of traveling—I certainly have!

What are your favorite accommodation alternatives? Let us know in the comments!

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