A monster chateau in France for a fraction of the price of a hotel.

It’s no secret that I prefer airline miles over hotel points by a wide margin.  The reason for this is that I when I’m traveling, I really enjoy staying at places that provide what I deem a more authentic experience.

That isn’t to say that I don’t have any hotel points, because I do.  And don’t get me wrong, I’d appreciate a stay at the Park Hyatt Vendome or the Hilton Bora Bora Resort as much as the next person.

But while those places are amazing in their own right, as a general rule of thumb I look for other alternatives when traveling.

Here are 4 different ways that you can stay in a place while traveling that offers an experience that is unique from the typical chain hotel experience.  Oh, and I should mention:  they’re almost always cheaper!

Hostels

A room at the Traveller’s Cave Hostel in Goreme, Turkey.

Two weeks ago, I wrote an article about why hostels are better than hotels, so if you’re a skeptic of hostels, I urge you to go give it a read.  In short, hostels are far different from the perception that many people have of them.  Nowadays, they are much more like unique, boutique hotels (try saying that 5 times fast) as opposed to slummy, skeevy dens full of backpackers.

In fact, one of the major reasons I recommend hostels over hotels is that they have much more character to them.  Each one is different and has its own quirks and personality, which makes them far more memorable than a concrete monolith emblazoned with some corporate logo.

The vibe is usually much more friendly and social, and the staff usually has a much more vested interest in your enjoyment, seeing as they are often the owners themselves.  I could go on and on about the virtues of hostels, but again, I’ve already done that.

Give hostels a try, and I’m betting you won’t regret it.

Resources:

Hostelbookers– My first stop when looking for a hostel because they charge the hostel owners less than other sites.

Hostelworld

Hostels.com

Hostelling International

Couchsurfing

The popularity of couchsurfing has exploded in the past few years and for good reason:  couchsurfing is about as authentic an experience as you can get!

The premise behind couchsurfing is that you, the traveler, stays at a local’s house or apartment for free.  That’s right, a stranger opens their home to another complete stranger…asking nothing in return but to learn from each other!

This may seem completely nuts to some of you (as it did to Heather when we first started doing it), but really, it is an amazing experience for both people.  I have both “surfed’ and “hosted” and each and every time, the experience has been a great one.

Obviously, couchsurfing has a high element of trust, both as the surfer (“I hope I’m not staying with some lunatic”) and as the host (“I hope I’m not hosting some lunatic”).

However, the Couchsurfing website has continued to add more and more safeguards each and every year to ensure that both parties can feel as comfortable as possible without having met the other firsthand before.

How Couchsurfing Works

The first step is to create your Couchsurfing profile, filling in details like your age, where you live, awesome experiences you’ve had, etc and adding any pictures you want.  You’re also required to then fill in if you have a couch available and if you can host.

From there, Couchsurfing will send you a postcard to the address you have listed with a confirmation number.  Once you enter the confirmation number in to your profile, your location becomes “verified”.  You can also have your identity verified by offering a small donation to Couchsurfing.

After those safeguards are passed, you can also have people you know on couchsurfing serve as references for you.  This is just another way for people to “get to know you” without having met you before.  The more references you have, the more legit you’ll be in the eyes of others.

Since Couchsurfing has become so popular in recent years, if you are looking to stay in an area, there will often be multiple people who have been verified and also have numerous references.  This helps alleviate some of the anxiety or nervousness of staying with that person, since they have been vouched for many times over.

The same goes for hosting people.  I am much more likely to host someone who has an active Couchsurfing profile, has had a profile for longer than a few weeks, and who has references under there belt.  The more ways you can prove your trustworthy and safe, the better chances you have of getting hosted.

Why Couchsurf?

The “Why Couchsurf?” question is hard to encapsulate in a few sentences but easy to understand if you’ve ever done it.  Here’s my best attempt:

Couchsurfing provides an incredibly unique opportunity to see how someone who is a local lives.  Maybe this means a crazy experience like staying with a family in a hut in Africa or maybe it simply means having someone to point you to the best pizza joint in New York City.

Regardless of where it is, you’ll be able to pick the brain of someone who knows the area much better than you, and getting to see the local side of things is something I’ve always loved (and being pointed in the right direction when it comes to the best places to eat is priceless)!

On top of that, you’ll get to meet someone completely new.  If this person is opening up their home to you, chances are they are an awesome person.  I don’t know how many people have built lasting friendships at hotels, but I’m willing to bet the percentage is much smaller than those who formed great bonds over Couchsurfing.

Amazingly enough, services like Couchsurfing, where people are helping out others and not asking anything in return, tend to bring out the best of society, and that’s something I want to be a part of.

So What’s the Couch Look Like?

The last point to consider is what type of place you’ll stay in.  On the Couchsurfing profile, you’ll usually get a pretty thorough run-down of the sleeping arrangements and comfort level that each person provides.  Many will even include pictures of the actual set-up.

This can range from “I’ve got a super tiny apartment and you’ll be sleeping on the floor of my kitchen on an air mattress” to “I’ve got a whole wing of my house devoted to guests with multiple queen-sized beds and its own kitchen and bathroom”.

Since you’ll be able to see this beforehand and almost every person is honest when talking about their hosting situation (I can’t think of any real reason to lie about it, seeing as that person will show up there), you’ll be able to pick and choose ahead of time what fits best for you.  If you’re past the point where you want to be cuddled up next to the stove, then simply choose another host.

I know that Couchsurfing isn’t for everyone, especially those traveling in large groups or with children, but it is for more people than you may think.  “Seeing the sights” is only one part of traveling, so get out of your comfort zone a little bit, stay with a local for a day or two, and you’ll be richly rewarded with stories that people in hotels can only dream of.

Resources:

Couchsurfing Official Website–  While there are other smaller sites that promote this style of travel as well, Couchsurfing is the major player and run amazingly well.

My Couchsurfing Profile-  For those interested in seeing my “not recently updated enough” profile.  Also, if you do decide to join, send me a friend request and I’ll gladly friend you back, giving you a little bit more validity love!

House-sitting

An available house-sit at a chateau in Normandy…no big deal.

House-sitting is a great opportunity for people who are looking for to stay in some amazing homes and properties and do so for free!  Yep, you read that right; for free!

The great thing about house-sitting is that it can be for short-term vacations of 1 week all the way up to year long sabbaticals.  It all depends on what you want!

How House-sitting Works

House-sitting is pretty straightforward.  Many people who will be away from their home for any extended amount of time want their place looked after.  Sometimes this is because they have pets that they can’t bring with them, sometimes this is because they want someone to look after their garden and yard, and sometimes it is simply because they want someone to occupy their house while they are gone for safety reasons.

Whatever the reason, people will offer up their homes and properties to be house-sit.  In exchange for taking care of the animal(s), yard work, or whatever the owners wants, the house-sitter will be allowed to stay at the property free of charge (although sometimes the owner will ask you to pay utilities).

Why House-Sit?

A stunning seaside property in Suffolk, Uk available for house-sit.

There are a few reasons that house-sitting can an incredible way to spend your vacation.  Like we’ve already mentioned, it is usually free (a big, big perk).

The second reason is that house-sits can allow you to enjoy some really fabulous and amazing properties.  The size, style, and condition of the property can vary greatly, but I’ve seen castles (literally castles) available for house-sits as well as places such as off-the-grid home in the rainforest in Costa Rica that is only accessible by boat.  Of course, there are more “normal” places like apartments in the center of major cities or townhomes in the suburbs.  The point is, the breadth and scope of the available house-sits is huge, which makes for some really cool opportunities.

Another great thing about house-sits is that you can find some for extended periods of time.  While having a place for free is great for a short vacation, it really comes in handy when you are thinking of going somewhere for more than week or two.  House-sits can range from a few days up to “indefinite”.  If you have a profession that allows you to be location independent and you really want to immerse yourself in a culture, it doesn’t get much better than taking a house-sit for a few months.  You’ll have all the comforts of home (just not your home, although it will probably start to feel like it after a few weeks) and you’ll be living for free.  It’s hard to argue with that!

Just like Couchsurfing, there is an element of trust that goes in to house-sitting, on both the owner and the house-sitters part.  While the owner is entrusting their most valuable asset to someone else, the house-sitter also has to trust the owner that that property and the conditions of the house are up to the standards specified.

Luckily, there are some great sites out there that can help you learn the ins and outs of how to score a good house-sit and how to make sure it works out for both parties involved.

Resources:

Dalene and Peter Heck’s site, Hecktic Travels, is far and away the best place to go to learn all about house-sitting.

They’ve been doing it for a number of years and have had numerous experiences, both good and “not so good”, which they openly share on their blog.

Heck, they’ve even put out a guidebook with all their best tips.

On top of that, they have some amazing photography, so I highly recommend you check their site out.  You can’t book house-sits on their site, but you can learn a “heck” of a lot!

There are a number of membership sites out there that connect owners and house-sitters.

Personally, I recommend and subscribe to Trusted Housesitters, which is not only the most user-friendly but also is growing the fastest (probably because it is set up so well).

Every day I get an email with the new postings and I can’t help but check it immediately, which is a bane to my productivity but wonderful for dreaming about where I want to head next.

Click here to get a special discount available only to EPoP readers.

The other good membership site I recommend is Housecarers.  It was one of the first house-sitting sites and has a lot of listings.

The problem for years was that it was set up like it was the 1990’s.

Just recently, they’ve begun updating their site (which, oddly enough, looks very similar Trusted Housesitters), which means their design and ease of use is (slowly) catching up to quality of their listings.

Apartment or House Rentals

Cozy Parisian flat next to the Notre Dame for rent on Air BnB.

Most of what was written about house-sitting can apply to apartment or house rentals with one major caveat; it isn’t free.

However, you also won’t have to worry about having any major responsibilities like taking care of an animal, so you have much more freedom.

Why Rent?

Renting an apartment or house is way better than staying in a hotel for a number of reasons.  One, you can usually find rentals much cheaper than hotels, especially if you are in a large group.

Two, you have all types of amenities that might not be available to you in a hotel, such as a kitchen and washer and dryer.

Third, rental apartments won’t nickel and dime you for things like internet and/or parking.  If the place has internet and parking, you’ll often be able to use it for free.

Lastly, if you get a chance to meet the owner of the place, they’ll often have some great advice on what to see and do in the area (and maybe even draw you killer handmade map with insider info like “all the best-looking girls are on the 2nd floor” and “mention my name to the owner and he’ll give you a free drink”….thanks Clint!)

Renting places has become much more common recently, and in almost every area I’ve looked, from Louisville, Kentucky to Munich, Germany,  I’ve been able to find good rentals for a fraction of the price that I’d pay for a hotel.  Every time, I’ve been extremely happy to have a rental as a home base.  Not only have the properties themselves been great, but so has the experience.

Resources:

AirBnB–  Find apartments or house rentals anywhere in the world, with reviews from other people who’ve stayed there.

Craigslist–  I’ve snagged apartments for super cheap both in America and abroad through Craigslist.  Don’t be afraid to look at this as an option.

Final Word(s)

Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and give some of these other options a try.  The amount of awesome experiences and crazy adventures I’ve had by staying in hostels, couchsurfing, or taking over someone’s apartment or house are innumerable.  It is these experiences that I remember long after I’ve left a place and the backbone of why I enjoy traveling so much.

Branch out, fellow travelers.  You won’t regret it!

Are there any other options other than hotels that I’ve missed?  Have you given hostels, couchsurfing, house-sitting, or renting a try?  What did you think of it?

(photos courtesy of mindmyhouse, hostelbookers, couchsurfing, trustedhousesitters, airbnb)