It’s no secret that I prefer airline miles over hotel points by a wide margin. Why? When I’m traveling, I enjoy staying in places that provide a more authentic experience.
Not that I don’t have hotel points; I do. And don’t get me wrong, I’d appreciate a stay at the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme 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 alternative accommodation options when traveling.
Here are 7 ways you can stay in a place that offers a more interesting experience than the typical chain hotel, while also saving a lot of money.
The media has given hostels a bad rap. If you think all hostels are cramped, smelly madhouses full of drunk backpackers, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Nowadays, they’re much more like unique, boutique hotels (try saying that 5 times fast).
In fact, hostels are among my favorite hotel alternatives because they have much more character. 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 since they are often the owners themselves.
While they’re a lot nicer than they used to be, don’t expect your hostel to be as luxurious as a hotel. You’ll likely share a bathroom with other travelers, as well as sleep in a room with several other people (though many hostels do offer private rooms for an additional cost).
We think these small tradeoffs are worth it, however, since hostels make it much easier to find new friends and meet locals than when you stay in a hotel.
To find hostels, we recommend searching Hostelworld.
Couchsurfing has exploded in popularity over the past few years, and for good reason. Couchsurfing is about as authentic of a “local” travel experience as you can get!
The premise behind Couchsurfing is that you stay at a local’s house or apartment for free. That’s right, a stranger opens their home to another 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’s an amazing experience for both people. I have “surfed’ and hosted, and the experience has been great each time.
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 year to ensure that both parties can feel as comfortable as possible without having met in person.
Ready to start Couchsurfing? Visit Couchsurfing.org to set up your profile and find a place to stay.
3. House Sitting
House sitting is a great opportunity for people who are looking to stay in some amazing homes and properties 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 or even year-long sabbaticals. It all depends on what you want!
House sitting is pretty straightforward. Many people who will be away from their home for an extended amount of time want someone to look after their place while they’re gone.
Sometimes this is because they have pets that they can’t bring with them, sometimes it’s because they want someone to look after their garden and yard, and sometimes it’s 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 for a house sit. In exchange for taking care of the animal(s), yard work, or whatever the owners want, the house sitter will be allowed to stay at the property free of charge.
To find your first house sit, sign up for an account at Trusted Housesitters. For tips on finding and making the most of your house sitting experience, check out our complete guide to house sitting.
4. Apartment or House Rentals
Renting an apartment or house is a superior alternative to staying in a hotel for several reasons:
- It Can Save You Money – You can usually find rentals much cheaper than hotels, especially if you are in a large group.
- Better Amenities – Apartment and house rentals typically have amenities that might not be available to you in a hotel, such as a kitchen or a washer and dryer.
- Free Internet and Parking – Apartment and house rentals usually 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.
- Local Tips – 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.
Renting places while traveling has become much more common recently. 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.
Each 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.
To find a short-term house or apartment rentals, I recommend starting with Airbnb. You can read reviews of the properties and owners, as well as see photos and descriptions of the amenities.
While the interface isn’t as fancy as Airbnb’s, I’ve also been able to find super cheap apartment rentals both in America and abroad through Craigslist. Just use your common sense and don’t get scammed, as Craigslist isn’t as regulated as Airbnb.
If renting an entire house or apartment is out of your budget, consider a homestay instead. In a homestay, a person lets you stay in a spare bedroom (or bed) of their house. Usually, this will be in exchange for a low nightly rate, though it’s also possible to find free homestays in exchange for volunteer work.
Keep in mind that your accommodation in a homestay will likely be basic. What homestays lack in fancy amenities, however, they make up for in the cultural experiences they provide.
If you’re learning a new language, for instance, homestays offer a level of immersion that’s difficult to get anywhere else. Plus, you’ll get a level of connection that you could never find in a hotel; you’re essentially part of the person’s family while you stay there.
To find homestays, start with Homestay.com.
6. Religious Housing
I found out about this option recently, and it’s pretty cool. Across many parts of the world, religious organizations will offer cheap (or even free) accommodation to travelers.
Now I’ll admit, this won’t be for everyone, and you’ll probably enjoy it more if you’re a member of the religion in question. Still, it’s a unique experience and a great way to get guidance if you’re traveling to visit religious sites.
The specifics of the accommodation vary based on the organization, but you can usually expect a bed and likely a free breakfast. In many ways, it’s a solemn, sober version of staying at a hostel.
If you’re looking for religious housing in Europe, we recommend searching on Monastery Stays. For other regions of the world, you’ll likely need to contact the organization you want to stay with directly.
Once you have the gear, camping is one of the cheapest hotel alternatives out there.
It’s certainly not for everyone. You have to be comfortable with sleeping outside and dealing with rudimentary (or nonexistent) bathroom facilities.
But assuming you don’t mind “roughing it” a bit, camping can provide a unique travel experience. It’s an especially good option if your goal is to see remote parts of a country or spend your vacation in nature.
And if camping in a tent sounds too rustic for you, you can also consider renting an RV or camper van. These options give you more protection from the elements, as well as amenities such as a fridge, stove, and bathroom (in some cases).
To find a place to camp on your next trip, we recommend these resources:
- Hipcamp – A site for finding campsites on private land in the United States. This is a great option if you don’t want to worry about competing with other travelers for a public campsite.
- AllStays – A helpful search engine for finding campsites of all kinds, ranging from National Parks to RV parks.
- RVshare – A site that lets you rent an RV from a private owner (it’s like the Airbnb of RVs).
I can’t count the number of awesome experiences and crazy adventures I’ve had by staying in hostels, Couchsurfing, or taking over someone’s apartment or house. These are the experiences I remember long after I’ve left a place and the backbone of why I enjoy traveling so much.
For your next trip, I encourage you to branch out and try one of the hotel alternatives on this list. You won’t regret it!
And now that you know how to save money on your accommodation, check out our guide to getting cheap flights for even further savings.