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10 Cheap Hotel Room Alternatives to Consider When Traveling

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10 Cheap Hotel Room Alternatives to Consider When Traveling 1

Every savvy traveler knows that behind airfare, lodging is often the biggest expense when you’re planning a trip. The good news is that if you’re traveling on a budget, there are many great alternatives to booking a night in a standard hotel room.

From hostels to volunteering to camping, thinking creatively about where to stay and what you’ll pay can help you keep your travel budget under control so you can spend money on what really matters to you. Read on to learn the pros and cons of creative accommodations in the United States and across the globe.

Hotel Alternatives to Save on Accommodations

1. Hostels

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If the word “hostel” brings to mind grungy, overcrowded digs, think again. These days, hostels all over the world cater to more than just students and the under-25 set. Hostels can range from the 12-bunk dorm-style accommodations you’re probably picturing to a private room with an en suite bathroom. Hostels are often less expensive than traditional hotels because they usually offer fewer amenities and are less luxurious. If your budget is more important to you than an expansive lobby or add-on services, a hostel stay might be just the ticket.

Do your research and read reviews with an eye toward concerns such as the hostel’s vibe, noise levels, and cleanliness. Price-compare a night in a shared room versus a private room via sites like Hostels.com and Hostelworld. You just might be surprised by how much you can save.

Hostels can also be a good way to meet other travelers, especially if you’re on your own or staying in one place for a while.

My husband and I recently traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia. We booked a private room with an en suite bathroom at Fabrika, a former Soviet sewing factory completely transformed into a hip hostel with a fun air of self-aware kitsch. The building had a lively interior courtyard with several restaurants, a coffee shop, and two bars. In addition to being very budget-friendly – about 40% cheaper than getting a hotel room in the city – it was a great place to hang out any time of the day, and nightlife was a stone’s throw away. With the addition of a pack of foam earplugs, supplied by the hostel, it was an ideal place to stay.

Things to Keep in Mind

Hostels aren’t only for young people anymore, but young people may still make up the bulk of the clientele where you’re staying. Hostels can also be loud, so plan accordingly if you’re a light sleeper or staying in a crowded bunk room.

Finally, make sure you know what you’re getting into and if the tradeoff is worth it to you. There are some great hostels out there, but there are also some less-than-stellar ones, so make sure you know what you’re signing up for when choosing a hostel over a hotel.

2. Home Rental Sites

Home rental sites such as Airbnb, HomeAway, and Vrbo are some of the most popular places to secure a place to stay in someone else’s house or apartment. These sites generally pair homeowners and landlords with potential visitors via a calendar or other request-to-book mechanism. Many of these sites, including Airbnb, give hosts and guests a chance to rate each other, so you can avoid renting a place with bad reviews.

You can rent a bed, a room with a shared or private bathroom, or an entire house or property, depending on your needs and budget. You still have to pay any occupancy or hotel taxes for the city where you’re staying, but you usually get the added benefit of access to a kitchen and other home amenities, not to mention the feel of staying in a neighborhood and living like a local in the destination you’re visiting.

These accommodations can be more budget-friendly than a traditional hotel room, plus they give you the opportunity to meet some interesting people if your hosts are around during your stay.

Things to Keep in Mind

The check-in process varies from host to host, which is something to take into account if you’re coming in from out of the country or won’t have access to your cell phone or the Internet. Meeting someone in person to check in is much easier when you’re not running hopelessly late with no way to get ahold of them. Some hosts  – especially those who rent an entire house or apartment – will simply give you a key code or lockbox information so you can check yourself in, which can be less of a hassle.

Also, keep in mind that you’ll be staying in someone else’s home and will be at the mercy of their cleanliness level, house rules, and preferences. If you prefer the anonymity of a hotel room with front desk staff and a concierge, a home rental may not be the best option for you.

3. Couch Surfing

The launch of the website Couchsurfing formalized the age-old practice of giving a stranger a place to stay, for free, in your home. Similar to a home rental, couch surfing is staying with hosts in their private homes for a night or more, on whatever sleeping apparatus they’re able to offer you, whether it’s their couch or an entire guest bedroom.

In exchange for a free place to sleep, you agree to be a gracious guest and perhaps bring a gift, cook a meal, or treat the host to an English language lesson. Popular with backpackers and younger travelers, couch surfing can be a good way to stretch your dollar a little further, especially when you’re visiting a city with notoriously high hotel rates, such as London, Paris, or Singapore.

Things to Keep in Mind

Couch surfing isn’t for everyone. It can be exhausting to have such little privacy and so much uncertainty about where you’re sleeping each night. It may be best for one night here or there instead of being the nightly plan for two weeks straight.

As with home rental sites, take into account that you’ll be staying in someone else’s home. Finally, couch surfing is easier to finagle if you’re a solo traveler rather than a couple or family.

4. Camping

Camping is not just for scouts. If you’re headed somewhere with expensive hotel rooms or not enough supply and too much demand, camping can be a great way to save money on where you sleep. State and national parks in the United States often charge less than $20 per night for a tent camping site with no electricity, with higher prices for RV electric and sewer hookups.

You can find rates and opening and closing dates for the season on ReserveAmerica, which serves many U.S. state and national parks, or with a quick Internet search for a private campground in your destination area.

Staying at almost any campground can be far less per night than a hotel room, plus you get the novel experience of sleeping in the great outdoors. For example, a few years ago, my family wanted to go to Niagara Falls for the Fourth of July long weekend. Unfortunately, so did many other people, and hotel prices were sky-high, even for budget motels and places with less-than-stellar reviews. The rates for tent camping at a state park just a stone’s throw from Fort Niagara were much more palatable – around $20 per night for a non-electric tent pad – so we booked three nights and enjoyed a great long weekend getaway for less than we would have paid for one night in a motel in Niagara Falls or Canada.

The campsites were spaced apart well, and the public showers were clean. It wasn’t the most luxurious of accommodations, but we didn’t spend much time there, and it made possible for us what would otherwise have been an unaffordable vacation. If you don’t have a tent, look into borrowing one from a friend, snagging a used tent at a garage sale, or renting one from an outdoors store such as REI.

If you’re working your way across the United States, traveling in an RV, and have plenty of time on your journey, you might consider applying to be a campground host. These jobs, which are mostly seasonal, entail checking campers in, doing some maintenance and cleaning up the campground (including the toilets and showers), and being on call 24/7 for the campground. The job isn’t for everyone, but if it sounds interesting to you, check out Camp Host Jobs or search for camp host positions on CoolWorks.

Pro tip: If you’re interested in RV camping but don’t have access to an RV, check out Outdoorsy.com. You can rent RV’s from people in your local area. Think of Outdoorsy as the Airbnb of RV rentals.

Things to Keep in Mind

Camping is inexpensive because it’s no-frills. Know what you’re heading into in terms of extras. Will the campsite have a restroom with showers and running water, or are you looking at a situation with a pit toilet where you have to bring your own drinking water?

Also, when you sleep outside, you’re obviously more exposed to the elements, so plan for all possible temperatures and conditions. Finally, noisy neighbors can be an issue at crowded campgrounds, so try to get a site that’s far away from others if that’s an option.

5. Cabin Rentals

If sleeping on the ground is a non-starter for you, consider renting a cabin or other rustic accommodations. Sites like Glamping Hub can help you book a rustic – or not-so-rustic – cabin at your domestic destination. This option can often be a good middle ground between camping and a pricey hotel room for people who aren’t very outdoorsy or don’t have the necessary equipment to make camping work.

Things to Keep in Mind

Cabin rentals can range extensively in terms of comfort, from requiring you to bring your own sheets and towels to daily turn-down service, so read the fine print and reviews to ensure you know what you’re getting into.

6. Dorms & Academic Housing

If you’re traveling during the summer or over the holidays, staying in a dorm room at a university is another budget-friendly option. Many colleges and universities rent out rooms in some of their dorms to travelers instead of leaving them empty when students are away. This practice is more common in Europe and Australia, but regardless of where you’re traveling, it’s worth looking into if you’re on a tight budget – or just want to relive your student days.

Visit sites like UniversityRooms.com or do an online search to see if this is an option at your destination. Alternatively, some colleges and universities with hospitality programs maintain on-site, hotel-like accommodations for hands-on training for students.

Things to Keep in Mind

Dorms and academic housing options tend to be available when students aren’t on campus, so if you’re traveling in the middle of the semester, you might not have any luck booking a spot. They become available to book several months in advance, especially in high-demand cities.

Also, since these are actual dorm rooms, they can be very bare bones; that’s why they’re so inexpensive. They may have an en suite bathroom, or you may be walking down the hall in shower shoes to use the facilities. Plan ahead and pack accordingly.

7. Religious Housing

Religious housing can be an affordable option for budget-minded travelers or those looking for a unique place to stay with more history and character than a traditional hotel. For convents and monasteries across Europe, check out Monastery Stays or do an online search for your destination. While these accommodations often won’t be luxurious – many who choose religious life take a vow of poverty, after all – they’re generally clean, quiet, and less expensive than other options.

When I visited Italy several years ago, I booked a room at a nunnery across the street from the east entrance to the Vatican. It offered a double room with a private bath for less than 100 euros per night, which was much cheaper than the hundreds per night charged by traditional hotels so close to the Vatican. The rooms were spartan in decoration but sparkling clean and blissfully quiet and peaceful, and the location couldn’t be beat.

Things to Keep in Mind

Some monasteries or abbeys only allow male or female visitors, depending on the order or their rules, so check the fine print before you book. Others may have stated quiet hours or require that you attend a religious service if you stay with them.

8. Overnight Transportation

If you’re traveling a long distance, consider killing two birds with one stone by taking an overnight bus or train. You’ll save money on a night’s accommodation and avoid burning an entire day of your vacation just getting from one place to another.

Low-cost bus company Megabus, which serves much of the U.S. Mid-Atlantic and East Coast, has several long-haul routes that leave the departure city around midnight and roll into the arrival city as dawn is breaking. An overnight train can also be affordable, especially if you choose a seat instead of a more-expensive bunk bed or private room. Many countries across the globe have overnight bus or train routes, from the sleeper trains that go from London to Scotland to the many that serve the Indian subcontinent.

Things to Keep in Mind

Do everything you can to prepare, and you may be surprised by how much sleep you’re able to get on a bus or train. Do your research ahead of time and take a quality eye mask, noise-canceling headphones, snacks, plenty of entertainment, and maybe a mild sleep aid like Melatonin or Tylenol PM. Dress appropriately and make sure you have a light jacket or blanket if you’re worried about getting cold. Even the least-comfortable night’s sleep could be worth it to you when you tally the savings and wake up in a new destination.

9. Work for Your Lodging

If you’re willing to work for your lodging, a farm stay or volunteering gig might be the way to go.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF, is an organization that matches people with organic farms, garden centers, and breweries to “promote cultural and educational experiences” around the world. Working on a WWOOF farm will earn you free accommodations there. Once you pay the annual membership fee of about $25, no more money exchanges hands.

Not interested in farming? Sign up with another volunteer opportunity that fits your needs and interests. The terms of these opportunities vary widely, from a one-night commitment to a weeks- or months-long stay. Look to websites like HelpStay and TCV to help you narrow down which opportunities are available in your destination and learn what each commitment entails.

Things to Keep in Mind

Your experience depends on the organization you’re volunteering with and where you’re working, but whatever you choose, you’ll definitely be earning your keep. It’s not a free stay, and accommodations vary widely in terms of comfort, privacy, what’s provided, and what you’re expected to bring.

10. Home Exchanges

The 2006 movie “The Holiday” helped make home exchanges more mainstream, and the concept has gained steam since then. The decades-old practice of staying in someone’s home, and sometimes having them stay in yours at the same time, has exploded in popularity and feasibility with the advent of sites like Home Exchange.

The concept is simple: You stay in someone else’s home, and perhaps water their plants and take care of their pets, and they do the same for you. It can be inexpensive or free, plus you often have access to the entire home and get to experience living like a local.

There are several types of home exchanges, so you’ll want to pick the one that’s best for you. You can do a traditional swap, in which a person or family stays in your home while you are in theirs. You can also stay in an individual’s second home or non-primary residence, such as a beach house or cabin, or you can stay as a guest in someone’s house while they’re around.

Things to Keep in Mind

If you’re doing a traditional swap, it’s a good idea to first evaluate how you feel about having perfect strangers in your house. Staying in someone else’s place for free is one thing, but letting strangers into your space at the same time isn’t something everyone will feel comfortable doing.

Another thing to note is that a home exchange is not totally free. Most home-swapping websites charge a monthly or yearly fee that goes toward vetting houses and hosts.

Finally, if you’re worried about personal safety or the safety of your belongings, use a well-regarded service or site. Ensure that the person or family you’re swapping with has been vetted, ask questions, and lay out any ground rules ahead of time, and be sure you know what coverage and protection you have should anything out of the ordinary arise.

Final Word

If you think creatively about your next vacation, there are many possibilities for where you can lay your head at night, and how much or little it can cost you. Using these tips and thinking outside the box can free you from the monotony of another boring, overpriced hotel room.

Have you ever couch surfed or relived your student days in a dorm while away from home? What tips would you add to this list?

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