Creative ways to find budget (and free!) accommodations

By. Heidi Papworth

Many times I’ve sat down with my dream travel trip and my budget.  I’ve then realized that I will have to survive on PB & J’s and Ramen noodles for the next year in order to pay off my airfare and accommodations!  Sure, it would be nice to have a couch to crash on with a cool Aunt living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.   But alas my family lives in Central Ohio (with the exception of my favorite cousin in Michigan.)  So although I have plenty of wonderful people to stay within the Midwest, I’ve had to get creative in finding affordable accommodations, and I’d like to share 3 of these methods with you today.

1.  Couchsurfing  
Couchsurfing is really a thing; for more than just fraternity brothers.   Couchsurfers is a method of finding accommodations… for free.  You can “travel like a local”, by finding hosts all over the world who are willing to (quite literally) lend you their couch to sleep on.  You sign up on this site and create a profile listing your travel goals and places you’ve been.  I’ve never traveled this way, but I have been a host on the site and have met travelers from all over the world. 
Couchsurfer Hosts
This is a great way to meet people from other countries and to gain insight into other cultures.  Most travelers are willing to cook a meal from their country and share stories and other “life-hacks” that they’ve picked up along the way.  Since they are getting a free place to stay they tend to be flexible with their travel dates and their schedule while they stay.  On the down side, they are staying for free.  It’s a lot of work to host someone for free.  They eat your food, rack up your utility bills, you’ll have to clean before/after their stay and all of the pre-arrival communication eats up time.  Since I’ve moved to Miami I get about 3 inquiries for my couch a week which is a lot of extra communication to manage.  I’ve also found that a lot of couchsurfer travelers are inquiring without giving much lead time.
Couchsurfer Travelers
To state the obvious, this is a free way to find accommodations.  A win-win if you are willing to take a chance.  After all, beggars can’t be choosers!   You have to be flexible with your travel dates and your schedule.  For example, Hosts may require you to be out of the house when they are out of the house.  I’ve often heard from travelers that a lot of their host inquiries go unanswered entirely. My opinion overall?  This is a great site if you’re a young traveler who is ok sleeping on a scratchy couch and willing to be flexible in travel dates. There is definitely more demand than supply and hosts don’t have a whole lot of incentive to be active on the site since it’s a lot of work for no money.  So travelers may waste a lot of time trying to find a host.  It’s a better medium for meeting people than it is for finding accommodations, but would be a good place to start a search.  
2.  Airbnb
While you won’t find any free accommodations on Airbnb you’ll be more likely to find a good deal and still have an awesome experience.  Airbnb got started in 2007 by 3 broke guys in San Francisco.  They needed extra cash and realized they could offer an air mattress and free breakfast to tourists.  And voila,  that’s how the name came about:  Air bed and breakfast.  Today Airbnb is in all but 4 countries with 1.5 million host listings worldwide, and 45 million travelers.  You can still travel like a local by finding a host in your destination city and you’ll be more likely to have a unique and personal experience than if you were to book a double bed at a Hilton.  While you can still find a room for rent, you can also find entire houses/apartments for rent, tree houses, boats, trailers and still the original air bed to rent.   
Airbnb Hosts:
Airbnb is great way to foster a sense of community.  Interact with your guests as much as you would like, before, during and after their stay.  You can personally approve and screen all of your guests or you can allow guests to book automatically if their preferred dates are open.  Greet them upon their arrival, or give them a lock box code to get in.  Rent them your spare bedroom, or let them rent out the whole place entirely.  Be a local tour guide for guests, or hire a property manager to manage your vacation home!  You can really customize Airbnb based on what you need and want.  You set your own calendar, rates, check in/out times and can personally screen all guests.  Airbnb offers a platform that allows you to communicate with travelers through their site – eliminating the need to give out your personal cell number or email until they’ve booked with you.  I’m currently renting out an air bed in my studio apartment – an ideal situation for the traveler on a budget.  My competition is local hostels, so I keep my rates comparable to those.  But when I need to make some extra cash I can rent out my air bed, and when I want my privacy I can turn potential travelers down.
Airbnb Travelers:
Airbnb is equally easy to use for travelers.  There are many different search parameters that you can use to hone in on the right accommodation for you.  Hosts and travelers have the opportunity to review each other, so you can read if potential hosts are really living up to what they are offering.  Hosts are rated on accuracy, communication, cleanliness, location, check in and value.  The downside for travelers, is that hosts often want to see reviews for their guests before they approve.  This can provide a problem if you’re new to Airbnb and don’t have any history yet.  In those situations I recommend having more info that you can provide to the host:  Reason for your trip, plans during your stay, links to other profiles, or references.  My opinion overall?  This is a great alternative to hotels!
3.  House/Pet Sitting
Do you love pets and also love to travel?  Believe it or not, house/pet sitting is a great way to travel for free!  It’s also a great way to find petcare for free. House sitters have the opportunity to travel around to take care of pets and homes while their owners are off on their own travels.  A win-win!  
Home Sitters:
If you love pets and also love to travel, homesitting is the way to go.  While you may be willing to lend a hand for Sparky next door when your neighbor is away, have you ever considered doing it around the world?  Pet and home sitting for owners is an excellent way of keeping accommodation costs extremely low.  You can find long term sits (3 months or more) or short term sits (for the weekend or week) in an area that you’ve always wanted to visit.  It provides an intimate experience and therefore you’ll need to prove your trustworthiness and reliability to potential owners.  If you want to become a home sitter, I recommend you get some local experience under your belt with at least one good reference and join one of the sites below and start your search!
Trusted Housesitters $100 a year membership for owners and sitters
Mind My House Free to owners; $20/year for sitters
House Carers Free to owners; $50/year for sitters
Home Owners:
Pet boarding fees (and even finding a local pet sitter) can be very expensive.  If you’re like me, you would much rather have you’re beloved FIDO in the comfort of your own home and surroundings while you are out traveling.  Finding a sitter who wants to travel to sit is a great solution – you can find genuine, caring people who will gladly watch FIDO while you get free care!  (After all, they don’t have to incur hotel costs if they stay with you).  In addition, out of town tourists have a lot of free time (unlike local sitters who have other work, family, schedules, etc) so FIDO can get round the clock care.    Take my advice though and do your research on your sitter.  I recently hired someone from Las Vegas who was pressuring me to make a decision quickly because he wanted to book a flight while airfare was on sale.  It was my mistake to not take my time to research him.  Although he cared for my dog in my absence, I came home to a dirty and smelly apartment.  He even broke a few items without offering replacements.   I also offered him transportation to the airport and stalked the fridge full of food, which ended up being costly for me.  The more communication that you can have beforehand, the better.  Lay out ground rules ahead of time for what they can/can’t use, emergency contact info, local area attractions, public transportation and explicit instructions for your pet/home care.
Whether you travel through couchsurfers, Airbnb or one of the home sitting sites, one thing is for sure — you will meet new people and maybe save some money too.  After all, strangers are the friends that we haven’t met yet.  Enjoy!  
About the author, Heidi Papworth

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