[updated March 2020]
Hotels can be easy and convenient…but also cookie-cutter and soul-less.
There are many hotel alternatives. Here’s a good list of ideas like airbnb, home stays, apartment rentals and other vacation stays.
My mantra has become traveling long term is cheaper than you think. It’s also ‘life is better with chocolate’, but that’s another story. I’ve written about it here and here and here. But today I wanted to narrow in on one specific cost: lodging, aka: room & board, accommodations, or simply ‘where to lay your head.’
When traveling long term, it is, at times, odd to acknowledge the fact that you often don’t know where you will sleep each week. Although, it has always worked out for me so far and I’ve never had to sleep on a park bench (but have slept in airports), there are many times I show up in a city with no reservations and have to lug my bag to a few places until I find a bed. There was the time I arrived in Sydney just in time for Christmas. I had reservations at a hostel for a week, but didn’t think ahead to New Year’s Eve, when this huge, international city would be chock-a-block with revelers from all over Australia and all over the world. Oops. Had to go an hour south just to find somewhere with space that wasn’t prohibitively expensive. Lesson learned.
As I travel far and wide, I learned a lot more about all of the other options besides hotels.
Here are just a few:
Sites like Airbnb are popping up all over. But couchsurfing existed before Airbnb…and the main difference? It’s free.
While it has changed over the last decade (it started as a non-profit in 2004 and became a for-profit in 2011), I can’t say enough good things about Couchsurfing. I used it a lot from 2007-2008 and also hosted some folks at my apartment in Chicago around 2010. It’s basically a free homestay. It’s similar to a social network with profiles, reviews and groups/meet-ups. You can also just use it to meet locals or attend events and not to sleep in someone’s home. I used it for both.
At first I was hesitant, but when I finally tried it, it completely changed my travels and the way I look at traveling solo. Some of its many perks: You have friends everywhere & anywhere. You can get local fast. You can enjoy the warmth of a home and kitchen. You frequently can have your own room (don’t let the name fool you, you can find many homes with a guest room). You get to do and see things that you otherwise never would. You feel a bit more ‘taken care of’ than usual…and it’s nice. As a host you can still meet new, interesting people when not traveling. It’s FREE.
Other similar choices:
I actually became an Airbnb host in Chicago before I used it as a traveler. It has a very similar feel to couchsurfing, except it’s a bit more corporate. Read: it costs travelers money (but still much less than a hotel room), but this way it also allows homeowners to make some money. It runs the gamut – you can search for just a room or even rent a whole apartment or villa! It lacks a tad of that community spirit that Couchsurfing had spent years cultivating amongst its members. But there is also a lot of crossover (couchsurfing-airbnb) users, so it has been growing into a great community.
TIP: I always ‘meet’ my host or guest before committing through an on-camera Skype call. You can tell a lot more that way than you can in an email.
The first guest I hosted in Chicago could not have been more interesting. He owns a large herb company that supplies some major supermarkets across the US. His brother? A former progressive mayor of Bogota that started the Ciclovia bike day there and built hundreds of kilometers of bike paths and greenways and rehabbed 1,200 parks. Thanks to him, bicycling in Bogota quadrupled to 400,000 people per day. Here is a great interview he did with the NY Times. His other brother founded 8-80Cities, an organization helping make our cities more bicycle and pedestrian-friendly around the world. Oh, and their father was Colombia’s Ambassador to the United Nations. So…you never know whom you might host or stay with.
➙ Need a place to stay? Use my airbnb link for $15-25 off your first stay!
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Other home stay rental sites:
I’ve done several house sitting and pet sitting gigs during my travels in places like Istanbul and the Hollywood Hills and Manhattan. Most recently, I had my own live-in pet sitter stay at my apartment in Chicago. It was a great experience. She had a free place to live for a few weeks and I had a free cat sitter that was there all the time to keep my little kitty company.
There are quite a few sites (some free and some with membership fees) out there to help you find jobs:
Perhaps you want your own space and you’d rather have it professionally managed rather than just by a homeowner. These are sites like Airbnb, but you have the peace of mind of a management company in between you and the homeowner. There are dozens of rental apartment sites popping up in every city. Often times this is cheaper than a hotel, plus you get your own apartment complete with kitchen, sometimes laundry, a comfortable bed in which to rest your sore muscles after sightseeing all day, and if you’re lucky even more perks like a pool! I recently tried this out in London and Portugal. It was great to have key and my own place. Plus the apartments are often in ‘real’ neighborhoods, giving you even more of a feel of being local rather than staying amidst the rest of the tourists. Some of the big ones:
Pros and Cons of Hotel Alternatives
Like anything, there are pros and cons and many of these are subjective depending on your perspective and needs.
Pros to home stays
- Your host can give you a more ‘insider’ feel to the place and culture plus more local places to see and eat.
- You make a new friend and can connect with a local learning a lot more than when you are just sightseeing. Meeting locals enables you to really get a better ‘feel’ for a destination and become more ‘local.’
- If traveling solo, you are not alone and now have a new friend to guide you.
- You often stay in neighborhoods that are less toursity and more ‘real.’ You can live amongst locals and experience what it’s really like to live there.
Cons to home stays
- You give up some privacy (unless renting entire apartment). You might like to ‘shut off’ and be quiet when you return home, but if sharing a place with someone you still have to be somewhat social.
- There is are trust and safety factors to consider. Hopefully nothing goes wrong, but you do have to rely on faith and intuition (and the verification tools of the site). IF you vet your host carefully, there shouldn’t be an issue, but it’s not the same as a trusted hotel.
- Cleanliness could vary…although it can vary at some hotels too. Again, check reviews for this. I often scan reviews for the words “clean” or “spotless.”
Disclosure: In London I was a guest of Oh-London and in Portugal Roomorama hosted my stay. As usual, the views here are my own.
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Nice tips, and I also happen to think life is better with cheese! 🙂
Thanks Rachel! Mmm…cheese. I think it's surpassed my love of chocolate. Just tonight I had a 'mozzarella tasting plate'….fresh, yummy mozzarella!
Oh man… I want that! Sadly, Korea, where I currently am, is not a land full of cheese…
I like the idea of apartments – a home away from home. Things are a little trickier when you travel as a family and some of these options aren't viable (like couchsurfing). For me, an apartment or home exchange can be the best value.
Thanks for commenting Jeremy! Nice to see you here! I did come across some CS hosts that had lots of room and I did stay with some families, but yes, harder to find one that can host a family, but not impossible! Air bnb is pretty cool…I just stayed with a family in Portugal and rent a space in my apartment in Chicago too!
Please post a list of places where you can stay inexpensively and still walk around in your boxer shorts without fear of offending anyone or literally causing them to seize up in laughter or fear.
I also recommend Housecarers.com. I've had many people house sit/dog sit for me. It's a win – win situation where the owner gets free house sitting/pet sitting and the traveler gets a free place to stay. They're all over the world too.
Really nice alternative to hotels with their services and price. Sure, life is better with cheese…Great tips for travelers.
I love that you put CouchSurfing first and that it's free last. It totally IS all about the friendship!
Couchsurfing, in many ways, has not only changed my trip, but my life! Wonderful thing!
Great tips, Lisa! I spend very little money on accommodation these days because of precisely the types of alternatives you point out here. Also, I cannot endorse couchsurfing enough. It's changed how I travel in the best way possible.
Totally agree Phil. Sometimes I think i might scare people with my excitement over CS like it's some kind of cult!
Love that CS attitude.
How much of an option is couchsurfing if you're travelling as a couple Lisa? I'm vaguely curious about it. I'd also like to try petsitting abroad one day.
Hi Jools! It's definitely an option. Many, many hosts take 2+ people. Some even take more (families traveling together) if they have the space. Definitely worth trying. Each profile states how many they can host. 🙂
Couchsurfing is such a great option. I'm heading to a festival in Colombia soon and have already had a few offers from people saying I can stay with them. Not only will it mean I can find accommodation during a busy time, but I will have local people, who've experienced the festival before, to show me around! No doubt, at the end of all that partying, I'll also come away with some lifelong friends.
Definitely Arianwen! I met a lovely CS gal in Bogota for dinner when i was there. As usual, i wish I'd met her sooner on my visit! But, also as usual, we are still in touch and we'll probably see each other again! Love that.
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I like the idea of apartments. ” When traveling long term, it is, at times, odd to acknowledge the fact that you often don’t know where you will sleep each week” is my favorite point.
All wonderful tips!
I have been a CS and Airbnb host for a while and I have hosted all kind of travelers – solo, couples, families with kids (and once a baby!), groups, and of all ages. It seems to me that it’s all a matter of match between people and accommodation’s amenities.