August 3, 2012 at 10:05AM
By Jeff Yeager
Over the years I've slept in some pretty strange places during my travels by bicycle, foot, thumb, and public transportation.
Some of the more memorable places I've spent the night, including while writing The Cheapskate Next Door: city parks, fairgrounds, churches, school playgrounds, cemeteries, bus/train/ferry stations and airports, and a couple of jail cells (voluntarily, of courseFYI, some small town jails will lock you up for the night if they're not busy and you just ask). I've slept in cardboard boxes, cargo containers, box cars, abandoned vehicles, and a record-setting number of seedy hotels. At the invitation of the owner/mortician, once I even slept in a funeral home when I was bicycling across Nebraska; it was one of the most peaceful night's sleep I've ever had, and my snoring didn't bother any of the other overnight guests.
Okay, so maybe some of my choices for overnight accommodations aren't for the fainthearted traveler. But here are some ways to save big money on lodging when you travel without having to be strip searched before being locked in your gratis jail cell for the night:
Most people have heard of youth hostels and maybe stayed in a few when they backpacked their way through Europe way back in college. But what a lot of people don't know is that hostels have changed a great deal over the years. Hosteling International is an international nonprofit organization that operates more than 4,000 hostels worldwide, including 60 hostels right here in the U.S. Notice that the word youth has been dropped from the name, since hostels are now open to people of any age, with seniors and families being among their fastest growing clientele. More and more hostels now offer private and semi-private rooms and baths, but you'll still pay only about 20 percent of what a hotel would likely cost you in the same locale.
The mission of this nonprofit organization (couchsurfing.org) is to "bring the world together one couch at a time." Working through a wonderfully robust website, half a million Couch Surfing hosts living all around the world will let travelers crash on their couches (or often in a spare bedroom) for free. You don't need to make your couch available in order to use the network, although reciprocity is appreciated. Safety of both travelers and hosts is enhanced through various features on the group's website, including safety alerts and recommendations vouching for people you've hosted or stayed with. Special user groups (e.g. senior travelers, hosts willing to accommodate families, etc.) allow nearly every type of traveler to find the right matches. Having used the Couch Surfing network extensively in my own travels, I think they might very well accomplish their important but lofty mission.
With both private and public campground fees steadily increasing over the years, camping is no longer the travel bargain that it used to be. But if you know where to look, there are still places where you can camp on the cheap. You can still camp for free in many undeveloped areas on public lands maintained by the target="_blank">Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Or if you're RVing it and looking for something less primitive, you can camp overnight in the parking lots of many Walmart and BJ Warehouse Club stores. Check the following website for more info on free camping:
Claiming to be the world's oldest hospitality exchange organization, the nonprofit Servas International operates in over 100 countries. At its core is the idea of providing service to others, not just a free place for world traveler's to stay; it's about working to build understanding, tolerance, and world peace, per the Servas mission statement. Travelers interested in using the Servas network must apply and be interviewed by a local Servas representative before being provided a so-called Servas Passport in order to access the network of hosts. Welcoming Servas travelers into your home as a Servas Host, as well as staying with other Servas Hosts in your own travels, can provide you with a meaningful and in-depth travel experience.
If you're traveling by bicycle, the worldwide Warm Showers network of fellow cyclists is ready to open their homes the nightand offer you a hot shower, toowhile you're pedaling through. Like with Couch Surfing, you don't need to reciprocate by agreeing to open your home to touring cyclists, although if you're willing, it helps to build the network. The Warm Showers network is one more reason to travel by bicycle.
There are a number of reputable house-swapping sites online, including homelink.org and homeexchange.com. Most are membership-based and some let you earn credits whenever you loan out your house, which can then be redeemed later for a place you want to stay, whenever/where ever. This allows greater flexibility than having to arrange a one-on-one swap, where for example the O'Cheapskate's of Ireland come and stay in the Yeager's house in Maryland, while the Yeager's go and stay in the O'Cheapskate's home at the exact same time. But we've also found that it's possible to have enjoyable, affordable vacations just by swapping homes within our circle of friends; some friends in California stay at our house for a week or two every year while we enjoy the time at their West Coast pad.
Lodging and Transport in One:
We like to schedule overnight transportationby plane, train, ferry and even buswhenever possible, so that you sleep while you're en route and avoid paying extra for lodging. Admittedly, some forms of transportation lend themselves to a more comfortable night's sleep than others. We travel a lot in Greece and that part of the world, and we find that ferries are very comfortable for overnight passages, even without having to pay for a sleeping cabin. Similarly, trainswhere you have more spacious seating and can get up and walk aroundusually foster a pretty good night's sleep on the cheap. Pack an inflatable travel pillow (or make your own out of the plastic bladder from inside an empty 5 liter box of wine!), and maybe a foam pad and sleeping bag if you plan on overnighting it in this fashion.
Crewing on a Boat:
Even if you're not an experienced sailor, there are a surprising number of opportunities to earn your keep by volunteering to crew on a sailboat or even a yacht. Inexperienced deckhands usually get free passage, room, and sometimes board or shared board, and a chance to literally learn the ropes. But know what you're getting in to before you set sail, as crewing can be tough work. Check out the websites floatplan.com and crewseekers.net for more details and a database of both boats looking for crew and landlubbers looking to set sail.
Safe and happy travels, but remember to keep it cheap!
Jeff Yeager is the author of:
* Don't Throw That Away!
* The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches: A Practical (and Fun) Guide to Enjoying Life More by Spending Less, and
* The Cheapskate Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of Americans Living Happily Below Their Means
* Find more of Jeff at www.UltimateCheapskate.com, Twitter and Facebook