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Budget Travel Tips: Skip the Hotel With These Five Lodging Alternatives

photo: foilman

New York State recently passed a law that bans enterprising home owners from renting out private property for less than 30 days. Taking advantage of temporarily empty spaces made a lot of sense in New York City, considering the insanely high cost of real estate in the area. It was arguably beneficial to tourists as well, who were able to rent a space for a much lower cost than that of a hotel room.

The reality is, staying at a hotel — whether in New York City or elsewhere in the world — is among the priciest ways to travel. Increasingly, budget-conscious travelers are seeking out alternative lodging arrangements, from swapping apartments to crashing on someone’s couch.

Here are five ways to slash the price of your travel drastically.

House swaps

What it is: Websites like Homelink.org and HomeExchange.com hook up travelers who want to exchange homes for usually a week or two. Other than the membership costs (described below), house swaps do not involve money exchange: you stay at someone’s home for free, while they stay in yours.

How it works:  A network of international, multi-lingual sites are linked to allow for a more global reach. After signing up ($9.95 per month for a one year unlimited membership or $15.95 per month for a three-month trial), exchangers create a profile, including listing all the places they are interested in visiting. Search the site for your house-swapping soul mate, then send them a message through the secure server to start a dialogue. On HomeExchange.com, you’ll find everything from a four-bedroom place in Kigali, Rwanda to a studio in Tokyo.

But how safe is it to open up your home to strangers, you may ask. HomeExchange reports that in 14 years they’ve never had a case of vandalism or a complaint that someone has cleared out an exchanger’s lot. They encourage the families involved to approach a house swap like internet dating, getting to know potential swappers by connecting and communicating as much as possible beforehand.  They also offer this sample agreement to help you seal the deal.

Frequent users of these services like that they live as locals instead of being funneled along a tourist path, and that they have someone to give them recommendations on happenings in their new area code.

Your savings:  The monthly membership fees can add up, but considering that a typical hotel room is around $200 per night, you stand to save thousands of dollars, especially if you have some vacation time in the bank. Many people also set up car exchanges to further their savings.

Couch surfing/Renting private spaces

What it is: Networks of travel addicts and those who want to have international experiences or make a little extra cash by hosting those addicts in their homes. You’ll find two types of services out there: Ones like Couchsurfing.org, based on goodwill and not charging for space, and those like Airbnb.com, in which private homes and rooms are rented out for a typically affordable fee.

How it works: With Couchsurfing.org, the host sets up a profile and is then subject of some safety checks. One way to verify the host’s identity and address is to make a donation to the organization. Some recommend searching for those hosts who have gone through that verification process, though it is in no way manatory for becoming a host. In addition to that, you do not have to host someone in order to be an eligible surfer yourself. You could also choose to just meet people in the network to hang out for a coffee or a drink. So far, this nonprofit organization claims to have helped create 2.4 million successful friendships in 230 countries.

If you’re a traveler in need of a couch to crash on, you can narrow down your search with specific criteria, such as the gender and age of your host. You can also check former crashers’ references, which is helpful. (Hosts can not modify comments.)

Money does exchange hands with services like Airbnb.com, Crashpadder.com, and iStopOver.com, where individuals set up a profile for their space, whether it’s a downtown LA loft for $100 a night to a room in a townhouse in Phuket, Thailand, for $25. The conversation starts on the site, and usually the company will handle the exchange of money, which can make a blooming friendship less awkward.  (On crashpadder.com the host can also ask that the renter pay them directly in cash.)  

Your savings: If, realistically, your alternative for a hyper-social travel experience is a hostel, you don’t stand to save that much, maybe a few hundred dollars, depending on the cost of living at your destination. If your alterative is a hotel room, the savings will certainly be more drastic. Either way, you do stand to make new friends and see a new place through the eyes of a local.

Renting a vacation home

What it is: Using sites like HomeAway.com and vrbo.com, vacation home owners (or someone managing the property on their behalf) post homes for rent, usually in attractive vacation spots like the beach or mountain. Many owners tend to rent out their places for longer periods, such as a week, and cater to larger groups or families. (The average size of a property on HomeAway.com is 1,850 square feet.)

How it works: Simply search for places that interest you and send a direct message to the owner through the site. The site can also provide a rental guarantee that will protect the renter against any wrongdoing with deposits.

Your savings: Hundreds to thousands of dollars, especially if you take advantage of the weekly rental prices. The added advantage is having a full kitchen stocked with supplies and extras like barbeque grills that you wouldn’t necessarily find at traditional hotels, helping you save big on meals.

Private Rooms in Hostels

What it is: You may know hostels as dorm-style accommodations favored by international travelers–and you may have a negative opinion of them as places where you have to chain your underwear to your bunk-bed post. What you may not know is that many hostels have private rooms that are very cheap, clean and a great alternative to pricier hotels.

How it works: Look around on the vast network of friendly hostels around the world, starting with Hostelling International, then zero in on those that have private rooms. One caveat: you may still have to share a bathroom. You’ll get the social scene of travelers from all over the world hanging in the common space, including lots of people eating ramen noodles out of questionable dishes, and you still have the privacy of a hotel room when you want to escape it all.

Your savings: A private double room in a decent San Francisco hostel costs about $90 per night. A private hostel room in Bangkok, Thailand is about $50. A regular hotel room will cost roughly double. Depending on the length of your trip, you could save hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

Sublets

What it is: There’s a room opening in a local apartment, which the tenant is renting out for a limited time while away.

How it works: Hit up Craigslist in any given city–except New York (per the new law mentioned in the beginning of this article). Go to the housing section, then navigate to the Sublets & Temporary section or Vacation Rentals section.  But, buyer beware: there isn’t much oversight over how listings are executed, and many travelers have reported arranging a sublet only to find out upon arrival that the tenant will not be going away. Instead he’ll be staying on the couch while you pay his rent. At the same time, though, others have had incredible experiences, living in posh pads in the world’s greatest cities, if only for a week. It is advisable to get the deal in writing, no matter the length of stay, and to make sure that the building’s owner is aware of your presence.

Your savings: Potentially thousands of dollars, depending on the length of your stay. The most popular cities to find sublets in are also the most expensive, which is mighty convenient.