Cheap Alternatives to Hotels: Save Money On Lodging!
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Where to Lay Our Heads
Close your eyes and envision someone who is backpacking across Europe. The days vary from place to place. Think about the nights and where this person sleeps. What did you think of? Most envision an early 20-something moving from hostel to hostel each night.
Next, think of someone older telling you that they’re going to be traveling across Europe for a year, sightseeing and going on adventures. Who do you think of now? Where are they sleeping? Likely, you’re thinking of someone in the second half of their life, retired, or on a vacation and they’re probably staying exclusively at hotels.
Not Your Average Couple
Neither one of these describes us fully. We’re in our 30’s, and fortunately, a bit more established in life so we can choose where we’ll lodge. We don’t want to spend tons of money on where we sleep. Naturally, we want somewhere safe and comfortable (relative), but If you think about it, you spend most of your time in the evenings sleeping with your eyes closed and little attention is paid to your surroundings. Sleeping isn’t when the memories and the life changing events happen. These happen during the day. So why spend precious dollars on lodging? We see more value in spending on daily adventures and attractions. But saving on lodging doesn’t have to mean hostels. If you plan ahead, the options can be numerous and even nicer, more comfortable, and more fun than the average hotel stay. We have a list of options we’ve put together and we can choose from hotels, Air BnB’s, Homestay’s, Couch Surfing’s, house sits, help exchanges, WOOF’ing and hostels.
Options Are Abundant
Hotels are the easiest option for most travelers, however without planning they can be very expensive and consume most of your budget. This makes sense, considering your rent or mortgage is usually the largest living expense. Hotels offer many of the conveniences of a home, if not more. While the retail price tag is high, there is a way around it.
There are two ways to pay for a hotel room: money or points/vouchers. We’ve spent years saving points, vouchers and gift cards for hotels and will spend relatively very little on hotel rooms. It’s a bit of a game. There’s many blogs out there outlining how to do this, but here's a brief overview:
There are two ways to earn points from credit cards.
- Earn points per dollar: One is to use a card that is branded for a hotel chain or company, such as Marriot, Hilton Honors or Starwood Preferred Guest. For every dollar spent on the card, you’ll earn points that you can redeem for nights at participating hotels. When using a card to earn points, it’s wise to be aware of how to earn bonus miles. Most cards will offer additional points per dollar if you use the card at the branded hotel, through their shopping portal and partners, or in select types of merchants, such as grocery stores or gas stations. Be sure to check the terms of the card for all the specifics and promotions.
- Sign up bonus: The fastest and most profitable way to earn hotel points is to apply and get credit cards that have large sign-up bonuses. Some cards give you points just for being approved, others grant points after a first purchase, still others, grant points with a minimum spend in a short period of time. The best offers typically give you a large signup bonus when you spend a few thousand dollars in the first three months of having the card. Be sure to pay attention to the promotion details because it’s common place for banks to offer a few thousand extra points for adding an additional user on your newly obtained credit card.
Tip: We use our Hilton Ascend American Express for everyday purchase to earn points towards free nights at Hilton! Use our link and we'll both get a bonus! You'll earn 75,000 Bonus Points after you spend $2,000 or more in purchases with your new Card within the first 3 months of Card Membership and an additional 25,000 Bonus Points after you make an additional $1,000 in purchases with your new Card within your first 6 months.
So, you have an account full of points you’ve earned. If you book a night at the first hotel you find you’ll probably get a poor redemption value. There’s a big difference between a hotel in downtown Manhattan or Paris, versus the outskirts of town. Hotels generally work on a tiered redemption program, the higher the tier or category level, the more points you’ll need to redeem. So think of points as cash, and use them as wisely as possible. We’re careful to only stay at high end, high category/tier hotels on special occasions. Instead, we search the area for lower redemption rates so we spend less points per night, and get a better value or Cost Per Mile/Point (CPM/CPP). This allows our points to last longer and affords us more nights at a hotel. In essence, this increases the cash value of each point.
If you’re able to accumulate points at multiple hotel brands, you’ll have options that’ll allow you to choose the room with the best value. Is Marriott only offering category four redemptions in Liverpool? No problem, Starwood has a category 2 available! Choice is key to savings.
When we were growing up couch surfing was something you did on a friend’s couch when you had nowhere else to go. Now, couch surfing is part of the shared economy living. As described on their site, “Couchsurfers share their lives with the people they encounter, fostering cultural exchange and mutual respect.” This isn’t for the timid, but it’s something we’ve been doing for years. It’s a way of meeting new people and immersing yourself in the local community. As we read on a couch surfing profile, ‘if you’re up for 5 seconds of awkwardness, then you’ll get hours of awesomeness’.
Just like other shared economy sites, Couch Surfing is a community and runs on user reviews, references and levels of verification that are optional. The site works by having both hosts and surfers. Anyone can get on and list their room, couch, or some type of sleeping area, and anyone can get on and request a stay. The site is available worldwide and has thousands of opportunities. It’s free for all users and hosts don’t charge for staying with them. However, the expectations are that you’re not just looking for a place to crash for the night, you’re looking to spend time with the hosts.
We highly recommend checking out the site for details on how it works and getting a feel for it. We’ve had amazing experiences using this site as surfers. We’ve met people from all over the world and created great friendships.
There are many sites on the internet that host house sitting and sitters’ profiles. Most of the sites have a fee to sign up, which in our opinion is a good thing, because it weeds out those people who may not be serious about the opportunities. There are niche house sitting sites that focus on luxury house sits or sites that are all inclusive. We've had great success with Trustedhousitters.com. It’s worth taking a look at the different sites and seeing what fits your needs.
- Trustedhousitters.com – one of the largest sites that is focused on United Kingdom and European house sits. This site is easy to navigate and use, but is also very popular. This means there are many more opportunities on this site but also more competition for each opportunity.
- Housecarers.com – opportunities are all-around and can be found in Australia, New Zealand and North America. However, the user interface can be a bit more challenging to navigate, at times.
- MindMyHouse.com – this is the first site we used because it has one of the lowest signup fees and has a large amount of opportunities in the United States.
- Nomador.com – The focus of this site is Europe and it’s a bit smaller than the others. A unique feature of this site is that in addition to house sitting, it also offers stopovers. Stopovers are similar to couch surfing, they’re listings by homeowners that allow/invite travelers to stay at their home even when they’re not traveling themselves.
- LuxuryHoussesitting.com – Focused on luxury homes. This is a site where competition is high and requirements by the homeowners are higher than most. It’s usually recommended to have some house sitting experience to be successful on this site.
- Caretaker.org – This site requires paying a fee to sign-up before you can see the opportunities. This is the granddaddy of house sitting sites because before it was a website, it was a newsletter. It’s been around for over 34 years. Now when you sign up, you’ll get an email (or a print issue if you prefer) of available opportunities focused in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Getting a house sitting opportunity can open the doors to a variety of experiences. There are homeowners who are looking for house sitters to take care of their home and their pets for various lengths of times. You could be taking care of a studio in a large city or a huge home and farm in the country side. The terms range from free room and board, to free except for utilities or at a cost to the homeowner or the sitter. The house sit could be for a few days or several months. You may be taking care of a dog or two, or a farm full of animals. The listing the homeowner puts up will explain most of the duties, requirements and expectations. As a sitter, your profile will be an overview of your experience and what you offer, along with references if you have them.
As each house sit is different, we always ask questions to make sure it’s a good fit and that all expectations are on the table. We, as sitters, strive to leave the house better than when we found it so the owners can feel confident in their decision.
Airbnb is a site where homeowners or even apartment renters can list their place for travelers. Accommodations vary by listing and can be a private room and bath, a shared room or couch, or even a whole apartment or house. Owners of the house or space control the cost and amenities. Often times it’s cheaper than a hotel, especially in big cities and touristy areas. Even if you aren’t traveling, this is a great way to make extra money if you have a spare room and bed.
Check the listings closely to see what the cost is and the amenities look like. When you do a search for an area, use the filters to narrow down the results to what you’re looking for. A tip we use is to search for Airbnb listings and compare prices to hotels around that area to make sure we’re getting a good deal. A word of caution, these listings can be hands off and leave you with a ton of privacy (think private hotel room), or the homeowner can be involved and talkative.
Use our link and get $40 off your first stay! We'll get a credit as well, so we appreciate your supporting Screw The Average.
The general category of help exchanges is pretty straight forward; in exchange for helping someone out, they give you something in return, usually room and board with the possibility of food and travel.
Help Exchange – “HelpX is an online listing of organic farms, non-organic farms, farmstays, homestays, ranches, lodges, B&Bs, backpackers hostels and even sailing boats who invite volunteer helpers to stay with them short-term in exchange for food and accommodation.” – From the HelpX website.
Each listing on this site will be clear on what is expected of the helper and what will be given by the host. Usually about four hours of work will be exchanged for free accommodation and a meal or two. Opportunities are across the board and can be just a homeowner looking for a little help to a more official business or farm needing assistance.
While we haven’t taken advantage of this site yet, we’ re excited to do so. This isn’t only a lodging opportunity, but a chance to help out on a variety of work, learn practical skills and possibly do things we otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to do.
World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms – “WWOOF is a worldwide movement linking volunteers with organic farmers and growers to promote cultural and educational experiences based on trust and non-monetary exchanges thereby helping to build a sustainable global community.” – From the wwoof.net website.
Similar to HelpX, WWOOF is an exchange of work for food and accommodation, but is strictly for organic farms around the world. You can find yourself working with the land, planting and harvesting, to making cheese and building fences. Rather than sign up for one main site that maintains host listing around the world, travelers need to sign up for the site dedicated to the country they wish to do an exchange in. Each site typically has a fee to sign up. You can find the local sites through the main wwoof.net website.
A commonly known place to sleep for backpackers and travelers in Europe. They are less expensive than hotels in the same area and generally range from a few dollars to $50 a night. The accommodations can range from hostel to hostel, but are usually humble with no frills. Expect communal sleeping that ranges from bunk beds to mats lined up on the floor with the occasional opportunity to book a private or family room in advance.
Anecdote: We had a friend who stayed in a hostel in Spain who was asked upon arrival if he snored. He said yes and was thrilled to be given a smaller room than the big common one and to be the only couple in the room. He thought he figured out the secret to a better room. However, he quickly regretted his decision because as the evening progressed and as more people checked-in, all the people who snored were given this same room and it made for a loud evening of ‘sleeping.’
With so many options for lodging, we’re not short of places to lay our head at night. We view each option as a tool in our tool box that we’ll use when most appropriate (think best value). So, we’ll first look for opportunities to house sit and couch surf in private rooms, followed by the lowest tier of points for hotels. We’ll save help exchanges for times we want a new experience and don’t have our days booked with activities. Hostels will be occasional on our list of lodging, as a means to save money when no other options are available. The best part is, lodging will be low on our list of expenses and allow us to allocate more money to adventures!