When traveling for less, I am often asked how to travel for free or how to travel for next to nothing. I have a variety of travel tricks I use to keep my accommodation low cost or no cost and a list of inexpensive and free alternatives to traditional arrangements. Some of these choices appeal to all travelers while other options are reserved for the more intrepid adventurer.
It is possible to stay in a hotel for free or for less money than you might expect to normally pay. One way to acquire free hotel stays is to become a mystery shopper. If you have good writing skills and can follow direction, you can have your hotel stay reimbursed after completing a contracted assignment. For those who prefer not to work while traveling, another option is to seek out the owner of a private hotel-under-construction or the owner managing a hotel crisis. In these situations, particularly in highly desirable travel locations, a traveler that approaches the subject can often negotiate down the rate of stay to more than 50% less than normal. For example, last year, I stayed at Lake Tahoe for about $30 a night at a hotel whose air conditioning went out in the summer. While everyone else was flocking to new hotels, the owner was willing to give me a give me a significant savings over the normal $70 a night rate, as he scrambled to secure a repair company. Another time, I secured a hotel for $50 a night from a owner who had his hotel for sale and wanted it to ‘appear’ full to potential buyers. There were better choices in the area, in terms of working pools and continental breakfast provided, but otherwise the quality of his hotel was similar to the others. The only difference was the other hotels averaged $125 a night. How do I find these deals? I ask around and I look around. It takes me about an hour but it saves me hundreds of dollars off a week’s stay.
There is an entirely different art to getting low cost or no cost hotel stays. This is the art of asking for a discount – without asking! You can elude to your needing to stay on a budget or comment aside “If only there were a place I might do a little work for a hotel discount” and then the pregnant pause. If you can manage the wording well enough, include the pause, allow the hotel owner or manager to fill in the blanks and offer you the discount (remember, don’t ask for it directly!), you might just manage yourself a significant savings you weren’t expecting. One time I arrived in Reno about midnight and inquired as to if there was a ‘late night special’ that the front desk might assist me with. Just like that, I received $30 off for that night’s stay. Granted, this is more challenging skill to learn but you lose nothing by trying!
If you are a more daring explorer, tent camping can be found for free and almost free. Free camping exists on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land throughout the United States. The BLM has free days established for camping and very low cost options on non fee-free days. In some areas, such as throughout the Southwest and Southern states, very fine camping can be had for as little as $6-10 per night. These campgrounds are often set in beautiful locations, with available hot water showers and plumbed toilets. Of course the outdoor attractions are desirable, too: fishing, swimming areas, traditional hiking options, and even, on occasion, small on-site museums. Using the fee-free option, I visited the Grand Canyon last year.
There is a specific kind of camper who likes the ammenities from home and that is the RV camper. Many RVers boondock or dry camp, which means that they camp for free at places like Walmart, at casinos, at truck stops and on public land.
For a totally free stay in a home with four walls, real plumbing, a kitchen and living room, consider thinking outside the box. At some websites, you make requests of international hosts, who provide a free sofa (or guest bedroom) in their home for you to sleep on and some personal socialization time with them. In return for their hospitality, you agree to host another sofa-surfer at some point in the future. I surfed a few couches myself last year and found the hosts to be wonderful and kind.
If you have a home or apartment and you are open to the idea, consider swapping homes for a free stay in your vacation destination. This is an exchange of trust. You will trust the other party with your home and they will trust you with theirs.
House sitting is an alternative option and many of the above websites for couch surfers and home exchange also have web pages devoted to house sitters. I lined up a house sitting job in Florida, just a quick drive to Disney World, using this kind of option. All I had to do was water a few plants and feed and pet a few cats.
Though not an intentional option for many, some travelers might be interested in choosing to stay for free at the actual airport. It may seem strange but, actually, many airports allow it if you are flying out the next day. There are showers in many airports these days and, in poor weather conditions, airports sometimes even provide cots, blankets, and pillows!
Obviously, there is an inherent and varying degree of risk in staying with complete strangers, counting on reservations to hold, camping in the middle of nowhere, or opening your home for use by others. Generally, most people are kind and respectful and I’ve never had a bad experience with hosts or house sitting. Nevertheless, a risk exists. I once had a hotel reservation canceled on me in Las Vegas when multiple conventions were occurring that weekend and there was not another hotel to be found. I contacted another major hotel with several floors and booked someone else’s recent cancellation. Another time, I camped in the wilderness of Yosemite, only to be run out in a hurry by rangers, due to multiple forest fires and an evacuation of the entire park! So, always have a back-up plan because you just never know.