When planning a vacation, it’s common to simply look for a nice cheap hotel room, where everything comes easy: breakfast and dinner (and sometimes lunch as well) are included, fresh linen and towels everyday, your own closet where to store your clothes, a huge TV to watch on those unlucky rainy days. But as long as we’re still young (wild and free) and don’t have a family, we have a range of cheaper solutions than hotels which can actually offer more than an hotel, which can be more fun and culturally enriching. So here’s a list of the possibilities you have when traveling, from the cheapest to the most expensive!
- THE GROUND
It may sound like I’m joking, but I’m very serious. The ground is free and always there when you need it. You may think I’m crazy, but there’s quite a number of situations in which I found myself sleeping on the floor. Once I had a early morning flight in Madrid and a late night event the day before, I decided to save money on the hotel room and just unroll my sleeping bag in a corner of the airport. When I volunteered for the World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, in 2013, I was hosted for free in a church, but I had to sleep on the ground for two weeks: and again my sleeping bag was my bed, even if after a few days I decided to buy, for about 2€, a small inflatable mattress, one of those you can use on the beach, and that was enough for my back. When hiking on the mountains you also have to make peace with your dream of a comfy bed and most of the times sleep under the stars or, if you’re smarter and don’t mind carrying quite a heavy backpack, in a tent.
: it’s free and you can find it wherever you are.
: surely it’s not comfortable. You may want to carry with you a sleeping bag, an inflatable mattress and a tent. And if you’re not one of those people, like I am, who can sleep anywhere when they’re tired, you may find a little difficult to sleep in a crowded place like an airport.
This may sound kind of opportunistic, but, again, it’s free and you also know you’re going to have great company. If you travel quite a lot like I do, for work, for studying, for fun, I meet quite a lot of people. So it’s easy to collect a few phone number and addresses from different countries. When you travel, don’t forget to check those addresses: if you’ve met a real friend, they will be more than happy to host yo and to show you the place they live in and you’re have an exclusive guide on the local culture. Sure you’ll have to be available to host them back, but it will just be more fun.
: it’s free. You will have a personal local guide and spend time with a friend you haven’t seen for a while. You probably won’t sleep on the floor, but in a bed or on the couch, which are surely more comfy. You also won’t have to worry about transportation, because, if the friend has a car, he/she will bring you around, otherwise he/she will surely have all the advices you need on using public transportation.
: I cannot think of anything bad!
I’ve tried Couch Surfing for the first time this summer in Scotland. A friend firstly recommended it to me and I was a little skeptic: I noticed how a lot of hosts were men in their thirties and didn’t know whether to trust them or not. I read so many references from other people they had hosted to make sure they were not maniacs. So my first experience couch surfing was actually with my friend Sunny and we’ve been hosted by a thirty-something guy in Glasgow. I immediately reacquired the trust in others which should characterize every traveler and I had probably lost a bit during my lazy days spent at home. Jan, our host, literally gave us his room to sleep in, while he slept on the couch; he was also working during the day, so he literally gave us his keys, hoping his flatmate would have been home to open him the door when he would have got back from work; he than came to dinner with us and showed us a little bit of the city, in particular the Necropolis, the monumental cemetery in Glasgow which we visited at twilight talking about horror movies…maybe not the best idea! So when I left Glasgow by myself to go to Aberdeen, I was a little more confident in couch surfing again, and this time by myself. My host was Kut, a Turkish oil engineer working in the Scottish oil capital. After introducing ourselves in English he told me he spoke Italian, and actually wanted to practice it a bit, so we just spoke Italian together. We just spent about two hours chatting in his living room and he explained me his job and what’s going on with the oil crisis and I surely gained in knowledge.
: again, it’s free. I saved about 50£ I would have spent sleeping in hostels for two nights. You usually sleep on a couch in the living room, but it’s also very common to find someone with a spare bed or a spare room.
: you just have to trust your host, but don’t forget that also your host is trusting you as well. Don’t forget to read references to have a better idea of who your host will be and don’t send requests to people who haven’t visited the page for months or years!
This portal is genius. You sign up giving a few of information about yourself, filling in a small CV and choosing what you could be available to do (cleaning, cooking, web design, media, reception, tourist guide, etc.). Then you search for a place where you want to go and apply: volunteering a few hours a day, usually in hostels, you get accommodation and at least a meal for free. You literally exchange your skills, even just for one week, with a bed to sleep. My friend Cecilia, who chose to spend two weeks in Portugal this summer, firstly recommended me this portal. I haven’t tried it yet, so I asked her her opinion on it.
How did you hear about Worldpackers?
I love traveling and when I’m a little bored I use to surf the net looking for new things to do. That’s how I found out about Worldpackers. It’s such a great way to save money, extend your travels, and meet fantastic people along the way. I would definitely recommend it!
Where did you go and what did you have to do?
I was in a hostel in Lagos, a little village in the south of Portugal. There I met other 5 volunteers from Spain (indeed I learnt more Spanish than Portuguese!) and we had shifts of 5 hours a day. One in the morning, one in the afternoon, when we were supposed to make sure that the common areas, bathrooms, bedrooms and the kitchen were well maintained and kept clean; there was also a night shift, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. in the public bar of the hostel. So I also learnt how to make cocktails and be a real barmaid!
Would you recommend this experience?
I’d definitely recommend this experience to everyone! A hostel is the perfect place to meet so many people from all over the world and their stories. I learnt from some Spanish guys how to make sangria, a New Zealand guy showed me how to dance the haha, I learnt how to say ‘hi’ in Maori (Kia Ora), I saw amazing beaches and cliffs in the South coast of Portugal, I saw the sunrise over the sea…I can’t even find the words to describe this experience!
What, in your opinion, is good and what is bad of this kind of accommodation?
I believe this is one of the best ways to travel for free, while you work you meet so many people and in your free time you can visit new places. Maybe the only cons is that you should stay in a place for at least two weeks to appreciate this kind of experience.
The mechanisms is the same as Worldpackers, but instead of only working in hostels, you also have the opportunity to volunteer in schools, work in groceries stores, volunteer for non profit organizations, be an au-pair, etc., always in exchange of accommodation and meals. The difference with Worldpackers is that, whereas with the latter your usually can work in a place only for some weeks or about a month, with Workaway you can work for longer periods, making it suitable for long self-financed travels.
I seriously think Airbnb is another great idea. It’s one of those ideas that you wish you’d had first, because, well, you could have made quite a lot of money, notwithstanding its simplicity. Many of us may have a spare room which stays there getting dust, while signing up on Airbnb we could make a little bit extra money out of it. But I’m writing as someone who has used the portal to find a place to sleep. I used it in Malaga last summer: I didn’t know I planned my trip there right on the weekend of the Feria and the few hostels in the city were pretty much all booked. So I found this girl, renting a room in her apartment right in the city centre, for a cheaper price than an hostel. The girl was really nice and asked me if I wanted to go out to the Feria with her. I just got a little worried when she didn’t answer to her phone for the next three days and I had to live the keys on the table and live her apartment door open. But she answered me back three days later, apologizing. Anyway it was a good choice. On Airbnb you can also find apartments and houses to rent just for a few days. You may find some cheap solutions, like I did, but also some more luxury ones, where you can find fresh linen every morning and breakfast and nice furniture and a very comfy bed, almost as you actually were in a bed and breakfast.
: cheap prices even for a room right in the city centre.
: again, it’s all about trusting people.
Hostels have been my best friends for at least the past four years. When I decide to take a new trip, the first thing I do is start looking for nice hostels. If there’s a hostel that, beside having good ratings, also has a good design (I’m not a lover of those neutral rooms which look like a military dorm) I might even just book it instead of looking for a cheaper solution. What I like about hostels is the people who chooses it: young travelers, mostly backpackers, from all over the world. And what I like even more is that those people can become your travel companions for a little while: you probably won’t see them again in your life, but they’ll be forever in the memory of that trip. So, in my hostel in Inverness, I met Melanie, from France, with whom I went to Loch Ness. In Skye, I met Eva, from London, and Blanca and Sara, from Spain, and the four of us woke up at six in the morning to go visit Eilean Donan Castle back on “continental” Scotland.
: you sleep on a bed. It might not be the most comfortable, but it’s still a bed. You meet a variety of people, with their own stories and travel itineraries. I also love the lounge rooms some hostels have, where at night you can meet to play a guitar and sing, or just relax reading a good book or planning the visits for the following day.
: if you’re a person who needs your personal space, hostels are not for you. They’re usually pretty crowded. There are no rooms, but dorms, which means that you could end up sharing it with 13 other people. There’s usually one bathroom for about ten people so it can get sketchy if the cleaning system is not efficient. But a true traveler shouldn’t be scared by this. I think it all makes the adventure better.
8. MOUNTAIN HUTS
I probably put this kind of accommodation in this list only because of where I was born. I grew up going hiking with my parents on the mountains, because I grew up in the most beautiful land, surrounded by the Alps and the Dolomites (which are UNESCO Natural Heritage). So, when hiking, the arrival is always the so-called rifugio, a stoney building which is always there, no matter what, as safe haven for hikers and climbers. There you can enjoy a hot chocolate with a slice of homemade pie warming up by the fireplace, or spend the night to restore yourself before resuming the hike the following morning. You can also enjoy beautiful panoramas and a rustic architecture: being so isolated, they were built with the only materials available, rocks and wood. You can find an entire family living and working there, plus some young mountain lovers who decide to sacrifice their summers in more civilized places to spend them working in a beautiful paradise. Staying overnight in a dorm usually costs you about €20, but some more accessible and more comfortable ones, probably better for a romantic weekend than for a “pit-stop”, can ask €40/50 for a double room.
: you’re far from anything, which means far from traffic, far from noises, far from light pollution which doesn’t allow you to take a look at the stars. You’re truly immersed in the nature, in the sanctity of the mountains.
: again, you will have to share spaces with many other people. Moreover, the food choice is not the one you can find in a restaurant (a lot of tourists seem not to understand it): given also the remote position and the difficulty to bring everything up there (groceries are often brought up there once a week by helicopter) the menu is usually down to a few traditional specialties, which does not mean they’re not delicious. So get ready to enjoy some polenta with spezzatino di cervo (deer).
9. GUESTHOUSES / B&B
This category is tricky, because I haven’t really understood the difference between guesthouses and bed&breakfasts, so I’ll write this paragraph in the conviction they are the same thing. They’re usually small buildings, usually houses converted in small hotels. So usually there are no more than 15/20 rooms and the only meal you can eat there is breakfast, which is always included. It’s a family business as well, and the owners usually live there, so you know you can have assistance 24 hours. There you can find good prices even for a single room.
: the small size of them gives a sense of intimacy. Food is always homemade and typical (in Fort William I got to try a full Scottish breakfast!!). Price is still affordable, even if you may spend double the price of a night in a hostel, but at least you usually have your private bathroom.
: given the small size and the small business, you usually cannot find them on portals such as Booking or Trivago. So, when I thought everything was booked in Fort William and I had no other choice than pay more than £100 pounds for one night in a hotel, I just started clicking on every bed icon in Fort William on Google Maps. I found plenty of guesthouse which had a personal website and I sent some e-mails to ask for availability, finding the one which best suited me.
For a group of friends or a family is always a good and cheap choice rent an entire apartment. The first time I rented an apartment was two summers ago in Berlin: I shared it with two other girls and a guy from my area that I didn’t know too well. But we soon bonded and spent together every moment of the two weeks we were there, partying and visiting museums, but also buying groceries and cooking. This summer, instead, I spent one week of vacation in Southern Italy with my parents. It was the first time we decided to rent an apartment instead of staying at a hotel. And it literally blew our minds: there are no times, you can wake up, have breakfast, have dinner whenever you want, without having the pressure of going to breakfast only between 7 and 9 as in hotels. You also can wear whatever you want and, why not, have dinner in your bathrobe or lunch in your bikini. And it’s way cheaper than an hotel. Besides that it was right on the beach!!
: as I said, it is way cheaper than a hotel and, given its small size, often in a better location. You’re free of doing whatever you want, whenever you want (always respecting though people in other apartments).
: you don’t find everything already done for you as in a hotel: you have to do your own bed, buy your own groceries, cook your own meals.
The cover picture for this post was taken by my friend Cecilia on her trip to Portugal! Follow her on Instagram: @miottocecilia