Lodging is usually one of the biggest costs associated with traveling, but it really doesn’t have to be.
Here’s how you can skip the bill, keep the comfort, and earn more than a few good stories when it comes to sleeping on the road.
A word to the wise: There’s a whole lot of things you can compromise on when selecting budget lodging experiences, but safety isn’t one. Make sure you know how to stay safe on the road before you shack up anywhere questionable.
Meet people, make friends, sleep cheap
I know I have a place to stay for free in just about every state in America. I take advantage of that privilege often, typically in exchange for dinner out and some chores (if my host will allow that). In addition to a free, safe place to stay, I get a local guide to kickstart my solo explorations and we both get to enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company.
So what’s the secret to creating a far-flung network of free beds?
There isn’t one. Just be a good friend, or cousin, or aunt, or whatever—and travel a lot. Meet people, be genuine, and offer your own couch to them if they’re ever near your home base. They’ll more than likely do the same.
If you don’t have a network yet, check out couchsurfing.com and become a host yourself. Be sure to allow only well-vetted travelers into your home (let somebody else take chances on a new user). You’ll start making connections in no time.
Services like Airbnb have revolutionized how people sleep on the road, so much so that many landlords with rental apartments, and even hotel owners, have switched their entire business model to Airbnb. Airbnbs are just as easy to book as a hotel, can be just as private and are almost always more fun, all for a fraction of the price.
There are other home-sharing platforms, but no matter what kind of accommodation I’m looking for, I always start with Airbnb now. I have found an entire multi-level home, fully furnished with hand-carved furniture; an air mattress in an attic; and a ceremonial hut in the Arizona desert—all available for a click of a button, a leap of faith, and ten to twenty bucks a night.
It’s really kind of hard to believe, but it’s true. What a time to be alive.
In urban areas, hostels are usually the way to go if you’re on a budget. They’re notoriously inconsistent in terms of price and quality, but most places share a few common characteristics:
- A hostel bunk is almost always the cheapest paid option in popular areas
- They nearly all come with a certain level of acceptable grunginess
- There’s no better way to meet fellow travelers
A bunk in a brand new Boston high rise cost me forty dollars in 2019, while a bunk at a venerable mom-and-pop joint in Moab, Utah was ten bucks in 2020. Both had acceptably clean sheets, a kitchen, and no shortage of characters rambling about the premises.
Even if I’m not really in the mood to share a room, I’ll often book my first night or two at a hostel just to meet people and find out about local attractions. You’ll learn more (and have more fun!) during one meal with strangers at a hostel than during a whole day spent crawling around Google at the local internet café.
Always start with Airbnb (They didn’t even pay me to tell you that. I love it that much!), but Hostelworld.com is the next best place to find a good hostel.
Yes, you can camp in a city! No, I don’t mean under the bridge downtown.
Many city parks will let you tent-, car- or van-camp for free or for a nominal fee. Airbnb (you knew this was coming) nearly always has a good selection of private homeowners offering up their yards for a steal, but you’ll also want to do a quick Google search for other private campgrounds catering to city visitors.
In the States, camping is nearly always free on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holdings—as opposed to National Parks—but my go-to for finding free camping is freecampsites.net.
It encompasses most easily road-accessible sites listed on public lands, plus tons that aren’t. I’ve used it to find basecamps for cities all over America.