The Broke Backpacker’s Guide to Scoring Free Accommodation

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By  June 9, 2020

From couchsurfing to house swapping, here's how to take the cost of accommodation out of your travel budget.

There it was: Fat, furry, beady-eyed and decidedly at home. It was the first rat I’d ever seen, and it was standing directly in the pathway to my accommodation for the night: Berlin’s largest squat.

When I told my parents that I was taking a gap year to travel across Europe, I doubt they envisioned their teenage daughter would find herself sleeping deep in the bowels of an anarchist squat. But they weren’t bankrolling the trip. Sure, the room I was sharing with a Finnish punk rock band only had three and a half walls, but anything to save a few Euros, right?

Nearly two decades later, I’d like to say that I left my broke backpacker habits behind when I acquired a rolling suitcase and business cards. But the truth is I’m still a bit of a dirtbag at heart. The only difference is that these days my free accommodation comes courtesy of housesitting (and tends to be mercifully rat-free).

No matter what type of traveller you are, if you’re looking to find a cheap place to sleep, there’s something to suit your budget (or lack thereof).

This might be the “Broke Backpacker’s Guide” to scoring free accommodation, but the desire to save money isn’t limited by age or even income. No matter what type of traveller you are, if you’re looking to find a cheap place to sleep, there’s something to suit your budget (or lack thereof).

Here are the top 11 ways to find free accommodation while travelling.

1. Book an overnight plane, train, boat or bus

Taking a red-eye to your next destination is the gateway drug to free accommodation. Once you realize how good it feels to not pay anything for a night’s sleep, you’ll be hooked. Not only will you save money on hotel rooms and travel fares (overnight hauls tender to be cheaper), but you’ll save precious daylight hours as well.

• How to get started: Before you lock-in your transportation, double-check travel times. This is especially true when crossing time zones. That red-eye flight leaving Vancouver at 11:30pm and getting to Toronto at 6am? It’s only in the air for just over four hours. Prone to motion sickness? An 18-hour ferry crossing over open sea might not be in your best interests.

Otherwise, this is pretty self-explanatory. Make sure to bring a travel pillow, blanket and noise-proof headphones or earplugs.

• The hidden cost: A night on a bumpy bus could mean wasting a the following day catching-up on sleep in your room—or worse, spending your food budget for the day on painkillers for your sore back and neck.

2. Crash on a stranger’s couch

Since long before the Internet, people have been offering up free spots on their couches and floors to foreigners. But it was CouchSurfing's 2004 launch that made the act more accessible, widespread and, arguably, safer. A near-guaranteed way to meet locals, couchsurfing is also cultural immersion at its finest.

The premise is simple: Set up a profile, post your travel plans, then request lodging from one of the 400,000 active hosts worldwide. If they’ve got spare room, you’ve got a place to sleep for free.

With 14 million members, CouchSurfing.com is the largest site to find a couch to crash on, but it’s not the only one. The Solo Female Traveler Network, for example, manages a Facebook group where members post free accommodation, including spare couches. Warmshowers offers accommodation exclusively for cyclists. Then there’s BeWelcome, a volunteer-run site that offers “hospitality exchanges,” including guided tours and meals.

• How to get started: When you set up your profile, make sure to include plenty of profile pictures and reviews from past hosts (screenshots of your Airbnb profile will do in a pinch).

If you’re sending out dozens of requests and get zero response, remember that couchsurfing isn’t about a free place to sleep—it’s about community and cultural exchange. That’s why it’s also important to write a highly personalized message to prospective hosts, indicating that you’d like to share a meal, drink or conversation.

• The hidden cost: It’s polite to bring your hosts a small token of thanks, such as a bottle of beer or sweets from your home country.

The other potential hidden cost is safety. The sharing economy is rooted in trust and honesty, but that doesn’t mean every host will abide by the rules. To calm your nerves, read the article by Jenna Kunze, who shared with us how to couchsurf safely as a solo female traveller.

3. Become a housesitter

Since arriving in New Zealand on a working holiday visa over a year ago, I’ve only shelled out for an Airbnb a handful of times and rarely paid rent. I’ve received months’ worth of free accommodation courtesy of housesitting.

Although it’s called “housesitting,” most homeowners are actually looking for in-home petsitters. (Cuddles and nose boops are just some of the dividends of the gig.) This is an option best for travellers who are content to stay in one spot, since longer day trips and overnight adventures are out of the question.

• How to get started: To find a housesit, log-on to TrustedHousesitters, MindMyHouse or HouseCarers—three of the most popular and active housesitting sites worldwide. If you don’t get many results for your destination of choice, you may have to dig to see if there’s a regional site or online community boards where vacancies are more likely to be listed. (In New Zealand, for example, KiwiHouseSitters.co.nz has a monopoly on the market.)

No experience is necessary, but you’ll need to have references at the ready. Don’t have any? When I started out, I used the referrals on my LinkedIn and Airbnb profiles to serve as character references. For more tips, check out Christine Estima’s article on how to become a housesitter abroad.

• The hidden cost: Most housesitting communities don’t allow money to change hands—but some homeowners may ask you to cover utilities. There’s also a small start-up cost—most sites are membership-based, so expect to fork out around $100 for the annual fee.

4. Clean rooms at a hostel

When Alberta native, Erin Friesen, 25, started backpacking through Australia, it quickly became clear that she wasn’t going to be able to afford every excursion on her backpacker budget. That all changed when she landed a job at a hostel.

Her experience isn’t unique; most hostels have an established work-for-accommodation program. For just a few hours of work per day, you get a free bed in a dorm room or in staff accommodation. Jobs include reception, planning hostel social events, leading pub crawls, bartending and cleaning.


“When you’re cleaning, you’re cleaning some gross shit because you’re in a hostel. But I’d say it’s worth it—it saves you so much money,” says Friesen. She estimates that on her latest seven-month-long trip, she only had to pay for a month of accommodation. “There’s no way I would have been able to travel for as long as I did without it,” she says.

• How to get started: This is one job where willingness and a good attitude matters far more than a resume. Most hostel jobs are best procured in-person, by checking the lobby bulletin board or asking at the front desk when you check in.

If you’re a planner, there are exceptions to those rules: HostelJobs is where you’ll find listings for hostel vacancies, including paid positions. Volunteer hostel jobs can also be found on WorldpackersWorkaway.info and HelpX. 

Finally, if you’re willing to stay someplace longer-term and have a valid work permit, many resorts and hotels in seasonal destinations—such as in Canada’s Rocky Mountains—offer staff accommodation for their employees.

• The hidden cost: There may be requirements, such as a minimum two-week stay. However, most hostel jobs come without pay and without a formal contract. Like any other under-the-table opportunity, the onus is on you to ensure working conditions are safe and fair.

“You have to know your worth and not be walked all over,” advises Friesen.

If you’re a tourist, you’ll also need to double-check that volunteer work is legal on your visa. In Australia, for example, backpackers can only volunteer in hostels if they have a working holiday visa.

5. Become a content creator

A few years ago, headlines started blowing up with stories about high-end resorts that were fed up with “freeloading influencers” seeking out freebies.

Kellie Paxian, a travel writer and content creator from BC, believes these influencers were all making the same mistake: they were aiming too high.

A micro-influencer, Paxian’s following only numbers in the four digits. But when she set out on a backpacking trip in late 2019, she gambled that hostels would have spare beds and a need for quality social media content. She guessed right. Of the roughly 40 hostels she contacted, only one gave a flat-out “no” to her offer of fresh content in exchange for a night’s stay. Nearly all said yes, even putting her in a private room to showcase their best products. One hostel even hosted her for three full months.

“It’s not like I was a big influencer at the time,” she recalls. “But for any hostel who had Instagram account and empty beds, it was a no-brainer.”

• How to get started: Not a photographer or writer? From teaching yoga, to cutting hair, to gardening, Paxian’s principle can be applied to any skill you have to barter. Just because a position isn’t advertised, doesn’t mean it isn’t needed.

Regardless of what you have to offer, follow Paxian’s lead and aim low. Unless you’re a mega influencer, you’re unlikely to score a night at a five-star seaside resort, but you might be able to land a private room at the hostel just down the road. Focus your hit list on independent and private hostels (where you’re more likely to have a direct line to management), state your expertise and offer clearly, and provide examples of your work. Finally, travel in the shoulder season, when it's more likely there will be empty beds.

• The hidden costs: Like all the other work for accommodation options in this article, the inherent nature of work means it’s not a total holiday. “You can’t just have one day as a write-off if you’re hungover. You have deliverables to meet,” says Paxian.

6. Work for room and board

Imagine training sled dogs in the Canadian Arctic, working as a yoga instructor in Hawaii, or beekeeping in New Zealand—all in exchange for a place to sleep, three meals a day and plenty of time off to explore.

All of the above are very real and current opportunities on Help Exchange (most commonly known as HelpX), a website devoted to work for accommodation listings. It’s not the only site of its kind; Workaway and Worldpackers are two other popular sites for finding work exchanges, while WWOOF is dedicated solely to farming.

On average, guests work between three and six hours per day, with commitments ranging from a few days to several months. No experience is necessary, but if you have a specific set of skills—particularly if you’re a skilled farmhand or handyperson—you’ll have your pick of jobs.

• How to get started: In the case of HelpX and Workaway, all you have to do is sign-up for a membership, set up a profile and start connecting with hosts. WWOOFing, however, is somewhat less straightforward. Each region has its own WWOOFing subgroup and website. So, for example, if you want to volunteer on a farm for accommodation in China, you’ll need to navigate over to WWOOF China. (Here’s an article on how WWOOFing works.)

There are hundreds of listings on each site, so plan to spend some time wading through the listings, using experienced WWOOFER Joe Aultman-Moore’s tips on how to narrow your options down.

• The hidden cost: Each of the sites mentioned above does have a small membership fee: Workaway costs US$44 per year, Worldpackers is US$49 and HelpX’s premium membership is €20. The price for WWOOF varies from one place to the next, but expect to spend in the ballpark of $75. (If you sign-up for WWOOF in multiple countries, you’ll need to pay multiple membership fees.)

7. Get a live-in job as a caretaker

In a category all of its own, getting a job as a live-in caretaker—usually as an au pair for young children—is another well-established form of exchanging your time for accommodation. As a bonus, au pairs also often receive a small stipend for wiping runny noses and getting kids to school.

Kids not your thing? A friend of mine spent a summer being a companion for an elderly artist at a boat-in cottage in Georgian Bay, Ontario. While these types of gigs are harder to come by, they do exist. He found the position through his university's job board, but you can also apply to be an elderly companion on Workaway and HelpX.

• How to get started: Depending on your destination of choice, you can apply to au pairing jobs through a regional placement agency. These agencies take care of all the fine print details, including matching au pairs with families, facilitating reference checks and managing contracts.

Alternately, you can connect directly with families by using sites like AuPairWorld, AuPair and GreatAuPair. Signing-up for au pair websites is usually free-of-charge for prospective au pairs.

Note that, depending on the terms of your contract, a work visa may also be required for some countries.

• The hidden cost: Taking care of kids is arguably one of the most demanding work-for-accommodation roles, with no shortage of horror stories. It isn’t just about making cookies and playing games—you may be expected to take on a large bulk of the family’s housework as well. Being expected to blend in with a new family and working where you live also presents challenges, making it harder to distinguish and enjoy your time “off.”

8. Participate in a house swap

House swapping was popular for decades before the romantic-comedy The Holiday was released in 2006. However, it—along with the growth of the sharing economy—undoubtedly opened people up to the potential of trading homes.

The concept is simple: You stay in someone else’s home while they stay in yours. If a simultaneous exchange isn’t possible due to timing conflicts, there are other options: you can stay in a home swapper’s vacation home or even stay as a guest while they’re also home. Finally, when dates and destinations don’t match, some sites offer “swap points,” which can be redeemed to stay in a vacant home of your choice.

• How to get started: First, you need to have your own house or apartment, and ensure that there’s adequate insurance coverage to welcome strangers. (If you rent, you’ll likely need to ask your landlord for permission, as home swapping is usually considered a type of temporary sublet.)

Then, it’s time to start looking for your dream house. SabbaticalHomes, LoveHomeSwap, HomeExchange, HomeLink, Intervac and Home Base Holidays are some of the most active and popular homeshare networks.

• The hidden cost: Although most home swap websites offer a free trial period, you’ll need a membership to swap homes and acquire points. Most charge annual fees, usually between $120 and $250 per year. Occasionally, you be also be required to pay for utilities, as well as a cleaning fee.

9. Stay at a monastery, convent or temple

New Norcia, a monastic community located 140 kilometres northeast of Perth, Australia, follows St. Benedictine’s rules of hospitality with its guesthouse for visitors. The cost is based on a sliding scale; guests with limited financial means can make any contribution within their budget (although the suggested donation per night is AUD$100).

Then there’s Bodhinyanarama, a Buddhist sanctuary near Wellington, New Zealand. Since the kitchen steward doesn’t do any shopping, guests are encouraged to arrive with fresh produce in exchange for their stay.

Not surprisingly, monasteries, convents and temples worldwide have long opened their doors to the down and out—including many-a-broke-backpackers.

• How to get started: There aren’t any websites dedicated to free monastery, convent or temple stays, so this one requires a bit of research. Start by investigating what religious communities have guesthouses or host travellers by visiting a site like MonasteryStays.  Then, you’ll need to contact each community individually to see if they offer a sliding scale for payment.

• The hidden cost: There’s a fair amount of legwork here and even if you line up a free stay, it won’t be an entirely free ride. Guests are usually encouraged to experience life within the religious community. Rooms are often spartan, and Internet access may not be available or may be frowned upon. So if you think you’re going to live out your very own real-life Sister Act, that’s probably not the case.

10. Cash-in points

Oh, points programs, how do I love thee! Since I starting collecting points 10 years ago, I’ve had redeemed them for free hotel rooms, car rentals and even international plane journeys. Even if you’re not a frequent traveller, it’s easier to rack up the points than you might think.

There are countless points programs out there and entire websites dedicated to weighing the pros and cons of each. But in brief, Aeroplan and Airmiles can both be exchanged for free hotel stays. Expedia has a points system for anything booked through its website. And many hotel chains—including Marriott, Best Western and Hilton—have their own loyalty programs. The latter are typically free to join and include perks, such as free unlimited WiFi, access to club rooms or complimentary drinks when you check-in.

• How to get started: As an avid points collector, my advice would be to not spread yourself too thin; points programs are all about staying loyal. You’ll also need to be organized, and frequently monitor your points to see where you’re at and when it’s time to cash-in for a free stay.

One of the best ways to get a jump start on collecting points is to sign-up for a travel points credit card, such as an Aeroplan AMEX, Best Western Rewards Mastercard, Marriott Bonvoy AMEX, or one of the countless others.

• The hidden cost: Rewards credit cards have high interest rates as well as an annual fee. Only if they offer travel insurance coverage and if you’re able to pay your balance in full every month is the trade-off worth it. And even if you don’t sign-up for a credit card, points systems are about collecting your personal data. Your basically exchanging your privacy for free stuff, which has a cost all of its own.

11. Freedom camp or urban camp

Vagabonding messages boards are alive and well with their favourite spots to “urban camp” or “stealth camp,” whether that means in a public park or in the parking lot of shopping mall.

Before you turn up your nose at this option, let me put it to you this way—have you ever slept in a train station or an airport? That, by definition, is urban camping.

If the idea still doesn’t sit well with you, you might be better placed to head to a destination where the practice of “freedom camping” is widespread. In countries such as New Zealand and Australia, freedom campsites are designated spots where you can legally park up or pitch your tent overnight without paying a cent.

• How to get started: Freedom camping is known by many names—including boondocking, dispersed camping, wild camping and dry camping—but it all roughly equates to the same thing: camping for free. You’ll need to research your destination to determine legalities, whether it means camping on crown land in Canada or BLM land in the United States.

Once you have a basic idea of what’s fair game, download an app to help you find the best spots. In New Zealand, Rankers is the go-to for finding freedom camping sites. WikiCamps is one of the most popular apps for Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Campendium focuses on free sites in North America (including Mexico), while iOverlander and Freecampsites lists campsites worldwide.

Freedom campsites are usually slim on facilities; don’t expect running water, toilets, or even a garbage bin. It will be harder to abide by the Leave No Trace principles. You may even be required to be completely “self-contained,” (carrying water and able to deal with your own waste) in order to use these sites.

• The hidden cost: Unless you’re bikepacking or an efficient hitchhiker, you’ll need a car or campervan. They don’t come cheap, although you may be able to swing a free van rental by using a site such as imoova or TransferCar.

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Published in Budget Traveller
Jessica Lockhart

Contributing Editor

Although Jessica has travelled to more than 30 countries, her favorite place to throw down her bag is still her hometown of Cold Lake, Alberta. A freelance journalist, Jess has worked for international development organizations and tour operators. She’s conducted workshops in Vanuatu, perfected the use of a satellite phone in the jungles of Guyana and supervised teenage pool parties in the Dominican Republic. Although she's based in Toronto, Jess works remotely from all around the world.

Website: www.jesslockhart.com

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