"To travel cheap, you need to be looking for opportunities and be willing to take them. You have to be somewhat proactive and not be afraid to ask for advice, help, guidance. Ask for what you want—it's amazing what people are willing to give. I discovered that most people are very willing and are looking to give to the right person. You miss 100 per cent of the opportunities you don't take..."
Jim Lawrence, 34, travelled around the world for nearly free. . .for eight years.
We’ve all heard the old adage that the best things in life are always free. But most people assume this rule only applies to life’s little pleasures like smelling flowers or laughing with friends. And sure, those are nice, but what about those bigger pleasures, like jetting off across the world? Can you do that for free too?
Well, if not for free, then very cheap. If you’re looking for an international experience but don’t have the cash to splurge on it, this article is for you. You don’t need thousands of dollars to get yourself on the road. In fact, all you need is a little originality, some guts and enthusiasm, and some ideas to get you started. Some of the ideas below are sensible ones that Granny would approve of. Others are a little more risqué —it's amazing what some people will do to save a buck—but hey, since when do you take Granny's advice anyway?
So don’t let your empty wallet stop you from taking the trip of a lifetime. Just remember: with the right attitude, the best things in life—even travelling—can come pretty cheap.
1. House-swap or rent out your home
In a nutshell: Made famous by the movie The Holiday, this option, of course, requires you to have a house. If you do have a house to offer up, there are various websites that provide online classifieds for owners to advertise (homeexchange.com or homebase-hols.com). Most require a registration fee, but then you can advertise your property for the entire year. The length of time for exchanges depends on the needs of the two parties swapping houses. Another alternative for those travellers lucky enough to be property owners is to rent out your home.
What advocates say: Accommodation with no cash down? This is a no-brainer. Staying in a home rather than a hotel usually has perks like an equipped kitchen, telephone and some may even have internet. And renting out your home while you’re away is a great source of cash; monthly rent from an apartment in Toronto, Vancouver or even St. John's can go a long way towards covering your costs in Bolivia or Ghana.
What Granny would say: Screen candidates carefully before handing over your keys, otherwise you may not have a home to come back to.
Related: How to Find Cheap Digs in Europe
In a nutshell: If you're kipping in your parents' spare room, sleeping in a college dorm, or surfing on your friends' sofas then you're out of luck on the house-swapping front (or, more accurately, you may already be travelling for free). But a house-sitting gig may be an option for you. If you are looking to house-sit, there are online boards where you can advertise your services. Check out: housecarers.com, mindmyhouse.com for postings in several different countries, or national boards such as Australia's happyhousesitters.com.au or aussiehousesitters.com.au. You can also put the word out and look for homes in need through university communities (on general message boards, in residences, in university newspapers), church communities or community centres. Sites like craigslist.org and Facebook are also worth a try.
What advocates say: Finding a gig like this is golden. You’ll get free accommodation in exchange for watering some plants and walking a dog.
What Granny would say: Why would someone want a stranger in their house? They must be sexual predators!
Related: How to Become a Housesitter Abroad
3. Volunteer and fundraise
In a nutshell: Ever considered volunteering on a development project? One of the great things about devoting your time to help a worthy cause overseas is that it may allow you an opportunity to fundraise to support your work. Some volunteer organizations may help you out with room and board, and occasionally flights. Most organizations that do this require a significant commitment of time (one to two years) as well as specialized skills and experience. An alternative is to join a shorter-term project and fundraise. Schools, employers, community organizations, family and friends are all great sources of moral support for most volunteers, and most are happy to help out with a good cause. Some local organizations that support this kind of work include your local Lions Club (lionsclubs.org), Optimist Club (optimist.org) or Rotary Club (rotary.org).
What advocates say: Many volunteers are successful in raising enough to cover their out-of-pocket expenses, and even to make a donation to the project they are interested in. Not only will you be making a contribution to a worthy cause, but volunteer travel can be one of the most rewarding ways to see and learn about another part of the world.
What Granny would say: It sounds okay, but just don’t nag my friends for donations while we’re playing bridge.
4. Carpool or hitchhike
In a nutshell: You can get on board with someone going in the same direction, or if you have a car, you can look for people to join you—thereby offsetting fuel costs. Carpooling usually requires some advance planning, as travellers will look to fill their car way in advance of their departure. Some travellers advertise on travel forums (thorntree.lonelyplanet.com), and there are websites specifically dedicated to this kind of ride sharing like erideshare.com and compartir.org. Rides can also be advertised at hostels and other venues where travellers congregate. While it requires slightly more planning than hitchhiking, carpooling is likely a safer option. You can meet the person in advance of the trip (preferably in a public place), as well as check their references, photo ID and phone numbers. Though of course, in some parts of the world, such as Cuba, hitchhiking is just part of the way of life.
What advocates say: Carpooling and hitching rides are both great ways to meet some local characters, and they’re also eco-friendly and cheaper than riding alone.
What Granny would say: Going on a trip with someone you met on the computer? Has your mother not taught you anything about your personal safety?
Related: Hitchhiker's Guide to Getting a Ride
5. Crew a yacht
In a nutshell: You don't need to know your port from your starboard in order to help crew a boat. Knowledge of seamanship might make you a shoo-in, but culinary, mechanical or navigational abilities could score you a paid position on board, and often an extra set of hands is enough to earn you working passage on a yacht. If you want to get a feel for the kinds of options available, check out UK-based Crewseekers International: crewseekers.net (Note: A membership fee applies). Crewseekers lists many opportunities, including paid positions, shared contribution voyages and working passage trips.
If you are up for a bit of adventure—or happen to find yourself in a port town—then just get yourself down to the marina and start asking questions. Check out the bars and restaurants, check bulletin boards for ads and consider posting your own. At different times of the year "repositioning crossings" take place—boat owners have a limited weather window during which time they must move their vessel (hurricane season, anyone?) Get yourself to the right place at the right time, with the right attitude, and you're almost sure to find a vessel to take you on.
What advocates say: Haven’t you always dreamed of an adventure on the high seas? Treat this adventure like hitchhiking with a real live captain!
What Granny would say: Are you crazy? Haven’t you seen Pirates of the Caribbean?
6. Crew a cruise ship
In a nutshell: A much less adventurous way to travel at sea, in some respects. But there are about a zillion different jobs available on cruise ships. The best option for short-term contracts is to offer an area of expertise for the education or entertainment of the passengers. There are many websites that offer listings of cruise ship jobs—some of which are fraudulent—but most cruise companies list available job opportunities directly on their websites. Get started at carnival.com or royalcaribbean.com.
What advocates say: It’s a way to see the world on someone else’s dime.
What Granny would say: Crew jobs are not all that glamorous: the staff work long hours, stay below deck and are allowed off the ship only very rarely.
7. Transport other people’s vehicles
In a nutshell: When people move from one place to another, they often have their car sent—and that’s where you come in. Start by inquiring directly with car rental or relocation companies, some of whom need drivers to move vehicles from one city to another in a limited number of days. Checking for ads or advertising your own services in city, community, or university newspaper classified sections could also bring you in contact with a car owner in need of a driver. Try advertising and looking in both the city where you are and in the city that you want to travel to. Australia-based rental companies including Britz (britz.com.au), Maui (maui.com.au) and GoGet (goget.com.au) require occasional relocations throughout the year. And at season's end, they often need to move a number of vehicles en-masse to a specific location due to seasonal demand. Keep in mind that many companies require you to be at least 21 years of age.
What advocates say: As long as you have some flexibility, this is a simple and cheap solution for getting from point A to B.
What your Granny would say: Don’t forget to check which side of the road they drive on in Australia!
8. WWOOF it up
In a nutshell: World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms is an international network of organic farmers who from time to time offer opportunities for volunteers to join them. Contact the WWOOF office in the country you wish to visit (at last count, in January 2015, there were opportunities in 65 different countries). A small membership fee gives you access to lists of member farms in that country. For further information about national branches and membership see wwoof.org.
What advocates say: It’s a good deal: room and board is often provided in exchange for help on the farm. And if you’re lucky, they might let you eat some fruit or veg on the house.
What Granny would say: Make sure you eat three solid meals a day to keep up your strength and don’t forget to wear sunscreen.
Related: Volunteer Worldwide on Organic Farms
9. Get a travel scholarship
In a nutshell: "Internationalization" is the buzzword on campus these days, and more and more funding is becoming available for Canadian students who want to study abroad. For a sample of the kinds of funds available, check out scholarships.gc.ca, which lists awards for Canadians wanting to study in 50 countries. For graduate study and fieldwork in international development, check out the International Development Research Centre (idrc.ca). For a listing of higher-education study opportunities and scholarships in 129 countries, see the UNESCO Study Abroad Guide at unesco.org.
What advocates say: If you can get one of these grants, you’re not only set for your travels, but it will look great on your resume.
What Granny would say: Now this sounds like the most sensible way to travel.
10. Fly smart
In a nutshell: Budget airlines are virtually a religion in Europe, where few people pay full price for airline tickets. In fact, some airlines--especially those in the United Kingdom--offer international fares for little more than the taxes. You’ll be blown away by some of the sales on offer, check out ryanair.com or easyjet.com. Similarly, domestic fares within Australia are worth checking out, like virginaustralia.com that offers happy hour rates for one hour a day and jetstar.com.
What advocates say: A $30 ticket to get across Europe? It makes the train seem pricey.
What Granny would say: Sounds good. Do they offer a discount for seniors?
11. Trade labour at a hostel
In a nutshell: Once you’ve arrived at your destination, consider approaching a hostel manager and negotiating a deal to exchange some work for your room—if they’re short of staff, you can barter your labour for a free place to stay. An alternative is to apply for a hostel job before you even leave home, especially if you’ve had experience in the hospitality industry. A number of websites list hostel jobs, like hostelworld.com which has a message board. Other sites offer listings on a country-by-country basis—see, for example, backpack.co.nz, which displays job postings within New Zealand. Some hostels may be apprehensive about hiring someone from abroad; depending on the place, some may require you to hold a working visa before your arrival.
What advocates say: As long as no money is exchanged, trading your labour for room and board is a good way to get around the visa issue of working in other countries.
What Granny would say: It’s like slave labour! You should report them if they make you work too hard.
12. Pick up some casual work
In a nutshell: If you’re looking to stay a little longer, then consider picking up some short-term work overseas. The options are plentiful: you can be an au pair (greataupair.com or aupair.com) or you can do something outdoors like fruit picking or trailmaintenance (anyworkanywhere.com offers listings for fruit picking, but many smaller farmers will only advertise locally). Many countries also offer Canadian youth working holiday visas, where you can travel and pick up any kind of casual work (legally). Check out SWAP (swap.ca) who will help you to arrange a working visa in many different countries, or companies like Go Workabout (goworkabout.com) who will pre-arrange a seasonal job in Australia for you.
What advocates say: You can work your way around the world with odd jobs like these—it’s a win-win situation.
What Granny would say: Employers might expect you to work long hours, leaving you little time to sightsee. Maybe it’s time you got a real job?!
Related: Top 10 Casual Jobs Overseas
13. Organize a group tour
Most travel companies will offer a discount—or free travel—to people who organize a group tour for several people. They commonly refer to them as "group leaders". No, this does not mean that you are responsible for guiding your group of friends around Rome, but rather that you organize who will be going, where they will be going, and when. This one is a no-brainer for teachers and professors (ever wondered why your teacher in high school was happy to accompany 20 teenagers on a trip to Paris?) But it can work for other people too. Check out adventuresincorporated.com or adventures-abroad.com for examples, or enquire with any organization of interest to you.
Advocates would say: Great idea! Not only will you get to travel for free, but you can go with your friends.
What Granny would say: You can start by organizing my trip to Florida this winter.
14. Take a hard-core challenge
If you are the sort of person who would welcome the challenge of climbing to Everest Base Camp to raise money for a charity, this one could be for you. One of the newest trends in travel has seen companies springing up that will help you organize the challenge of your choice—or join an existing expedition—all in the name of charity. You do the climb (or other adventure), and raise the sponsors, they take care of the rest. Check out Global Adventure Challenges (globaladventurechallenges.com) or Across the Divide (acrossthedivide.com).
Advocates say: Where's my ice axe?
What Granny would say: Why go so far when you can do charity work at the nursing home across the street?
Related: Adventurers for Good
15. Enter contests
Okay, this may sound like a long shot, but if you're short on cash and long on time you'll be absolutely amazed at how many travel contests are there for the wining. Just Google "travel contests" and you'll get hundreds of pages of results. Travel writing or photography may win you cash or a trip. Airlines, cruise lines, resorts, tourism boards and adventure travel companies all offer up prize trips every so often. If you're not picky about where you go, a little time and energy invested might get you out of here sooner than you think.
Advocates say: I won something once.
What Granny would say: Want to take me to bingo on Tuesday?
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The information in this article was last updated September 2018. Have a correction or an addition of a way to travel for free or cheap? Please add your comment below and we'll review your suggestion.Add this article to your reading list