My travel mantra holds that travel should be free — or as close to free as you can get! Budget travel tips usually focus on ways to find cheaper airfare or hotels, and these are a great start. But thinking outside the box can yield some extraordinary vacations that are surprisingly affordable. Here are the different ways I travel to save (and sometimes earn!) money:
Rent a House or Apartment
If you want to stay somewhere nicer than a hostel, but aren't eager to pay hotel prices, consider renting a house or apartment. You'll be able to cook for yourself and avoid the $5 bottles of water. You're also more likely to get an authentic local experience, as vacation rentals are often located in neighborhoods, rather than in tourist areas.
Vacation rentals are a great proposition if you've got kids, since they can run around and eat Mac ‘n Cheese — the epicenter of childhood, by my memory — without disturbing hotel or restaurant staff.
VRBO is the most popular source for vacation rental listings, but the large number and inconsistent quality of listings can be disorienting. As much as possible, I recommend using local vacation rental sites operated by people in the region you're visiting (Google is your friend). These sites are run by people passionate about their properties, whether it's one house or 50 properties, and can offer local tips and personal attention.
Travel in Groups
One way to really maximize the value of vacation rentals is to rent them as a group. While it might sound crazy to pay $800/night for a fancy 6-bedroom home, the number to pay attention to is the cost per room (in this case, $133 per room). If you have six couples staying together, that's only $67 per person. And often, the larger homes have amenities like hot tubs, pool tables, docks, fireplaces, or large acreage.
Last year, my aunt, boyfriend and I rented a gorgeous two-bedroom flat in Paris' Left Bank, across from the Louvre. We shopped at the famous Parisian markets and cooked many of our own meals. Our flat cost $80/night each, so we splurged and stayed 10 nights. We leisurely toured the museums, took day trips out of town, and wandered the streets of Paris, pretending to be locals.
If you know anyone who lives in a place you'd like to visit — heck, if you know anyone who knows anyone who lives in such a place — contact them. I've never regretted reaching out to someone in a foreign land I'm visiting, no matter how tenuous the connection. This generally works best for international travel, though even with domestic travel, you're sure to get some restaurant and activity recommendations.
Most people are thrilled to show you around their town, and they can point you towards the cool, local spots off the tourist track (read: you won't have to pay tourist prices). Making connections with others is what travel is all about, so don't be shy!
There are people all over the world who want you stay in their place for free. All you have to do is reciprocate. Browse sites like INTERVac and HomeExchange.com, and search for people who want to visit your region. When I was a kid, every summer my family exchanged our home with a European family's. We were able to explore new countries like France and Italy at a leisurely pace, rent-free.
Monetize Your Space
This tip is a bit more complicated and requires a bigger leap of faith. Whenever I know I'll be out of town, I make my boyfriend's and my San Francisco apartment available for rent. So while my boyfriend and I are off traveling, someone is nearly always paying to stay in our apartment. For example, we recently took a two-week trip to Boston and managed to find someone to rent our place the entire time we were gone.
Last summer, I generated enough money this way to fund all our major travel expenses. We traveled to New York City, Boulder, Sonoma, and Boston. After totaling the air, lodging and car rental costs, I was delighted to find we broke even. By hanging with locals and cooking our own meals, our entertainment and food costs were about the same as they would've been had we stayed home. We rented apartments, used hotel points or stayed with local friends to save money on lodging. We purchased in advance to save on airfare and car rentals.
Budget travel is often about hostels and last-minute airfare. But with some advance planning and a creative approach, it's also possible to travel inexpensively, connect with friends, and experience local culture all at once.