Getting Creative with Budget Travel

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.

Visit People
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!

Trade
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.

Note: For that last tip, be sure to get your guests' contact information (including where they're from and what brings them to town), create a contract, collect a deposit, and trust your gut — if you have a bad feeling about someone, don't rent to them. Also, in some parts of the country, short-term rentals are starting to be regulated. Ensure you're aware of local laws and tax requirements.

 

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.

J.D.'s note: One weekend every year, Kris and I rent a home in an Oregon resort community. We split the cost with five other couples. It's a fun tradition that doesn't break the bank. And when we were in Europe last fall, we spoke with many couples who were renting (or planning to rent) a flat in Rome or Paris for a week or more. Costs were lower than a hotel, and the situation was more convenient.

 

More about...Frugality, Travel

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PigPennies
PigPennies
9 years ago

I just read your other post about monetizing your space, and my main question is how much personal stuff do you leave at your house? Do you leave your drawers full of your underwear? Your diary sitting next to your bed? Or do you pack those kinds of things into storage before you let strangers come through?

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
9 years ago

We don’t stay in hotels anymore unless we have to, rental apartments are so much more fun, and cheaper, too. We stayed here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tylerkaraszewski/5109323969/ in Santorini last year for I think €160/night. That doesn’t sound particularly cheap, but look at the view! And I tend to find with places like this you tend to get to have a personal interaction with the owner that is a lot more helpful than what hotel staff usually provides. We’ve done this in Greece, Costa Rica, Arizona, The Bahamas, and have a trip planned soon for New York City. I never plan on going… Read more »

bethh
bethh
9 years ago

I did this in Rome – I rented an apartment just steps from the Spanish Steps back in 2001. As a bonus, the apartment owner spoke English and took us on a personal tour of Rome as well.

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

If we’re not getting the hotel paid for as a conference expense, we tend to only travel places with friends or family. Maybe someday we’ll have time to do other travel for pleasure!

Eric D. Greene (artist)
Eric D. Greene (artist)
9 years ago

Cool tips! This is what keeps me coming back to GRS

Sustainable PFs
Sustainable PFs
9 years ago

Ok – this will seem odd – but take advantage of giving family! My Aunt has a GREAT house on the ocean in Virginia that she keeps offering to her nephews when they wed – 1 week whenever it is not rented (we all live in Canada) – no cost!

If you have a family member with a vacation property, whether it is offered to you for use or not, it can’t hurt to ask about it’s availability.

Jaime B
Jaime B
9 years ago

Another vote for renting vacation rentals and flats, esecially if you’re traveling for an extended period of time. I once stayed in a vacation flat in York,England for 3 months for work and the owners were so kind. They, Mike and Glynis, took great care of the property and were a wonderfully helpful resource for me while giving me all the space I wanted. Even if you’re only going to be staying a week or a few days, I found in Italy that many very, very affordable rentals were lovely rooms with en suite bathrooms. One place in Corniglia (Cinque… Read more »

SF_UK
SF_UK
9 years ago

My family almost always “borrowed” houses of friends to go on holiday when I was a child. Not really because of budgetry constraints (although that was almost certainly a bonus), but because my brother’s disabilities mean that staying in a hotel or similar would be nearly impossible. We know how to cope in a family home, and friends would make accomodations (like letting us move furniture around). We timed our holidays for when they were going away, looked after pets if necessary, and usually overlapped for a weekend at the beginning or end. We didn’t often travel outside the UK… Read more »

Danielle
Danielle
9 years ago

Hmmm, might have a teensy problem with the IRS if you rent your home out for more than 14 days. I’d double check this with your tax person before doing it.

sarah
sarah
9 years ago

Timely post – I just signed the contract to rent a studio apartment in Paris for a week. The price is amazing and though the neighborhood is not in the touristy areas, well, it’s not in the touristy areas! It has a kitchen and a view of Sacre Coure and one week costs what we would have paid for two nights in a hotel. Renting out my own place on the other hand: no way. Strangers here, with my stuff and my cat? The rentals I’ve stayed at were all explicitly for rent, they didn’t have someone’s stuff in them.… Read more »

shorty j
shorty j
9 years ago

yessss! I love renting apartments/condos when we travel. More space, your own kitchen and other amenities, AND it’s cheaper than a hotel. Part of why they tend to be a great deal is because they often have minimums–you have to stay 3 or more nights, or something like that, which is fine by me, haha. The last time, we stayed in a gorgeous waterfront condo in Scotland; 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a huge kitchen, 2 blocks from a gigantic grocery store, all for something like ~$100 a night. It even had a washer and dryer, which was a huge bonus.… Read more »

Rebecca
Rebecca
9 years ago

#1 – I try to clear out as much state as I can and just ensure I communicate what’s in play and what isn’t. I’ll pack away most of my personal items into a few “off limits” drawers. For example, the bottom two bathroom drawers will be “mine”, while the top two are available for the guest. Communication and expectation management seem to be key.

#8 – I love the borrowed house idea! I’m still too young to have many friends with houses, but I’ll keep that in mind as my peers start setting down. Fun idea!

Darra
Darra
9 years ago

Regarding renting out your place and how much personal stuff to remove: in my town many people rent their homes to visitors to our annual golf tournament. We put some personal items (like the aformentioned undies) in a locked closet, remove personal photos, toys, cats and ourselves to another location for a week. There is a signed contract for the deal and I’ve not had anything lost, broken or damaged. We also put away our computer’s hard drive but leave a special guest password for our wireless and wired Internet connections (only good for that week).

Kevin M
Kevin M
9 years ago

Tyler that place is gorgeous, where did you find it?

Rebecca
Rebecca
9 years ago

#13 That’s a great idea, Dara! I should also mention that we have a fire-safe lockbox a kitchen cabinet where we keep sensitive paperwork (anything with our social security numbers on it). This is probably a smart thing for anyone to do, but especially if you’ll have strangers in your home.

bon
bon
9 years ago

Now how do i convince my reluctant husband to try this – or better yet, couchsurfing?

Brandon
Brandon
9 years ago

The best way to find a place to stay for free, meet now people and really learn about the place you are visiting anywhere in the world is couchsurfing.com Check it out.

Mikey
Mikey
9 years ago

And last, realize that not everyone needs to travel to be happy. Make your decisions about where your money goes according to what you want, not what others value. I made the decision long ago to give up world travel in exchange for a nice backyard. That’s where I vacation, and I do it every single evening.

Laura
Laura
9 years ago

I’m not paranoid, but I know people who are. 😉 So, how do you make sure that the people you’re renting from actually have the right to rent to you or that the places that they’re renting even exist? I’ve read horror stories about scam artists renting homes online only to find out that the actual owners or tenants had no idea their home was being offered. Unless you know someone in the area who can personally visit a property to verify these things, how do you know it’s a real rental? Also, do you feel safe sleeping in a… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
9 years ago

@Kevin M:
It’s listed on VRBO under Oia, Santorini, Greece. The owners are a little bit new-agey, but they’re very friendly and helpful. They live next door and let us use their internet and laundry for no extra charge.

Amy H.
Amy H.
9 years ago

Rebecca, I have always wanted to do an apartment swap to get to spend time in Europe without paying hotel rates or rent. I live in San Francisco and feel like my apartment would be a great place that people would want to swap with. BUT — I’ve always been too anxious about doing this without first getting permission from the landlord. (We also have a building manager on site who is terrific — we do not want to do something underhanded and get on his bad side.) Do you get permission, or do you just go ahead and rent… Read more »

Jaime B
Jaime B
9 years ago

@ Amy … if you’re renting your apartment out while you’re away then you might have to actually legally sublet the apartment OR it might kick in any business clauses in your lease (ie, you can or cannot run a business out of your apartment). If you’re considering it, then I would definitely talk to your landlord to make sure you’re not violating the lease in any way. If you’re just swapping apartments – eh, hazier I would say. It’s not really that different from having a friend stay over while you’re away to housesit, you just don’t know these… Read more »

Rob Ward
Rob Ward
9 years ago

Tis may have been mentioned already, but I recently found a website, airbnb.com, that you can use to both find rentals (of other peoples homes) when traveling. You can also use it to rent outyourhome, whether or not you are traveling whe they come to stay. Airbnb handles all of the payment details.

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