By Jim Ferri
Yes, there are ways to save money on a tight budget when you travel.
Along with airfare, lodging can be the most expensive part of your vacation. But there are many alternatives to hotels, as well as alternatives to Airbnb, and Bed & Breakfasts – ranging from spartan accommodations to the luxurious – which can save you a bundle.
In addition to the financial savings, getting out of the “hotel-rut” also lets you be more in-touch with locals, a great benefit when, for example, you’re looking for a good local restaurant. Then you’re dealing with people who actually eat at those places, not a concierge who’s going to give you the same restaurant name he/she has given to a thousand other travelers.
B&B’s were the original hotel alternative – and some still are – but as their popularity grew over the years, so did the cost of many. Today some have become mini-hotels with prices to match.
At the other end of the spectrum is the concept of “couchsurfing,” sometimes called “homestays” (in which travelers stay for free in people’s homes, on their couch or in a spare bedroom) with people brought together on sites such as Couchsurfing. While couchsurfing certainly saves you money, it’s not for everyone, especially those who’d like a bit more privacy.
Between the two are a number of other money-saving hotel alternatives ranging from villa rentals to stays in college dorm rooms. If you’re interested in them it’s best to keep a few caveats in mind.
First of all, since the best deals are usually found online, review any site carefully. Look for reviews by fellow travelers, not just the property- or site-owner. If all the reviews are glowingly positive, check other offerings on the same site to see if any negatives exist. You don’t want to deal with any site that sanitizes its customer review. Go to Google and look for reviews of the site. Also look to see if previous renters may have posted photos.
Second, remember that you may be staying in someone else’s apartment or home so don’t expect maid service. You are responsible for the place and may even be given a checklist of things to do before leaving, such as turning off the water, etc., something you wouldn’t have to bother with in a hotel. In addition, there will often be a cleaning fee charged to you.
And third, read the rental contract carefully so you understand what is being offered since you need to be assured of what you’re getting. Some sites contain disclaimers saying they’re not responsible for information provide by the property owner, so be certain the description of any rental is spelled out in the contract.
With these caveats in mind, here are seven alternatives to renting a pricey hotel room.
Good Alternatives to Hotels: Apartment Rentals
Not long ago my wife and I stayed in an apartment in Barcelona, which we selected through the company HouseTrip. Even though we’ve both traveled extensively, it was the first time either of us had stayed in an urban apartment in lieu of a hotel. It was simple to book online once we decided what area of city we wanted to stay in, and our stay wound up being an exceptionally good experience.
The apartment, owned by a woman who was traveling abroad for several months, was being managed by her parents who also lived in the building. It was a spacious place, well located in the city, with two private bedrooms, kitchen, living room, laundry facilities and doorman. It was a great savings over any upscale hotel and provided us with a large amount of space as well as free laundry.
Best yet, when we asked the parents about good restaurants they directed us to two of their local favorites. They not only to turned out to be excellent, but also places that wouldn’t be on the radar of any hotel concierge. We decided we would definitely rent more apartments in the future.
Renting a villa is a great thing to do for a special occasion. Several years ago as a Christmas gift to our daughter and her husband, we rented a villa in Tuscany through Rent Villas, which specializes in European properties (although they’ve also added a Caribbean segment). The villa, which we shared with a third couple we knew, was an antique-filled country home about a half-hour outside Florence, on a hillside surrounded by olive groves and vineyards.
It had 3 double rooms and one single (all with private bath), a full kitchen, dining room, living room and swimming pool. The total rental for seven days was $2,834 (which included a $90 booking fee), which came to $135 per couple per day, plus a €210 cleaning charge.
In the living room was a very thick book filled with several year’s worth of previous-renter’s tips on good restaurants, grocery stores, etc. as well as kind words for the owners. I think that at one time or another each of us sat down and paged through the tome, usually, if I recall correctly, with a glass of good wine or beer in hand.
We had an incredibly fascinating and enjoyable time, everyday setting off for a new destination: one day in Florence, another in Siena, another via a train to Rome. Other days we drove off to Greve in Chianti (centuries ago the center of the Chianti wine trade) and the little town of Vinci, home to Leonardo. My wife still raves it was our best European vacation ever.
It was such a wonderful experience that a few years later we chose another non-hotel lodging in Florence – this time an apartment/palace from the Renaissance not far from the Ponte Vecchio. I still remember us eating fantastic take-out pizzas right out of the box under a chandelier in a very ornate dining room.
Hostels can be a good alternative to a hotel if you’re traveling on a tight budget. They’re plain and inexpensive – sometimes about $20 per night or less, depending on the city – and are often in older buildings. Still the primary habitat of 20-ish backpackers, most hostels offer bunk beds in rooms with other travelers, although private rooms are available in some.
In some hostels you’ll find that location, privacy and one’s safety can be iffy since you are, after all, living in a communal atmosphere. But you can do your homework in advance and see rankings from fellow travelers on hostels worldwide on issues such as safety, staff, cleanliness, facilities, etc., on sites such as Hostels.com and HostelWorld.com.
Alternatives to Airbnb: Monasteries and Convents
Although not top-of-mind with many travelers, monasteries and convents also offer great savings over hotels. Rooms are clean and usually sparse and small (although some purportedly do have larger rooms set aside for families) and many have private bathrooms according to Monastery Stays, which lists monasteries and convents all over Italy. They are usually well located in the main tourist cities and everyone is welcome regardless of religious preference. On the other hand, there is often a curfew and you shouldn’t expect to eat dinner in, or be able to head to the lounge for a nightcap before bed.
Exchanging homes with other travelers is one of the most comfortable ways of traveling since you’re enjoying all of the comforts of home while you’re away. Swapping houses with another traveler is exceptionally economical since the swap is free and the membership is relatively low. An annual membership in Home Exchange, which claims it has 65,000+ listings in 150 countries, is $150 for a one-year membership.
An added benefit of house swapping is that you know there is someone watching your home while you’re away. But if you’re kept awake at night by the worry you may break something in your host’s home or they in yours, it may not be right for you.
Some colleges and universities open their dorms to travelers during the summer months when most students have left the campus. They are great ways to save money on a tight budget.
Don’t expect anything special here – these are college dorm rooms, after all, and communal bathrooms may be down the hall – but it certainly beats the price of a hotel room, especially if breakfast is included.
While there aren’t a large number of institutions that offer rooms, you can find a selection of those that do at University Rooms.
More popular in Europe, Australia and New Zealand than they are in the U.S., farm stays are another way to keep your travel costs down. Farm stays, or agritourism, as it’s also called, can be a wonderful experience for those who enjoy rural surroundings and don’t mind being relatively far from major city sights.
This isn’t for the night owl, of course, and you don’t always know exactly what type of accommodation you may be getting. The best way to find a farm stay is to Google the words “farm stay” or “agritourism” along with the name of the country to which you’ll be traveling.