Indie travel is a growing market and a great opportunity to really experience a country. While Americans love to travel, many are reluctant to embrace indie travel customs, such as staying in hostels, like the rest of the world. Perhaps we enjoy our cruises and package tours, but slinging a pack and taking a dusty chicken truck down a rutted road, not so much. Still, if you have the urge to backpack and travel, there’s never been a better time to get away. Websites such as Airbnb make it easier than ever to find lodging and live like a local. Here are some other ideas on how you can travel the world without shelling out a fortune.
Although hostels exist in the U.S., they’ve never really caught on in the States as they have in the rest of the world. Numerous hostel associations exist worldwide, including Hosteling International. In the olden days, say, 20 years ago, you consulted your dog-eared (and hopefully not outdated) guidebook, then maybe you called ahead from a pay phone, or maybe you just showed up in person at the door to see if they had room. Today, you can easily scout these locations out online. Hostels are a great way to meet other travelers, though even in this modern connected day and age, it’s still worth arriving beforehand to check things out. Are you greeted by lots of pot-smoking college kids in the lobby? Then it’s probably a party house by sundown, maybe not the best place for a good night’s sleep. Still, we’ve met families and people of all ages in hostels, and often make friends for further adventures. Some have communal bathrooms and dormitory bunks, which are less expensive, although you do have to guard your valuables just to be safe. Hostels.com has a database of hostels worldwide.
4. Pet Sitting
Do you like cats? Dogs? Both? Then you have a great chance to find a free, long-term stay somewhere. We did three pet sits in the United Kingdom last year, and had a free roof over our heads for a month. Cats are especially easy, as you’re pretty much just a human food dispenser for them. Boarding pets is expensive and it’s also a stressful experience for the animals, which is why the practice is uncommon — and even unheard of — in many countries. We like to arrive a day or so prior to the host’s departure to learn the routine, and typical things we like to know in advance are emergency vet contacts, feeding and walking schedules etc.
One slight drawback to pet sitting is that it usually limits you to day trips from your home base. Also, be leery of just how much work is involved for a given stay versus how much you’re willing to do on your vacation for free; walking the dog and cleaning out the cat’s litter box is one thing, but farm work from free staff is something else entirely. TrustedHouseSitters.com is a good site to pick up pet-sitting gigs in the U.S. and abroad.
3. House Swapping
If you live in a popular destination such as Florida, there are plenty of people willing to trade places with you abroad. Very similar to pet sitting — and sometimes included as part of the deal — house swapping means exactly what it implies. You’re either exchanging a stay, or allowing someone else to stay and watch your property while you travel. Most house-swapping websites rank users much like Amazon ranks sellers, giving you a chance to see reviews and check out prospective partners. We like to interview folks via Skype, and maybe check out their background a bit. For example, one couple who stayed in our home were both retired police officers … probably not a big security threat there.
This is a great way to see America on the cheap. We carried a tent and camping gear when we drove around the U.S. in 2015, and camped several times. Our rule: we only camp if we plan on staying somewhere for at least three days, as it’s lots of work to set up and tear down a campsite, versus just flopping down on a bed in a hotel. Camping also means you’ll be carrying gear such as a stove, sleeping bags and a tent, and while it’s easier to split the load between two people backpacking, a vehicle is handy. Australia, New Zealand, most of North America and parts of Europe are great for solo camping, while in South America, Africa or Asia it’s certainly possible, but campground infrastructure is non-existent. This means no electrical hookups, hauling your own water in jugs, possibly pitching your tent beside a busy road, etc.
On the other end of the spectrum, many campgrounds in the U.S. have Wi-Fi, showers, restaurants on site, etc. (Many of the amenities are aimed at appeasing people with RVs that are the envy of many people’s houses.) Of course, camping opens you up to even cheaper alternatives for the real bargain-minded. Sleeping on the beach is often a possibility, but it is illegal in many jurisdictions. Always remember John Travolta’s reply to Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction when he says he’s going to “Walk the Earth” — “They’ve got a name for that. It’s called a ‘bum.’”
We’ve had great success with Airbnb. In fact, it was all that we used in Morocco in 2016, and most hosts picked us up from the boat/train/bus terminal and were happy to show us around. Airbnb’s real strength is that it lets you “live like a local” and avoid the insulation from the local culture that occurs when you stay in a hotel. We’ve had hotels that we’ve booked, arrived at and walked out of immediately saying, “this is a dump, we’re not staying here …” but never a bad experience with Airbnb last year in four different countries (the U.S., UK, Spain and Morocco). Airbnb rental rates can often be more expensive than booking a hotel room, so do your homework before committing to a rental.
Airbnb has also become popular in countries that are just now getting connected to the Internet and opening up for tourism, such as Cuba. This is because, like Uber and Task Rabbit, Airbnb is tapping into otherwise “idle resources” and allowing people worldwide to join the “gig economy” using nothing more than a smartphone. Airbnb also has its own messaging platform, though the discussion of “when, where, etc.” prior to arrival frequently shifts to Facebook Messenger or What’s App. You can filter (by price, amenities etc.) and search for Airbnb via Google maps from the site, and (also very handy internationally) filter by host language. Another unique feature on Airbnb is their rating system. Both parties can only see what the host/guest wrote about them after they’ve submitted their own review. Unlike Amazon, this system tends to keep discourse a little more civil, as most people won’t leave a rude review without seeing what was said about them.
One More: Military Billeting And Space-A Flights
If you’re retired military, most military billeting and campground facilities are open to you on a space-available basis. We’ve also seen homeless vets park their van near the base gym or chow hall for the night. Hey, it’s a free meal and a shower in a safe place, the least Uncle Sam can do for them.
Going Space-A on military flights is another way for military retirees to travel for free, or just a few dollars. The advantage is it’s a great way to get into a region (say Asia or Europe) for free; the disadvantage is, conditions are very spartan (you’re often flying with cargo) and retirees go as last priority (Category VI) behind duty and emergency-leave passengers. Signing up 60 days prior via email can give you a higher priority within your category, and most flight schedules are now posted on the prospective departure terminal’s Facebook page. You also need a fair amount of flexibility to go Space-A, meaning you might need to hang around the base a while until space is available. Inside tip: military flights leaving for hot zones overseas from the states are often laden with munitions and unwilling to take civilian passengers; those same flights coming back from overseas, however, typically return empty, and are more than happy to take Space-A hitchhikers.
And Another: Stay in a Monastery
Many monasteries and religious retreats around the world are open to visitors for short stays. The upside is you get a view into a unique culture, and are assured a quiet stay; the downside is you often need to follow their rules, i.e. no alcohol, modest dress, curfew, etc. You might also lose touch with the WiFi-enabled world for a time. While some of these accommodations are very inexpensive, others can be somewhat pricey. The site GoodnightandGodbless.com has an extensive listing of monasteries that offer lodging around the world.