(See other articles in this series in the Travel section.)
The Internet has made it possible to travel farther for less money than ever before. At a click or a tap, travelers find hundreds of options for transportation and accommodation. When I talk about apps, I’ll go over the mind mapping software I use. I have a template in it which I duplicate for each new place I go. The branch on finding housing has 13 options to consider. We’re spoiled for choices.
But first, getting there. Planes, trains, and automobiles can all be found online. If you book well in advance, you can get good deals. If you’re flexible and can take off at a moment’s notice, you can get even better ones.
I had no plans after Edinburgh. I thought I’d head to the Scottish Highlands, but the weather turned cold and wet and miserable. I looked to warmer spots and saw a cruise leaving Venice in a few days. Holland America doesn’t make money on empty cabins, so the prices plummet just before departure. I hopped a cheap flight and spent three days exploring the canals, then for $60 a night I had a room, all the food I could eat, and two weeks of transportation around the Mediterranean.
Sometimes, you have to find smaller sites that service your locale, but my favorite general-purpose sites are:
- Google Flights: Has smart algorithms for finding what they consider the “best” flights — not just the cheapest, but with the fewest stops, best times of day, etc. Also offers a map which lights up what it costs to get anywhere from a given starting point, great for ideas if you don’t know where you want to head next.
- BusBud: Gives you all the routes companies offer between two locations. (There’s also a BusBud app.)
- CruiseSheet: Defaults to the most important metric, price per day. Lets you search by embarkation port or region and destination port or region, so you can find the cheapest way from here to there. You can set alerts to be notified when cabins drop to a certain threshold.
Paying for it
Judicious use of credit cards is one of the best and quickest ways to bring down your travel costs. Matt Kepnes has a chapter on how to use them in his travel guide. The best online guide is by Brian Kelly, The Points Guy. His beginners guide is overwhelming and a little outdated, but has good advice for getting started. Don’t get hung up trying to follow it all at once. Just pick the best card for you and start working toward your first sign-up bonus.
Credit cards often offer two or three times the usual number of points for travel-related purchases. If you book through the cards’ rewards sites (having first found a good deal through the resources above), you can get even more points. Pretty soon, your next flight or hotel stay is free. As you get qualified for better cards, you also get other travel-related benefits like trip cancellation and rental car insurance when you pay with the card.
Just remember I said to use them judiciously. Set up a checking account to automatically pay your balances in full each month. Shift your recurring payments to the latest card and make sure you spend enough on it in the required time to get the sign-up bonus. Track the date you opened the account and ask the bank to waive the annual fee before it’s charged. If they won’t waive or reduce it, cancel the card. It takes discipline and organization, but it’s worth it the first time you find yourself in the Cayman Islands and didn’t spend a penny to get there.
When you get to your destination, the traditional cheapest way to stay is in a hostel, where you rent a bed in a dormitory instead of a private room. Until recently, people called them “youth hostels”, but they’re no longer the exclusive home of tie-dye-and-hacky-sack twenty-something backpackers. As traveler demographics have skewed older, many have started to offer private rooms. I’ve seen lots of gray-haired elders and entire families with children staying in hostels.
Hostels usually have a communal kitchen, so you can buy groceries and save on eating out. Coming home to a house full of people is (usually) more pleasant than returning to a lonely hotel room. Chatting with hostel mates over dinner or in the common areas, you can find people who want to join you for sightseeing, or get tips on where you are or where you’re going next.
Since hostels are locally owned, one downside is that they vary widely in quality and culture. It’s not like going to a chain hotel where you know exactly what you’re getting. Some make you feel right at home, others have a staff that barely speaks to you. Some attract a thoughtful crowd that wants a quiet chat over a glass of wine in the moonlight. Others double as nightclubs, and you’ll watch the ceiling bounce as the drunk college kids dance on the rooftop.
The Internet is again the key. Sites like Hostelworld (which also has an app) let you check guest reviews. Just be sure to read between the lines. Don’t book a bed because Jessica said, “This place is so much fun!” Read on to Cathy and Bob’s reviews, and get more details. Did she mean that the staff helped her get the most out of her time in Barcelona or that they let her and her friends get blotto and scream on the patio until four in the morning?
Hostels are often better in places that have a long tradition of them, like Europe and South America, but you can’t generalize. The ones I’ve visited around the United States are improving all the time, and the trashiest I’ve suffered through were in Venice and Rome. But I was spending $20 a night — and I was in the middle of Venice and Rome! How much time are you actually going to spend in your room there? If you’ve got a place to keep your bag and a bed to crash into after exploring the city, what else do you need?
If you do need more, either all the time or as a break to get some privacy, you can turn to the “sharing economy”. Airbnb is the frontrunner for this. I’ve used it many times, with only a couple of bad experiences. Again, read the subtext of the reviews. Unless the experience was truly egregious, people are polite on Airbnb. They’re reviewing an individual they met, not a faceless corporation. They also want to court a favorable review from the homeowner since the owners of the next rooms they try to rent will see it.
Misterbnb is the gay version of Airbnb. I haven’t used it, but it’s a good option to keep in mind if you’re an LGBT couple traveling to a place where you’re not sure how you’ll be received.
You definitely won’t be welcome at one of the many Catholic monasteries and convents now renting rooms. If you’re a solo traveler or married straight couple, they offer simplicity, peace, and quiet.
Homeowners have recommended VRBO to me, but I’ve never found a listing on it that was better than what I found on Airbnb. My impression is that it’s better for the renter, but not the visitor.
If you have a car, campgrounds can make a pleasant change of pace. I’ve stayed in a few cabins in State Parks in the U.S. Getting out in the woods is relaxing and rejuvenating after a period of city living. Some campgrounds also rent tents and have hostel-style dorm rooms for cheaper stays.
If you’re traveling with a tent, Camp in My Garden can find you place to pitch it for just a few dollars a night.
For a completely free stay and a chance to meet locals, there’s Couchsurfing. I’ve only used it once as a guest and twice as a host. I should take advantage of it more often.
Sometimes you want the simplicity, predictability, and anonymity of a hotel. Priceline‘s Express Deals have always worked well for me. You give them a general area where you want to stay, and they’ll offer you nameless hotels with star ratings, lists of services available, and average customer ratings. You don’t get the name and address of the hotel until you’ve made a non-refundable payment. In exchange for accepting this uncertainty, you get deeply discounted room rates.
I’ve always been happy with what they’ve given me. It’s always matched what I expected from the description. Their customer service is also outstanding. Once you’ve accepted an offer, you’re immediately billed the non-refundable total for your stay, but they were kind and empathetic when my father became fatally ill and I had to cancel a week-long trip. With one short phone call, they returned my money.
Hotwire has a similar service, but the one time I tried it was a disaster. The hotel they gave me was a nightmare, and I was on the phone with them for hours before they moved me to another.
Eurocheapo is a good resource for finding deals in Europe.
You’ll often see that a hostel’s staff members are guests who found they were compatible with the management and are staying on for a while, exchanging work for a free bed. You can make more formal volunteering arrangements through sites like Workaway and WWOOF. The latter is strictly for finding organic farms where you can work in exchange for room and board. Workaway can match you with tens of thousands of hosts looking for help with everything from art projects to disaster relief to babysitting.
I haven’t tried volunteer travel, but have talked to several people who have found it very rewarding. It seems like a great way to offer skills you’ve gained or learn new ones that interest you.
If you own a home, you can find people who want to swap theirs for yours. My partner Glenn and I did this once. We found someone on Home Exchange who was interested in the American Civil War. He stayed in our home in Baltimore for two weeks and visited the battlegrounds in our area while we stayed in his condominium in Toronto. We both knew our homes were being occupied and maintained, and we didn’t have to search for housesitters.
Speaking of which…
My mother suffered a stroke in 2009. After she moved into assisted living, someone needed to stay in my parents’ house and prepare it for sale. Glenn and I moved there for ten months. Looking for someone to look after our home, and I discovered housesitting websites.
Three different people stayed in our home while we were away. One of them stopped to meet us in West Virginia on the way to Baltimore. He was a retired executive from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation who uses housesitting to travel the United States. After Glenn and my parents died, I thought about traveling and how to go about it. After a few days, I remembered our CBC friend and looked at the websites again from the other side.
Google took me to How to Become a House Sitter, a book by the housesitting couple Dalene and Pete Heck. It’s paid for itself a thousand times over. They review the major housesitting sites, help you prepare a profile, and offer advice on what to ask during an interview and once you arrive at the home. Once you sign up with the websites, you get email every day listing new opportunities.
The advantages are legion. You’re in someone’s home, so everything you need is just there. You show up, and the house is full of furniture and linens and a fully stocked kitchen (often fully stocked with food as well as cookware!). You only have to run to the store for groceries now and then. All your other needs are met. You live as local, getting to know a place in ways you never could as a tourist. If you love animals, you get to enjoy the company of four-legged friends. (People are often looking for a housesitter to avoid putting the dog or cat into a kennel.)
There is a small chicken-and-egg problem. Like the other sharing services above, housesitting is based on reputation. People want references before they’ll turn their home over to you. How do you provide a reference from a previous host to your first host?
I’d been renting a home for three years, so my answer was to give my landlords’ phone number. I also ordered a police background check, which was far simpler than I imagined. I went to my state’s website, entered my information, paid $15, and a few seconds later had a PDF report I could send to anyone.
It’s a small hurdle. Once you have one under your belt, that’s usually all you need. If you don’t have a landlord or community association to offer, maybe you could watch a friend’s home while she’s out of town, and refer new hosts to her.
After a year and a half, I have more references than anyone would have time to check. I’m on my 14th housesitting job, including one repeat customer in Baltimore. I’ll be going back to them for a third time in July, and will return to look after a lovely pair of cats in England in May and June. Other people have wanted me to come back, but I’ve had to turn them down because these dates are already set. It doesn’t take long before the coming year fills up.
My main guideline is this: Never act like you’re on vacation. Wherever you are, that’s where you’re living now. You’re home. Do what you do at home. London is an expensive city, but there are supermarkets everywhere. Pick up something for a picnic and eat it under one of the trees in the park.
Even if you can afford to live in five-star hotels the rest of your life, consider the opportunities the Internet has provided. Living as a local, you’ll meet more people and better understand the culture. And you’ll be a lot less lonely.
Putting it all together
A few months ago, one of my daily email messages listed an opportunity to housesit in Ecuador for a month. I’d never been to South America and it matched my rule of not being in the northern United States in the Winter, so I applied. The homeowner and I spoke on Skype a couple of times, and she accepted me.
Since I’d never seen Ecuador, I came early and spent a few days in the two major cities. Instead of flying to the airport 45 minutes from the house, I flew to the capital. By transferring points from a credit card to JetBlue, I bought a ticket from Forth Lauderdale to Quito for $15. I spent three nights in a $10/night hostel with an incredible view of the city and explored the Spanish Colonial old town. To save sightseeing time, I splurged on a $70 plane ticket to beautiful Cuenca instead of taking the bus. My hostel turned out to be across the street from a free park and museum where I saw my first set of awesome Inca ruins.
My homeowner recommended the $15 shuttle from Cuenca to Vilcabamba, and I had a few hours of breathtaking scenery winding across the peaks of the Andes. The shuttle dropped me at a hostel where I woke to tropical birds, went to the free morning yoga class, then had a breakfast with coffee that had come from the surrounding hills and bananas that had traveled 100 feet from their orchard.
I have a lovely house in the hills, with patios looking out across the valley. My homeowner asked if she could extend her trip, so I’ll now be here for six weeks. Another homeowner in this same town recently posted an ad on the same site. I’m talking with him to see if we can coordinate our dates and I can stay a little longer before I head south to Machu Picchu.
Ecuador is very cheap. I never paid more than $10 for my hostel beds, and could have opted for a private room for $20. A lunch of more food than you can eat is $3. My hour-long private Spanish lessons are $7. Leaving aside the extra sightseeing I gave myself, my costs to get here were a $15 flight, a $70 flight, a $15 shuttle, and $20 for two nights in a hostel before moving into my host’s home. Split over the six weeks I’ll be here, my “rent” comes to $2.86 per day. If I stay another couple of weeks, it will drop to $2.14. Other regular expenses like food are almost as negligible.
It’s not always like this. But that’s one trick Matt Kepnes shares: If you alternate travel to expensive places with travel to cheap ones, your average cost per day evens out. Al and I will take a transatlantic cruise in the Spring so he can finally see the Acropolis Marbles in the British Museum. He’ll head home after our time in London, and I’ll go on to my housesitting job in Hampshire. I can put the money I’ve saved here toward that trip, and the housesitting after it will continue bringing my annual living expenses to less than they were when I rented a home in Pennsylvania.