How to Travel for Free or Cheap: 5 Unconventional Tips For Exploring the Globe

Money is one of the biggest hurdles that stop most people from traveling. For many of you reading this, there’s an underlying assumption that travel costs a fortune.

But in my experience, this hasn’t been the case. In fact, travel has taught me the opposite. It’s taught me that there’s actually an inverse relationship between money and fun.

Some of the best experiences I’ve had on the road didn’t cost me much. Often times, they didn’t even cost a dime.

You don’t need to stay in five-star resorts or fly first class to experience the best of travel. You can, but those are choices, not musts. If you’ve ever wondered how to travel for free or cheap, there are many ways to do so.

Below are five simple tips any aspiring traveler can use:

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    Free/Cheap Travel Tip #1: Couchsurfing

    How to Travel for Free: Couchsurfing on a boat in Croatia
    Sailing the Adriatic thanks to Couchsurfing.

    In Croatia, I’ve explored its islands by boat, sailing the Adriatic Sea. In South Africa, I’ve driven the famous Garden Route, where mountains and ocean collide. And in Japan, I’ve even stayed for free in a luxury condo better than most five-star hotels.

    All these experiences were possible thanks to the kindness of others. I enjoyed many moments like these thanks to the global network of Couchsurfing.

    If you’re unfamiliar with it, the premise of Couchsurfing is simple. Travelers around the world request to stay or offer to host fellow travelers. Sometimes you sleep on the floor; other times you may sleep on a couch. If you’re lucky, you’ll have an air mattress or even a private bedroom to use. There’s no exchange of money involved, only cultural exchange.

    Couchsurfing can be life-changing and alter your perspective of the world. Personally, it’s made me more optimistic in others. I’ve experienced an unparalleled amount generosity through Couchsurfing. That’s because most Couchsurfers go above and beyond to provide guests experiences that money can’t buy.

    It’s so easy these days to look at what’s wrong in the world. But Couchsurfing has been a good reminder for me that there’s plenty that goes right.

    How to Couchsurf

    If you’ve never used Couchsurfing before, here are a few general guidelines to follow:

    • Write a thorough and exhaustive profile, and be honest. By doing so, you build trust with other Couchsurfers before meeting them. You’ll be less of a stranger to others when you give an accurate picture of who you are.
    • You don’t have to host or stay at someone’s home to use Couchsurfing. You can meet other Couchsurfers through events as well as through the Hangout feature on the app.
    • Post a public trip to your destination. This makes finding Couchsurfing hosts easier, because they may end up reaching out to you. You’ll be able to connect with other visiting travelers, too.
    • When writing to Couchsurfing hosts, note something that you read in their profiles. Also, offer something in return for their hospitality. It doesn’t have to be material. In fact, it could be something intangible. In the past, I’ve offered to practice English with hosts as well as tips on Las Vegas, where I used to live.
    • Trust your intuition. Whether you’re a guy or a girl, if you don’t have a good feeling about another Couchsurfer, don’t hesitate to bail.

    Free/Cheap Travel Tip #2: Volunteer Work

    How to Travel for Free: Volunteering with Angloville
    Volunteering with Angloville.

    In most people’s minds, work involves a monetary exchange. You do a job, you get paid. But when you learn how to travel for free or cheap, you discover how to trade work for other things, like room and board.

    Finding volunteer work isn’t that hard if you know where to look. Two of the most popular online hubs for traveling volunteers are Workaway and HelpX. Both serve as bulletin boards that connect hosts and travelers about potential opportunities.

    As a volunteer, it’s free to register to HelpX. But a free account doesn’t give you the option to reach out to hosts. You can pay €20 for a two-year membership instead, which provides that capability.

    Workaway, meanwhile, doesn’t have a free option and is a little more expensive. For one person, it costs $42 to sign up for a one-year membership. If you’re a couple, you can sign up for a joint account that costs $54.

    What Kind of Volunteer Opportunities Exist?

    I used Workaway, not HelpX, when I backpacked around Europe for half a year. Every time I browsed Workaway, there was always plenty of help needed in the following areas:

    • Hospitality: Hostels, lodges, and bed and breakfasts are always in need of volunteers. Jobs can range from front desk check-in to leading social events.
    • Home Care: If you like handy work, this type of volunteering might be for you. From gardening to painting, hosts seek help for all sorts of household tasks.
    • Farming: If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to live off the land, here’s your chance. Also, you can check out World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) for these types of jobs.
    • Child Care: Many families host travelers seeking to visit from other countries. In exchange, you can work as an au pair and watch their kids.
    • Language Lessons: I volunteered with a company called Angloville. It runs English Language Immersion camps in Eastern Europe for people of all ages. You’re given accommodations in two- to three-star hotels and provided three meals a day. Diverbo is another company that runs similar programs in Western Europe.

    This is only a snapshot of the volunteer opportunities available for travelers. There’s plenty more to see when you start your search.

    Free/Cheap Travel Tip #3: House Sitting

    How to Travel for Free: House Sitting
    Sandra Staller and her husband Stefan score house sits with scenary like this.

    If a slower pace of free travel is more your style, then house sitting might be for you.

    Over the last few years, my friends Stefan and Sandra Staller have relied on house sitting to travel. It’s given them an affordable way to live like locals around New Zealand and Australia. By house sitting, they estimate they save around $3,000 NZD ($2,000 USD) a month.

    House sitting is like volunteer work. In a sense, you’re trading labor for lodging. Home owners expect you to handle general upkeep of the homes you watch. But they also need help with pet care, so it’s important you enjoy the company of animals, too.

    From days to months, the length of a house sit can vary. For Stefan and Sandra, they look for commitments of at least four weeks. This gives them an opportunity to settle and feel at home in the houses they look after.

    How to Land a House Sit

    If house sitting sounds appealing to you, there are a few ways you can get started. Here’s how Sandra and Stefan would advise approaching the process if starting from scratch:

    First, sign up to a few house sitting portals, like TrustedHousesitters, Nomador, and Mind My House. Create a detailed profile that lets homeowners know who you are. As a newcomer, it’s worth recording a video introduction of yourself for potential hosts. Ask friends, family, landlords, and colleagues to write references for you. It’s valuable to have a police background check handy as well.

    Next, spread the word to your immediate network. This works well in places like Australia and New Zealand, where house sitting is part of the culture. But regardless of wherever you are in the world, it’s worth sending out feelers to anyone you know. Stefan and Sandra have found some of their best house sits thanks to word of mouth.

    Free/Cheap Travel Tip #4: Credit Card Rewards

    How to Travel for Free: Credit Card Rewards
    Paid $100 for a roundtrip flight from the United States to South Africa thanks to my credit card points.

    I don’t consider myself an expert at travel hacking. But I know enough about it that’s allowed me to travel for free or cheap on a handful occasions.

    Most credit cards offer all sorts of incentives for people to sign up. If you’re smart about how you spend, you can reap the rewards. But if you aren’t, you might find yourself buried in a deep hole of debt.

    To get the most out of my credit cards without hampering my finances, I follow two rules of thumb:

    • First, I’ll only apply to a card if I know I can earn the sign-up bonus. Let’s take the Chase Sapphire Reserve for example. It offers a 50,000-point bonus for new members who spend $4,000 in the first three months. If I wanted this card, I would only apply if I knew I could meet those requirements.
    • Second, I only spend what I have. I don’t like debt, so I always pay off my cards’ balances in full whenever bills are due. If I don’t have the cash within my reserves to pay for something upfront, I won’t use credit. Remember, you can always choose not to spend if you don’t want to pay back those high-interest rates.

    Which Credit Cards Do I Carry?

    At this point, I use two credit cards that offer basic travel rewards. They are the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the Barclays Arrival+.

    The Sapphire earns two times points on any purchases related to travel and dining. It also allows points-to-miles transfers to partner programs like British Airways. More often than not, though, I book direct from its travel portal. Using my rewards there offers a 25 percent discount off purchased trips.

    The Arrival+, meanwhile, earns me two miles for every dollar I spend. A mile is worth one cent when redeeming toward travel bonuses, meaning 1,000 points equal $100 in value. If you want this card, though, you’re out of luck at the moment. Right now, it isn’t open to new applicants.

    Both cards come with an annual fee. The Chase Sapphire Preferred costs $95, while the Barclays Arrival+ goes for $89. You pay no foreign transaction fees on both.

    Free/Cheap Travel Tip #5: Family and Friends

    Visiting family in Toronto.
    Visiting family in Toronto.

    If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of Couchsurfing, then why not stay with people you know? Visiting family and friends is low-hanging fruit that many would-be travelers overlook.

    You might be hesitant to do this at first. Before I started traveling more, I know I was. I rarely reached out to people I knew, often opting to book a hotel or AirBnB instead. I thought I’d be a leech and a burden by asking for a place to crash.

    But in reality, you’ll find that the opposite is true. Your friends and family are often happy to have a visitor shake up their routine.

    I’ve come to embrace asking my network, thanks in large part to my Couchsurfing experiences. I came to the following realization: If I was willing to stay with total strangers, why would I be uncomfortable with people I actually know?

    The Value of Visiting People You Know

    You get so much more than a comfortable place to stay when you visit your family and friends. There are three major benefits that come to mind:

    First, it gives you a chance to reconnect. Since I started traveling more, I’ve had opportunities to spend time with family I hadn’t seen in a while. In fact, I was a teenager the last time I saw most of them. Now as an adult, I understand that it’s my responsibility if I want to remain close to my extended family.

    Second, it allows you to see how much you’ve changed. Daily life doesn’t give the distance and perspective you need to enjoy how much you’ve grown. But when you catch up with old family and friends that haven’t seen you in years, your growth becomes obvious. You’re no longer that person that they used to know.

    Finally, visiting friends and family provides an opportunity to build new relationships. I’ve become close to relatives whom I didn’t know very well before. You learn that you don’t have to look very far when it comes to finding good people. Visiting family and friends can make you realize they’ve been in your life all along.

    There are a myriad of other ways you can travel for free. These five tips are only the beginning. Going on the road will teach you many more.

    So, if you’ve ever dreamed of seeing the world, what are you waiting for? Money doesn’t have to be an excuse.

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    Jon is a freelance writer who authors this site. Learn more about him here. You can also follow Jon on Twitter or Instagram.