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How to Find A Cheap Place to Stay

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Couchsurfing is an excellent way to find a cheap place to stay in Tokyo, Japan
Couchsurfing in Tokyo (photo: Dave Lee)

As backpackers, our mantra is sacrificing while traveling. This means searching for a cheap place to stay in all destinations we travel. In some parts of the world, this is easier than in others.

Below, you will find our guide to finding affordable accommodation while traveling.

Factors to Help You Find a Cheap Place to Stay

First, you must know there are factors which will make any type of accommodation you choose cheaper.

Once you know these and you are willing to sacrifice any one of them in order to save some bucks, you will already be expanding your budget in other areas of your travels.

Location

No matter where you are traveling in the world, the location of your accommodation is always a factor in the affordability.

Of course, if you want a hotel in Times Square in New York City, it is going to be more expensive than a hotel on the outskirts of the city, like across the bridge in Jersey City.

If you are choosing to save money this way, make sure it will be worth the time you sacrifice on local transportation in order to get to the city center wherever you are.

If you only save a few bucks on accommodation by staying a few miles out of the city but transportation to get into the city costs a few bucks, you might want to reconsider.

Time of Year

Around the world, most busy spring and summer travel seasons range from May to August.

During this time, prices are higher, lines are longer, and beaches are more crowded because the weather tends to be warmer. It’s the season people traditionally plan their vacations around.

Alternatively, you could choose to travel in the months preceding or following the high season and save big.

These are called “shoulder” seasons because they fill the gap between the high and low seasons.

For example, Dave visited Japan for 10 days in February, which is the winter season.

He Couchsurfed in Tokyo and was happy to find the hostel dorm he stayed at in Kyoto was 50 percent off because it was the low season.

In total, he spent less than $200 on accommodation to visit one of the most expensive countries in the world.

Privacy

For some, accommodation with privacy is a big deal. Others willingly invite the socializing. No matter where you stay, you will always have the option for more privacy.

For example, in hostels, you can stay in a private room or a dorm with anywhere from a few to 25 other people.

Privacy comes at a premium in hostels, though, so you can expect to pay a higher nightly rate for dorm rooms with fewer beds. A 12-bed dorm will be cheaper than a 4-bed dorm.

However, dorm room design and occupancy can vary.

Many times I have stayed in an empty dorm room during the off-season and had a room to myself.

Native Hostel – Austin, TX (photo: Dave Lee)

Types of Accommodation

Traditional Options

Generally speaking, traditional accommodation options refer to the options you would find on a travel booking search engine such as Booking.com.

Hostels

For a lot of people who have never stayed in a hostel, they may have the wrong idea of what amenities a modern hostel has to offer. Often, a hostel has more to offer the average traveler than a budget hotel.

With the availability of a full kitchen, common spaces, capsule sleeping arrangements, bars (with happy hours), tour services, swimming pools, large communal bathrooms (and private), free breakfast, and more — there is so much that hostels can offer which regular hotels cannot.

If you are hesitant whether or not to give hostels a try because of outdated cliches and horror stories from your parents, I suggest giving them another shot.

Hostel stays are at the core of many backpackers — and you might end up like me and appreciating hostels as your favorite part about traveling!

Pro tip: The best platform for booking hostels is Hostelworld, where you can read customer reviews and easily compare prices and options.

Dave Lee drafting blog posts in a beach bungalow on Koh Samui, Thailand
Dave Lee drafting blog posts in a beach bungalow on Koh Samui, Thailand

Bungalows

Especially popular in tropical climates, bungalows are an affordable option for the minimalist traveler.

Though there are expensive, luxury bungalows, options for backpackers usually provide a bed with a fan (sometimes A/C), and a basic bathroom.

The grounds to these bungalows are usually the greatest benefit as the minimalist aspect allows them to be in some pretty neat locations like rainforests, mountains, and rice-patty fields.

Breakfast at a family-owned Airbnb in Trinidad, Cuba
Breakfast at a family-owned Airbnb in Trinidad, Cuba (photo: Dave Lee)

Homestays

Homestays are very common in Asia. This is a space which offers access to a private bedroom and bathroom plus, usually, a shared kitchen and common space.

The unique part of this is you get the comfort of your own space plus a space to share with other travelers.

In addition, a local family usually lives on these properties so you will get a bit of a cultural experience as well.

Now that Airbnb has arrived in Cuba, renting rooms through the platform allows you to stay in a Cuban family home. Often, the family will offer to provide one or more meals for a cost.

Guesthouses

This is a popular option in some parts of Africa, usually offering availability to an entire apartment-style space with a kitchen, a bedroom or two, and living space.

These are great options when traveling with others.

Hotel room in Barcelona
Budget hotel room in Barcelona (photo: Dave Lee)

Hotels

Everyone is familiar with hotel stays. This is often cost-prohibitive for solo backpackers, but if you are traveling with a friend or two, you might be able to find an option which fits your budget.

In places like Southeast Asia, you would be shocked at how cheap a single or double room could be in an average hotel.

Alternatively, if you collect travel points, hotel stays are great for adding to your point savings.

Camping

You may not find as many camping opportunities on a booking portal such as Booking.com, but they do exist and if you are an outdoorsy person in a climate that suits you, this is an excellent option to save money while traveling.

For those looking to camp exclusively in America, Reserve America is an excellent booking platform.

The only drawback is normally you have to bring your own tent or rent one which would bring accommodation costs up to a similar price as one of the other options listed above.

Rooftop pool at an Airbnb in Santa Marta, Colombia (photo: Dave Lee)
Rooftop pool at an Airbnb in Santa Marta, Colombia (photo: Dave Lee)

Non-Traditional Options

If you like to think outside of the box and experience new things while traveling, here are some options which you won’t find on the regular accommodation booking sites.

Airbnb

One of the latest ways to find accommodation is through the easy-to-use portal Airbnb offers.

Traditional Airbnb stays usually provide a private accommodation — with your choice of a full house or private room.

Sometimes, you get access to private amenities, and, in other instances, you must share with travelers or the local family which owns the accommodation.

The benefit to Airbnb is the flexibility in choosing exactly the kind of place you want.

Couchsurfing

This is a real backpackers portal. Couchsurfing links local hosts with travelers to create an open-minded community. Stay with a local for free and share in conversation and traditions.

Couchsurfing has become more than just a way to find a free place to stay. It’s also become a social network where you can meet locals and other travelers in the area for drinks, sightseeing, or events.

Whether you are using it as a platform for finding accommodation or just to meet friends as you travel, the Couchsurfing app is worth a download.

Workaway / Farm Stay (WWOOF)

Workaway and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) are membership-based so you have to pay a small annual fee. However, it could still end up saving you lots of money on accommodation.

Generally, these options are free-stays in exchange for a few hours of labor each day.

Sometimes, they even provide free meals with the stay. It’s also a great opportunity to meet locals.

House Sitting

Sites like Mind My House and Trusted Housesitters provide a way for longer-term travelers to stay in a particular place for weeks or months on-end while doing basic household chores and taking care of pets while house owners are away.

These sites, like Workaway and WWOOFING, are membership-based, so, unless you plan on being semi-rooted during your travels, I wouldn’t jump right into building your profile.

Bhutanese Monastery in Bodhgaya, India
Bhutanese Monastery in Bodhgaya, India (photo: Dave Lee)

Monasteries

Sometimes it’s possible to stay in religious buildings, such as monasteries, or adjacent hostels managed by a church.

For example, Dave rented a private room at a Bhutanese monastery during his stay in Bodhgaya.

Every morning, the monks would chant in the main building and guests staying at the monastery had the option to sit in on these rituals.

More recently, while Dave was hiking the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route that runs through Tuscany, he met a modern-day pilgrim who was staying at the hostel run by a church along the route.

The man was nearing the end of his thru-walk of the entire route, from Canterbury, England to Rome, Italy. And no doubt he stayed at many church-run hostels along the way.

Staying with Acquaintances

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stayed with friends in their home cities after meeting them for only a few days in a hostel somewhere else in the world.

Always keep in mind the friendships you have made in the world because you never know when you will be in their city.

This works both ways. If you are willing to stay with an acquaintance, you have to be willing to host acquaintances, too.

For example, Dave met a woman on his Qatar Airways flight to Cape Town, South Africa and she invited him to stay with her and her partner once he’d completed his already scheduled Couchsurfing stay.

My Favorite Accommodation Resources

Through all of the options that have been presented throughout this article, here are the ones you must absolutely check out the next time you are booking accommodation for your trip:

Use these sites the next time you are looking for a cheap place to stay and you are guaranteed to save some bucks on your travel budget.


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