Traveling for Cheap: Accommodations

One of the biggest costs for traveling, outside of the transportation, is the lodging.

Many new travelers may be discouraged from going afield due to concerns about cost, and those concerns are very legitimate. Hotel prices, like everything else in this country, are increasing. Luckily, I’m here to tell you that there are many other options to choose from.

Some of these might depend on your level of comfort, your level of introversion or extroversion, and other factors, but I can guarantee you that when your heart begins to outstrip your bank account, you will find ways to compromise. These options will save you a lot of money, allowing you to travel more and with better peace of mind.

Hostels

The granddaddy of all low-cost lodgings, hostels in their modern form have been around for over 100 years.

The defining characteristic of a hostel is a shared sleeping area, called a dorm. This is a room of varying size with varying numbers of bunk beds. The idea here is to provide a low-cost, low-frills place to come back to and sleep after a long day of exploring. In the US, from my experience, I would say a typical night’s stay in a dorm room will run you about $30. In places like Mexico or Guatemala, you’re talking about a few bucks.

Hostels are particularly prevalent in Europe and Asia, and in major cities and tourist destinations throughout the rest of the world. In the United States, big cities like New York or Chicago or Miami will have many, many places to choose from. Outside of the major urban centers, a city’s hostel selection will depend as much on its population as on its, for lack of a better word, “cool factor.” For example, take Austin, TX and Kansas City, MO, two metropolitan areas that are virtually the same size. To my knowledge, Austin has no less than five hostels. Kansas City has one.

Some dorms have curtains or dividing walls, some don’t. Some allow both sexes to occupy the same room, some don’t. If you are traveling with a significant other, it is almost never allowed for two people to share the same bed in a dorm. Many places offer private rooms, but these cost considerably more. Rooms will have lockers, but you have to bring your own lock (in all the hostels I’ve stayed in, I’ve never once had my belongings stolen). There are bathrooms and showers, and breakfast is commonly included, though it may be little more than waffles and coffee. You will almost always have the use of a kitchen to cook your own food, and a lounge area to hangout and meet people.

Typical hostel dorm room

In my experience, hostels are definitely geared towards the younger crowd. The average age of guests hovers somewhere around 24. Having said that, I’ve met plenty of men and women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s in hostels all over the world.

The people are one of the best parts about hostels. You will meet some really incredible folks. They tend to run on the extroverted side, and are overwhelmingly European or Australian, although the demographics can vary slightly depending on where you roam. Most Europeans just so happen to be aggressive travelers with plenty of vacation time on their hands, so you’ll run into them most often. I’ve met programmers from the UK, motorcyclists from Slovenia, actors from Germany, paralegals from the Netherlands, vagabonds from Australia, MIT students from Switzerland and Latvia, and healthcare workers from Mexico. The incredible thing about all this is that, being travelers in a new place, you almost have a built-in camaraderie.

Due to the realities of distance, you may not meet your next best friend in a hostel, but you will meet excellent travel buddies, people to chill and explore with, and meet up with down the road, picking up your friendship as if you never left.

The lounge of Samesun Backpacker Hostel, Downtown Vancouver

Many hostels will provide fun and free things to do! These will help you get the lay of the land, and are excellent opportunities to meet other travelers. Here are some of the ones I’ve done:

  • City House Hostel in Philadelphia took us to local bars and awesome clubs, like National Mechanics, which is in an old bank.
  • Getaway Hostel in Chicago is located in the gorgeous and walkable Lincoln Park neighborhood, and had its own mini movie theater for movie nights.
  • Samesun Backpacker Hostel in Vancouver offered walking tours, had a massive beer pong tournament, and took us on a free hiking tour of beautiful Lynn Canyon.
  • Urban Beach Chic Hostel in Playa del Carmen has a nice open-air patio and is very conveniently located next to several entertainment districts, which they will happily point out for you

There are a few organizations that maintain their own brands of hostel throughout the world, such as Hostelling International, or HI. However, the past few decades have seen an explosion of independent hostels, each with their own unique touches. Being that HI charges a yearly membership (adding a few dollars a day if you’re not a member), I personally prefer to go with independent hostels.

Hostels are also very safe, unlike what certain movies may have you believe. You need a key card or code to get in, and the front desk checks your ID after dark. There are a lot of eyes to keep tabs on everything, and guests are usually pretty chill. Sure, you may get the odd douchebag who thinks he’s a Buddhist because he wears a mala yet tries to start fights at the bar. Unfortunately, you may get the occasional creeper. I’m not trying to scare you, but these things do happen once in a blue moon, and are easily solved by speaking with the front desk. Also, virtually all hostels welcome everyone except those who live in the immediate area. They do this to combat undesirable locals from shacking up there for the night and potentially causing problems for the guests.

The thing that’s both a pro and a con about hostels, but makes them interesting no matter what, is that they can range all over the place. I’ve stayed in ones that were beautiful old homes in residential neighborhoods, ones located smack dab in the middle of downtown or the historic district, and ones virtually indistinguishable from a nice hotel. I’ve also stayed in ones that had mold in the showers, no A/C, and terrible front desk service (maybe you just had a bad day, Green Tortoise). Some hostels will describe themselves on their website as “party hostels;” light sleepers, beware!

My personal go-to for finding hostels is Booking.com, however I would also recommend HostelWorld.com and HIHostels.com, and their respective apps.

PROS: Very low cost; ability to meet like-minded travelers from all over the world; usually located downtown or in cool, centrally-located neighborhoods; usually provide some kind of excursion or social event; many have breakfast included; typically geared to a more youthful demographic

CONS: Not a lot of privacy, which may be an issue for introverts; cleanliness can vary; service can vary; certain older guests may not find them to their liking

Airbnb

The Uber of the hotel world, this one’s really blown up in just the past few years. Like Lyft allows people to use their personal cars as a taxi service, Airbnb allows people to use their own homes as a hotel service.

Airbnbs, or “Air bed ‘n breakfasts,” could take the form of spare rooms in a house or apartment, a detached room in a backyard, or even a tiny home.

These prices tend to range more than those of hostels, but in my experience you can find rooms for about $35-55 a night, on average. It also depends on how many guests would be occupying the room. I would particularly recommend Airbnbs for couples traveling together. Basically, if you’re flying solo, go with a hostel; if you’re with a significant other, go with an Airbnb.

On the website or app, you are able to see photos of the owners, and read reviews of them. By the same token, the owner will also be able to rate you.

The main thing to be conscientious of here is that you are in someone else’s home. The owners are opening their rooms, bathrooms, and kitchens to you. You will probably interact with the individual or family who rents you the room. You need to exercise a higher level of consideration than you could get away with in a hotel or a hostel. It can feel weird at first, but it can also be pretty cool. You may have a host family who also likes to travel, and so you can have great conversation with them over coffee. At the same time, if you prefer to keep to yourself, be sure to note that during the reservation, and they should be perfectly fine with that.

Just like with hostels, Airbnbs have a wide range of unique accommodations to explore. Actually, one of the single most interesting places I ever stayed in was an Airbnb: while visiting Sacramento earlier this year, I slept in a retro camper parked behind an apartment complex.

It was fun, but if I never have to use that wet room again I’ll die a happy man

The best website to find Airbnbs is…wait for it…Airbnb.com! There is also an app available.

PROS: Staying with an actual local family can provide great conversation and insight into the area; the money goes to a local family, not some big corporation; sort of a midway point between the privacy of a hotel room and the lack of privacy of a hostel; usually less expensive than a hotel; interesting and unique accommodations

CONS: Not as cheap as hostels; quality can vary greatly; some are located in out-of-the-way residential areas

Couchsurfing

Ah yes, couchsurfing. It’s just what it sounds like. You contact someone who lives in the area you want to go to, and ask them if they’ll let you crash on their couch for a little while.

According to general wisdom, “a little while” is typically three nights, at most. Because you won’t even be sleeping in a bedroom, you definitely don’t want to overstay your welcome.

So why even consider couchsurfing? Well, for one thing, it’s free. So if you’ve got the wanderlust but are in a tight spot financially, you can just ask to crash on somebody’s couch for a weekend, at no cost.

Just go to Couchsurfing.com and create your profile so that the couch providers know who you are. Like with Airbnb, you’ll be able to look up peoples’ profiles and see what other couchsurfers have said about them. While it is free, there is an option to pay $60 and have your account verified. While this might be a good way to get your foot in the door, $60 is ot pocket change. It seems to me like it’s better to keep a free profile and just not be a crappy guest.

Disclaimer: I’ve never actually done this one. The introvert in me has always seen couchsurfing as a hard pass. Having said that, Kristen and I are in a position where we’re trying to see more of our own country, while saving money for the big international trips. We’re considering doing this in Charleston, SC and seeing how we like it.

PROS: It’s free!; allows you to get to know the locals

CONS: Virtually no privacy, so this one’s probably not for the introverts unless you want to step out of your comfort zone; not good for prolonged stays; not as comfortable as a real bed

Hotels

Yes, hotels can be cheap.

Sometimes.

If you are using rewards points from a travel credit card, then by all means use them! No harm in staying in style every now and then.

Booking.com, which is really a wonderful database of all kinds of accommodations, offers Genius perks. Booking through Booking.com twice in a year grants you Genius, Level 1 perks, such as 10% off select properties; five times in a year grant you Level 2, which gives 15% off and free breakfast at select properties.

You of course have any number of websites and apps to help you look for hotels and motels: Priceline.com, Expedia.com, Trivago.com, KAYAK.com, and Hotels.com are just some of the many resources at your disposal. Priceline.com in particular has a particularly useful “Name Your Own Price” feature that many of my friends swear by.

You also have Honey. Many of you might already be using the Honey extension on your browser. What Honey does is it automatically looks up coupon codes for you when you shop online, as well as accumulating points you can cash in. However, every now and then you will be granted Keys, that allow you to get up to 40% off select hotels worldwide.

There is another very similar extension called WikiBuy. You can try out both on a given property to make sure you’re getting the best deal!

PROS: The highest level of comfort and privacy; typically the best option for strong introverts; can run from the budget to the opulent; many provide airport transportation; breakfast almost always included; peace of mind

CONS: The most expensive option; not always located within walking distance to historic sites or public transportation; somewhat isolating

Keep in mind, these are just the broad categories of lodgings! There are as many unique and interesting lodging options out there as there are tourist destinations. There’s a whole world out there to explore, and a whole world of accommodations to get your rest in between exploring.

Good luck!

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13 thoughts on “Traveling for Cheap: Accommodations

    • I was actually talking with some people the other day who said that it had gone downhill in recent years, because people were treating it just as a free hotel. That IS half of it. But the real spirit of Couchsurfing, they say, is also to get to know your hosts.

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