While many people tend to think of the plane ticket as the most cost-prohibitive aspect of trip budgeting, that’s simply not the case for most itineraries. If you plan to spend more than a handful of days traveling, you might find that your lodging is the most expensive line-item of your travel budget – but it doesn’t have to be. If you can stay in cheap hotel alternatives, you can save a boatload of money – or, just have more money to spend on food and beer!
In this guide, we’ll explore some affordable hotel alternatives that you can use to cut travel costs or extend your trip for longer.
$ – free, or very, very affordable
$$ – very affordable, $10-$35 per night per person, depending on area/country
$$$ – affordable, $35-$70 per night per room, depending on area/country
$$$$ – standard, $70-$100+ per night (think standard hotels)
Popular Cheap Hotel Alternatives
We’ll start with an overview of perhaps the two most popular options: hostels, and AirBNB. Keep in mind that there are various AirBNB alternatives that offer a similar experience, but I won’t be going over them individually at this time.
Hostels ($ to $$)
Hostels are ubiquitous throughout Europe, Asia, South America, and many other regions, with the notable exception of North America, where hostels simply haven’t caught on in a significant way. Hostels remain perhaps the most popular cheap hotel alternative, and are particularly popular with young travelers and solo travelers.
- Shared sleeping spaces
- Generally offer bunk beds with curtains for privacy
- You will share a room with 4-12+ other people
- Very affordable – think $15-20/night in SE Asia and South America, $30/night in Europe
- Usually a great way to meet people
- Can be noisy/hard to sleep
- Quality and cleanliness varies wildly – pay close attention to reviews!
- Ideal for solo travelers
- Couples might find it more economical to book Airbnbs/cheap hotels, as hostels charge per person
- Sometimes small private rooms are also offered (good for couples)
Hostels tend to get a bad rap in some areas for being too party-focused and largely filled with young rambunctious travelers. While this is definitely the case in many hostels, there are a huge range of options in this class. To me, the big benefit of staying in hostels as an affordable hotel alternative is that you are quite likely to meet other people to travel with. Well, that and they are dirt cheap.
AirBNB ($$ to $$$$+)
AirBNB took the lodging world by storm by, quite frankly, revolutionizing the game. Today, it remains one of the most popular cheap hotel alternatives. AirBNB essentially lets everyday people rent out their houses, apartments, or even just rooms in their houses. AirBNBs are unique, accessible, and in many cases, quite affordable.
- Private rooms or entire properties for rent
- Rented out by everyday people through AirBNB’s platform
- Generally significantly cheaper than hotels
- In expensive countries, think $50-$100 per night for a private apartment, or less for a private room in a home. In cheap countries, $25-$75 a night for nice private properties is realistic
- HUGE range available – in a big city you might find AirBNBs priced from $20 a night to $1000 a night!
- Generally offer a lot of good options for 20-50% less than comparable hotel rooms
- Very unique, as these are actual homes, not standardized hotel rooms
- Good for solo travelers and groups
- Very flexible – you can rent a single room in somebody’s apartment for $20 a night, or you can rent an entire 6-bedroom house for a family reunion
- It can at times be difficult to check in, particularly if you’re traveling internationally and don’t have cell signal. There’s no check-in desk, so you usually have to arrange a time to meet with the host
- Can be a good way to experience a more local side of a city, by getting outside of the bubble of western hotels
- Generally not worth it for 1-night stays
- Significant discounts are available for longer (7+ day) stays
Overall, AirBNB is one of my favorite budget hotel alternatives. I’d say on my travels I stay in AirBNB properties about 50% of the time. I love the huge array of options, the low prices, and the authentic/unique experiences. That said, so much of the AirBNB experience depends on the professionalism of the host, so it’s important to pay attention to reviews.
FREE Lodging Options
Who doesn’t love FREE! When it comes to traveling, there are actually a surprising amount of free lodging options. None of them are the Ritz-Carlton, but for those on a tight budget (or those looking for a very unique experience), these options are great.
Couchsurfing ($free to “I’ll buy you a six-pack, bro)
Couchsurfing.org is a wonderful thing. Essentially, it’s what it sounds like – couchsurfing opportunities worldwide, facilitated by a slick online interface and app. Kind folks (usually other travelers) offer up spaces on their couches, guest bedrooms, floors, whatever – for free. No payment is expected (or allowed), but most hosts appreciate some kind gesture, such as a bottle of wine, a home-cooked meal, etc.
- Available worldwide
- It’s difficult to find hosts if your account is not established and well reviewed
- It’s free to sign up and use, but you can pay $60 to verify your Couchsurfing account, which (supposedly) makes it easier to find hosts.
- Potential for free places to sleep
- Karma is a real thing on couchsurfing. Most hosts prefer to host people who are hosts themselves – so be kind, and pass on the love!
- Huge variety of lodging options, all the way from super sketchy to really nice
- A great way to connect with locals
- Couchsurfing also has a “hangouts” feature, which is more for meeting up with locals than actually finding couches
- Hosts can be flakey – have a back-up plan
Like most free options, Couchsurfing can’t necessarily be counted on like the paid cheap hotel alternatives discussed above. There is some inherent flakiness with the program, because you’re relying on everyday people. It can also be tough to get started – Couchsurfing is great, ONCE you have an established account with references, reviews, etc. It builds on itself, becoming easier and easier to find hosts and connect with locals. If you’re just starting out, I suggest going to some local Hangouts, proving you’re not an ax-murderer, and asking people you meet to give you a reference on Couchsurfing. You could also host surfers yourself (you are free to be picky about who you let in your home, of course, but there’s always a level of trust involved).
WWOOF ($free to “I’ve got to shovel HOW MUCH cow poop?”)
WWOOF, or Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is unique, to say the least. Basically, it lets you trade labor for room and board at thousands of organic farms around the world. Host requirements vary, but you’ll usually be expected to work anywhere from 4-8 hours a day on the farm, doing whatever is needed. In exchange, you’ll get a free place to sleep, and generally all meals for free as well. You’ll also get to learn organic farming principles, if you’re into that kinda thing.
- You actually have to work on a farm
- There’s no HBO, usually
- Can actually be a really unique and fun experience
- You have to register for WWOOF itself and pay a fee (varies by country – think $15 to $50 for a 1-year membership). The bummer is that WWOOF operates worldwide, but separate memberships are needed for each country in most cases.
- In very low cost of living countries, some hosts might actually charge you a small amount of money to cover food costs (think $10/day – they do this because they can hire locals that will work much harder than you for super cheap)
- Great way to interact with locals and other travelers (many hosts have several WWOOFers at once)
- Most hosts want you to stay at least a week, so this isn’t a 2 night kinda thing
- Most farms are fairly remote – y’know, they’re farms and all
- Host requirements vary a lot – but most farms list detailed info of what is offered and what is expected, on the WWOOF website
- No work visa is required, generally, although it’s one of those fuzzy areas. I wouldn’t mention it when going through customs
I have only “WWOOF’d” once, but it was a fantastic experience. Think of it more as an experience rather than a cheap hotel alternative. You’ll get your hands dirty, learn about organic farming, interact with awesome people, and get a truly authentic experience. That said, it’s obviously not for everyone, and your experience will vary wildly depending on the farm you stay at.
There are certainly other affordable lodging options out there, but the ones are above are some of the most popular. What are your favorite cheap hotel alternatives? Leave a comment if you have tip for fellow readers, or a question for me!