How to stay for free when you travel and advice from those who do it

When most people think of travelling cheap, they think of hostels with questionable hygiene or motels miles from the city centre. But those who are truly passionate about exploring the world have found another way to save money on their travels–by not paying for their accommodation.

It is possible to stay for free (or at least very cheap) and still have an unforgettable travel experience. I spoke to five savvy travellers who claim that, if you know what you’re doing, cheap travel doesn’t mean you have to compromise your comfort just to save on travel costs.

Au pairing: be part of the family

Au pairing is becoming an increasingly popular way for young women to live and travel abroad without the added expense of accommodation. It’s a concept that originated in Europe after the war, as a way for women who were studying abroad to earn a living.

Tasks required basic nannying duties including babysitting, taking children to and from school and some cooking duties. Families benefited from having an extra hand in the home without paying for a domestic workers, who were particularly difficult to find after the war. Au pairs, unlike domestic workers, are welcomed as part of the family, sharing meals and being involved quite intimately with family activities. They may also receive some monetary allowance for their work, though this is not always the case.

Taking the bad with the good

After working 12 hour days with several classes a day Jesika decided that being a personal trainer on a cruise ship wasn’t the dream job she had hoped for and decided to become an au pair.

“I liked the idea that I would still be living with a family instead of a share house with various other travellers”. Jesika was paired with a family within 24 hours of researching. “The family sounded great”, the children were two boys aged six and three and the duties consisted of getting both boys up, dressed and fed, taking the eldest boy to school, keeping the youngest entertained during the day and preparing dinner for the boys at night.

The process of locating a family was very simple, which she says in hindsight wasn’t a good thing. “The parents smoked inside with asthmatic children” she says “and the weekends that were my own were spent locked in my shoebox-sized bedroom with no TV or WiFi… the parents would be sitting in front of the TV… eating junk and smoking. They ate processed food and refused to buy fresh fruit and vegetables”.

Jesika soon moved onto another family in Twickenham and worked there for ten months, “it had its ups and downs. Do not work for a family where the mum is a stay at home mum” she warns.

Despite a few bad experiences, Jesika believes she learned a lot about herself through au pairing, and recommends anyone to try it at least once. She was able to travel Europe and meet amazing people she is still friends with to this day, because of the opportunities that came from au pairing. Jesika believes it’s a great way to expose yourself to motherhood and develop an appreciation for your own parents, “I learnt patience, tolerance and how to iron properly”.

Couch surfing for the social traveller

For those who don’t like the idea of committing to family duties, couch surfing offers a unique experience that can either be short term, or long term depending on the arrangements you make with your host. Chris has couch surfed in the UK and says:

“I would highly recommend couch surfing simply as a way to meet people and save money” he says. “(But) the process can be frustrating in large cities with so many people to choose from and it taking so long to hear from them” he recommends starting the process earlier to gauge what options are open and have several availabilities to choose from in case one doesn’t pan out. Kylie, another couch surfer agrees, “have a back up plan, I know people who have been left stranded”.

But not everyone has difficulties with couch surfing. Leela has couch surfed in numerous countries and continents around the world, and is yet to have a bad experience, “I’ve met some of the most incredible people this way.” she says “It’s really a fantastic way to get an insider’s view of a culture and find the best places to eat and visit. It also helps a traveller to open up, relax, meet more people, and simply enjoy travel without feeling the need to run around being a tourist.” Leela’s advice is to do it, but be smart – “set up a good profile for yourself and check other people’s profiles thoroughly”.

Most couch surfers stay with locals because it’s much easier to learn about the place you’re staying in. As for the safety aspect, Kylie suggests using common sense “for security I used my maiden name… I gave very little information until I felt comfortable. I only considered verified people on I also checked reviews”. Kylie has also been a host for couch surfing which she says was a great learning experience.

As far as expected duties to perform during your stay, Kylie says “I think it’s important to ask what is expected, before you go”.

House sitting: a home away from home

For those who prefer more time to themselves or are uncomfortable with the idea of sharing living space with a stranger, there’s the option of house sitting. James says “couch surfing is about new friendships rather than free accommodation… to build up my own profile I became a couch surfing host and had a few people stay with me”. Like most couch surfers, James only had brief interactions with the hosts before staying with them. “I arrived at all the house sits a few days early so that we could get to know each other and they could introduce me to their pets and show me around the house”.

For house sitting, James recommends where you can browse listings or sign up and have your home listed. House sitting is great if you want space and more freedom. You’re getting a whole house or apartment to mind and that kind of space is a real luxury when you’re travelling. James was fortunate enough to house sit for a total of nine months while travelling, which saved him a lot of money and enabled him to travel a lot longer than he originally planned.

A system based on trust

Au pairing, couch surfing and house sitting are based very much on trust. People are essentially letting you, a stranger into their home so it’s important to show you are a trustworthy individual who isn’t going to let them down. “Don’t just focus on what you’re going to get out of it” says James “but what you can offer them”.

Couch surfing hosts are generally looking for someone they can get along with, while homeowners seeking house sitters are looking for a responsible person who will diligently look after their home and pets while they’re away.

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