You picked your travel destination, earmarked your guidebook's restaurant recommendations, and started a list of absolutely must-sees. The only missing element is where you’ll be staying. Most people use sites like Kayak, Booking.com, and Expedia to find hotel deals. But if you’re on a budget, you might think that Airbnb is your best (and only) option. Not so! There are other ways to find affordable yet nice places to stay while on vacation. These off-the-beaten path options aren't your typical hotel or Airbnb, but they're definitely underrated.
You might think of hostels as a cheap option for college students, but a new vacation concept has resulted in growing demand for boutique hostels designed by architectural studios to offer low-cost comfort with quality design. Hostelling no longer means having to make do with less. You can choose between dorm-style or private rooms. At HostelWorld, book as close as the Freehand Chicago where you can sit at the 1920s cocktail bar or as far as the Piece Hostel Sanjo in Kyoto, They're much less expensive than a traditional hotel room or Airbnb, plus it’s a great way to meet new people and find last-minute housing if your travel plans are less structured.
Cost: rates vary from $10 for dormitory style to $150 for a private double
Bed and Breakfasts
Savor your stay by booking a room in a traditional bed and breakfast. With thousands of locally-owned properties worldwide and ridiculously affordable rates, you can have your breakfast and eat it too through BedandBreakfast.com. A beautifully restored 1890s lodge, Laughing Heart Lodge in North Carolina, starts at $25 per night. And a gorgeous 19th century vintage townhouse, the Creole Inn near Louisiana's French Quarter, goes for $49–79 per night.
Cost: rates start at $25 per night
Sabbatical Homes is the academic community's resource for home exchange, home rental, house sitting and sharing opportunities, but non-academics can register to use it too. Academics (faculty, staff, students, school teachers, and retirees) may use the service for free, while non-academics looking to rent or sit a home pay a $20 fee plus the rental rate if it applies. The rate for a sunny, one-bedroom apartment in Berkeley, CA, for instance, costs $600 for one week ($85 per night). You won't find a better hotel deal. If you're open to house sitting another member's home, garden, or maybe even a pet, you'll be able to enjoy the comforts of home worldwide for free or for reduced rent. Since many academics travel during the holidays, you'll find plenty of options available during busy seasons.
Cost: $20 plus rental rate, if applicable
Willing Workers on Organic Farms
If you don’t mind working for your keep, check out international programs like Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF). Visitors, or 'WWOOFers', spend half a day helping out on a host farm to learn about the organic movement and sustainable agriculture in exchange for meals and a place to stay. WWOOF has organic farms and gardens across the world, so it's easy to find a location that fits with your travel plans. Working while on vacation isn’t for everyone, but if you want to learn more about the community and spend some time with the locals, this is a great option.
Cost: $40 for a WWOOF membership good for 1 year
Eat, Pray, Love
Another inexpensive and lesser-known option is booking a room at a religious retreat house or in a university or college dormitory. Staying in a dorm is a better bet during the summer, but off-the-beaten-path convents and monasteries are year-round options. While these are often no-frills, they’re pristine, inexpensive, quiet, and safe. A peaceful Italian renaissance sanctuary operated by nuns in Florence since 1936 starts at just $46 per night. Sites like MonasteryStays and UniversityRooms can help you find out if these are options at your destination.
Cost: MonasteryStays and UniversityRooms start at $20 per night per person
Tap Into Your Network
Before you start an exhaustive online search, you may want to ask family and friends if they know anyone who might be willing to open their home up to you. This strategy has worked for me on several occasions. I once stayed in an apartment owned by the daughter of my travel buddy’s church friend’s cousin (did you catch that?). They were lovely hosts and I appreciated the glimpse of life as a Parisian local. Another time, I traveled to Edinburgh with a friend where we stayed at my friend’s grandfather’s cousin’s friend’s apartment (seriously, I’m not making this up). Bring a hostess gift from your hometown, offer to lend a hand for meals or washing dishes, and thank your hosts for their hospitality.
Cost: practically free
Thinking creatively, tapping into your network, and being flexible will help you find a nice place to stay without breaking the bank. Bonus: these lesser-known options are unique ways to experience the culture, meet the locals, and get a feel for what it’s like to really live there. That is priceless.