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10 Most Valuable Alternative Booking Sites

In "Three Rental Sites to Help You Kick Your Hotel Habit," we introduced major vacation-rental booking sites that offer an interesting alternative to the run-of-the-mill hotel stay. But there's more than one way to ditch the hotel and unearth a unique—and more affordable—place to lay your suitcase. Try swapping your home for an oceanfront condo on St. Thomas, sleeping in a fellow traveler's spare room for free, or working on an organic farm in exchange for fresh meals and a room with a gorgeous country view.

Here is your one-stop resource to alternative accommodations sites. We've divided the following into three categories: booking sites, hospitality networks (sites that connect travelers with free hosts), and home-exchange sites.

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Booking Sites

Inbed.me

Billing itself as the "first social booking site for hostels, beds and couches," Inbed.me allows members to connect with other travelers booked at the same property before checking in. While searching for a place to stay, users can also browse profiles of fellow guests who have already made reservations. "Meet" people online by sending messages before you check in, and voila—instant travel buddies! You can even plan activities together before you arrive, but contact with caution: This will come with any of the usual hazards involved when making plans with someone you've never actually met in person.

The site was launched in 2011, and, as of now, it doesn't have a vast inventory or extensive membership numbers. But it could be a useful tool for young solo travelers who hope to meet other like-minded hostel hoppers while traveling abroad.

RELATED STORY: Three Rental Sites to Help You Kick Your Hotel Habit

iStopOver

This is a short-term rentals booking site similar to the popular rentals site Airbnb. IStopOver features apartments, spare rooms, and houses listed, for the most part, by individuals known as "hosts." Listings look almost exactly like those on Airbnb, with a scrollbar of photos and a reviews tab.

One interesting perk offered here that differentiates iStopOver from Airbnb is event-based rentals. You can search for accommodations near major goings-on such as the London 2012 Olympics, New York Fashion Week, or Comic-Con.

Hospitality Networks

CouchSurfing

CouchSurfing, which has more than 3 million members, is a popular hospitality-exchange site through which travelers can host, be hosted, and plan activities with one another. No commerce is involved. You stay or host for free in the interest of creating "fun, exciting and accessible experiences that stimulate people to learn and grow," according to the organization's mission statement.

As a member of the site, I've attended CouchSurfing events and have had an overwhelmingly positive experience meeting fellow globetrotters while traveling solo. I haven't actually "surfed" as of yet—staying on someone else's futon requires an acute level of trust in strangers and the accuracy of online profiles. There is, however, a series of safety nets set up to protect Surfers: references written by fellow CouchSurfers, vouches from fellow members, and an address-verification process (the company confirms your identity with a secure credit-card payment of $25).

Tripping

Tripping is similar to CouchSurfing in that it's a platform through which travelers can exchange homestays and set up social activities with fellow travelers. So what's the difference? A representative from the site told us, "Tripping has a broader reach—travelers can find free places to stay and vacation-home rentals. For example, you can use Tripping to stay with a local family in Prague or rent a private flat in London for the Olympics."

In short, Tripping combines short-term rental booking (it features listings from our sister site FlipKey, HomeAway, and iStopOver, among other sites) with hospitality exchange. We stuck it under the "hospitality network" category, but it could have gone under "booking sites" as well.

BeWelcome

This site is in the same family as CouchSurfing. It's basically a network where travelers can make social connections and either host or be hosted for free. The point is to foster cultural exchange. One major difference between BeWelcome and the Couch: It's a nonprofit organization run by volunteers. Last summer, CouchSurfing, originally a nonprofit, became a B Corporation (a for-profit company that has agreed to uphold select social and environmental standards). For anyone concerned that CouchSurfing has sold its soul—according to The New Yorker, some CouchSurfing diehards who "simply do not like doing business with the Man" were upset about the change—BeWelcome offers a less-capitalist alternative.

GlobalFreeloaders.com

This site's name explains it all. Through GlobalFreeloaders.com you can find a place to stay for free. But there's a catch: The site is only for those interested in both hosting and being hosted. It's a quid pro quo arrangement. (It's acceptable for CouchSurfing and BeWelcome members to only host or only be hosted.)

This site is minor compared to some of the other big players. For example, there are only 293 members in Portugal, 45 in Iceland, and two in Aruba.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF)

While the abovementioned sites generally feature free stays in exchange for, well, nothing but good company and the chance to foster cross-cultural understanding, this one's different. WWOOF is a network that allows travelers to arrange free farm stays—but there's a catch. You have to be willing to roll up the sleeves of your packable travel shirt and help out around the farm: Trade volunteer work (you can arrange specific duties with your hosts before you arrive) for bucolic country accommodations and complimentary farm-fresh meals.

To become a WWOOFer, it costs $30 to register in the U.S. You can also register in other countries, each of which has its own registration fee and database of farms that accept WWOOF volunteers.

The Hospitality Club

The Hospitality Club calls itself the "largest online hospitality exchange organization," yet with roughly 300,000 members, it's actually much smaller than CouchSurfing. Still, it's a significant player in the free-place-to-stay space, with scores of online profiles and message boards. While similar to CouchSurfing, The Hospitality Club lacks some of the safety nets of the former: There's no vouching or address-verification process.

Home-Exchange Sites

Intervac

Homeowners can arrange a free vacation rental by swapping houses with fellow travelers. You stay in their house, they stay in yours. But first, you need a network. With about 30,000 members, Intervac is a good-size resource for travelers interested in setting up a home exchange. The site also arranges hospitality exchanges, house sitting, and other services, but it's best known as a home-exchange network. "Most Intervac members are mature (average age 40+), established family-oriented professionals, executives, business-owners or retired people who are financially successful and respect property," according to the website.

Membership costs $8.33 a month, but new users can set up a free 14-day trial. Once signed up, members can contact hosts and advertise their own homes.

Is it safe? If it's a direct swap, you'll have to trust that your partner will treat your home with care, just as you'll respect his or her property. As safeguards, Intervac awards badges (bronze, silver, gold, etc.) based on how many successful swaps a host has completed, and the site also allows hosts to post verifiable references.

HomeLink

With about 13,000 members, HomeLink has a smaller inventory than Intervac, and it's pricier, too. A one-year membership starts at $119. But that high fee might just work to your advantage. It's possible that a slightly stricter membership process could help weed out travelers who are lukewarm about actually going through with an exchange, as well as potential scammers. And, really, $119 isn't all that much compared to the price of a traditional vacation rental or hotel.

HomeLink claims to be the oldest home-exchange site around and touts its customer service. The company offers personalized customer service over the phone to its members (another reason that high membership cost could be warranted).

Do you use any alternative booking sites not listed here? Tell us about them in the comments!

(Photo: Shutterstock/beltsazar)

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