Travel is best with a few rough edges. I once suffered through an all-night stint on the blistered, black vinyl floor of a Yugoslavian train in order to wake up in Sofia, Bulgaria. When I stumbled out of that station into a blue, new Bulgarian day, just being off the train made Sofia a thrilling destination.
There are still plenty of people traveling in Europe on the cheap. The one thing they have in common (apart from B.O.) is frugality. If even low-budget pensions and hostels are too expensive for your wallet, you too can sleep for next to nothing.
Sleeping on trains, as I did in the Balkans, is one tactic. Some Eurailpass-holders get a free—if disjointed—night by riding a train out for four hours and catching one back in for another four hours. If you don’t want to pay high hotel prices, try booking a sleeping berth—called a “couchette”—on a night train for a reasonable $30 to 50. Couchettes are always a good value in that price range and cheaper than a hotel in nearly any country.
In Italy, some cities have convents that rent out rooms. The beds are twins and English is often in short supply, but the price is right. If you’re going to Rome, see the Church of Santa Susanna’s website (select “Coming to Rome”) for a list.
If you can’t bunk with pilgrims, try bunking with students. In London, which seems to have the highest hotel prices in Europe, the University of Westminster opens its dorm rooms to travelers from mid-June through late September. Located in several high-rise buildings scattered around central London, the rooms—some with private baths—come with access to well-equipped kitchens and big lounges. University College London and the London School of Economics also rent out dorm space in the summer.
In the cheap-sleeps circus, nothing beats Munich’s venerable International Youth Camp KapuzinerhÃ¶lzl (a.k.a. “The Tent”). From June to early October, they offer 400 spots on the wooden floor of a huge circus tent—and they never fill up. You can rent just a mattress or bed, or you can pitch your own tent. Blankets, hot showers, lockers, a kitchen, and Wi-Fi are all included; breakfast is a few euros extra. It can be a fun but noisy experience—kind of a cross between a slumber party and Woodstock.
In the Alps, hundreds of alpine huts exist to provide food and shelter for hikers. I know a family who hiked from France to Slovenia, spending every night along the way in a mountain hut. Most huts serve hot meals and provide bunk-style lodging. Many alpine huts (like independent hostels) require no linen and wash their blankets annually. I’ll never forget getting cozy in my top bunk while a German in the bottom bunk said, “You’re climbing into zee germs of centuries.” Smart hut-hoppers hike with their own sheets. The Swiss Alpine Club runs more than 150 hiker huts.
It’s getting easier to sleep cheaply, thanks to the Internet. One service I like to recommend is Servas, a worldwide organization that connects travelers with host families with the noble goal of building world peace through international understanding. You pay a membership fee and can stay for two nights (more only if invited) in homes of other members around the world. This is not a crash-pad exchange. It’s cultural sightseeing through a real live-in experience. Many travelers swear by Servas as the only way to really travel and build a truly global list of friends.
CouchSurfing is a vagabond’s alternative to Servas. More than two million members in 246 countries host fellow “surfers” in their homes for free. The average age is 26, but all ages are welcome. If you don’t feel comfortable staying with or hosting strangers, you can still participate by meeting for a drink and sharing travel stories.
AirBnB, generally a step up in class, similarly connects travelers with locals offering a place to stay, but for a fee. Beds range from air-mattress-in-living-room basic to plush-B&B-suite posh. All arrangements, including payment, are handled via their website, giving you a safety net if things go wrong.
There’s also hostelworld.com, a hostel website geared for “flashpackers,” the term for upscale backpackers. These younger, tech-savvy travelers are basically 21st-century vagabonds with credit cards and iPhones.
In my 30 years of guidebook research, I’ve seen it all when it comes to cheap sleeps—ranging from charming to characteristic to funky to quirky. Places can have “a bomb-shelter charm” or “the ambience of a locker room.” They can be “popular with backpackers and dust bunnies,” or “warmly run by Juan and the man he thinks may be his father.” Sure, there will probably be some rough spots in your bargain-bed experience, but your memories will be priceless.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.