You can find cozy, convenient places to stay for $50, $20, or even for free, in destinations around the world—as long as you know where to look. Aside from airfare, lodging is typically the expense that takes the biggest bite out of a vacation budget. But there’s no need to rack up hotel stays for $100 to $200 a night or more. If you’re willing to consider alternatives to hotels, you could pay a fraction of that price—or nothing at all.
Below, we review 10 hotel alternatives and evaluate the pros and cons of each. Read on to see if these affordable alternatives to hotels are something you’ll dig or want to dump.
Short-Term Room Rentals
This is a popular and ever-growing trend in the travel world—a cross between vacation rentals and homestays. Using websites like Airbnb, and 9flats, you can rent a room in someone’s house, a cottage, or a private studio apartment for low nightly rates—it’s not uncommon to see prices under $50 per night. It’s a way for hosts to open up their homes and make a little extra money, while giving travelers a great deal and a local’s-eye view of a destination.
Do you love the chance to meet people, see how they live, maybe play a midnight game of Scrabble or Call of Duty? Although you may score a cottage all by yourself, the cheaper options are usually a small bedroom with a shared bath. If that’s cool with you, a short-term room rental could be your thing.
If uncertainty keeps you awake at night, you may sleep better at a chain hotel.
Depending on where you’re traveling, there may be affordable lodging offered by religious organizations, such as convents and monasteries in Italy (check out Monastery Stays), or Christian or Jewish guesthouses in Jerusalem. An internet search or a visit to the local tourist board’s website can help you find these options.
If you’re looking for a calm, quiet environment—perhaps even with a private bathroom, as Monastery Stays promises—religious housing may be for you. Many even welcome children with open arms, and often have larger rooms set aside for families.
Your room will be clean and functional, but if you want luxury, look elsewhere. Same goes if your kids are hellions, accustomed to running up and down halls screaming at the top of their lungs. Also, if you’re a night owl who likes to party into the wee hours, chances are you’ll miss curfew and be locked out. Finally, not all religious accommodations will accept unmarried couples.
Though they’re commonly known as “youth” hostels, these can be an excellent hotel alternative for budget travelers of any age. Even if you’re not up for the cheapest option—a bed in a shared dorm—you can often get a basic private room at a hostel for significantly less than the cost of a low-end hotel.
Hostels are perfect for the unscheduled traveler or backpacker, and for those who are up for an adventure—read: those who don’t mind plenty of company. They often have communal kitchens for those interested in making their own meals.
Some hostels can be sketchy—lacking not only privacy, but also safety. Consider checking sites such as TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company) or Hostelworld for reviews and recommendations. Also, check whether the property is a member of Hostelling International, a U.K.-based nonprofit organization with thousands of properties worldwide that meet a minimum standard of cleanliness and safety.
Sleeping in someone’s spare bedroom, or on a living room couch, is by far one of the cheapest ways to travel. In many cases, it’s free, and it’s also a great way to meet locals. You can organize a homestay through long-established hospitality networks like Servas International, or check out sites like Couchsurfing. For more information, see our guide to homestays and farmstays.
If “life is an adventure” is your motto, then this mode of traveling is for you. You stand the chance of meeting interesting people and getting a close-up look at local life. Servas International is social and socially conscious, encouraging members to get involved in their hosts’ communities. Just super-social? Go with a option.
You must be trusting and trustworthy, flexible and friendly, for homestays to be an appropriate choice for you. You also have to be patient—the Servas interview process takes about three weeks. CouchSurfing is looser and much more in touch with social media, providing plenty of opportunities to connect with locals and other travelers.
A Paris apartment, a villa in the Caribbean, a log cabin in Vermont … vacation rentals offer unique and affordable lodging around the globe. Because they tend to be more spacious than hotel rooms, they’re a particularly good bargain for families and groups who can divvy up the cost. And having your own kitchen can save you big bucks on restaurants. Sites to try include TripAdvisor and HomeAway. And make sure to read up about whether vacation rentals are right for you.
The many options in the vacation rental world means that this choice is great for a variety of trips. If you appreciate the convenience and savings of having a kitchen and a laundry room during your trip, then a vacation rental could be for you. And if you’re traveling with a group of friends or family, having everyone gathered in one home can be priceless.
If there’s going to be a fight over who gets the master suite, avoid holiday havoc by checking the floor plan of your rental and deciding ahead of time who gets which room. A rental agreement is a binding contract, so if there’s a chance your vacation plans may change, stick with a cancellable hotel reservation.
When students go home for the summer, many colleges and universities open their dorms to visitors. Expect very affordable but very basic accommodations (bathrooms may be down the hall, for example). There are few central databases of these type of lodgings—UniversityRooms is one to try—but it’s worth calling a few local campuses directly to see if anything might be available during your trip. Your destination’s tourist board may also be able to help.
Restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues often surround college campuses, so there should be plenty of action nearby.
Most college kids are hard on their dormitories, so you shouldn’t expect shiny new carpets, furniture, or finishings. Elevators and air conditioning are uncommon in older buildings, too.
B&Bs with Shared Bathrooms
Bed-and-breakfasts can often save you money over hotel rooms, especially if you’re willing to use a bathroom down the hall. And it may be less inconvenient than you think: Sometimes the room you’re supposed to share a bathroom with might not even be booked—giving you the facilities all to yourself.
The coziness and camaraderie of a B&B appeal to many travelers—enough to overlook the possibility of having to share a bathroom. You’ll save not only on accommodations, but also on meals, since breakfast is covered.
B&Bs, especially those with shared bathrooms, may lack modern amenities such as flat-screen televisions or multiple outlets for charging electronics. And for travelers who aren’t particularly social, having to show up at a group breakfast with strangers can feel like a chore.
From rural B&Bs to working ranches and cattle farms, this type of stay can cover a wide range of accommodations—and you don’t necessarily have to be willing to milk a cow to take advantage of it. Farmstays are particularly popular in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Learn more about homestays and farmstays.
If you think you might enjoy waking with the sun to feed a bottle to a lamb or cornmeal to chickens, a farmstay may be right for you. You could enjoy a hearty breakfast, learn to make cheese, or spin wool. The quiet, bucolic setting is perfect for relaxation, catching up on reading, or finishing handicraft projects.
It can get very quiet, especially in the evening—so if you’re a night owl, your only companions may be the mice. These types of lodging can vary widely, though if you’re traveling in Europe or Down Under, you’ll have more choice than in the United States. If you need to know exactly what you’re getting, then farmstays may not be for you.
Sleeping under the stars can be a magical experience, and it’s one of the cheapest options on this list, especially if you cook your own meals over a campfire instead of eating in restaurants every night. And don’t worry, you can opt for cabins or luxury tent camps (i.e., glamping) if you’d rather not be slapping mosquitoes away all night.
Camping is a great choice for anyone seeking a digital detox. A campfire beneath the night sky can be relaxing and mesmerizing; you won’t miss your TV or tablet. And you can’t beat a perfectly toasted marshmallow as a bedtime snack.
Cooking a meal over a camp stove or fire, washing dishes in a bucket, waking up to rain-soaked sleeping bags—those who choose camping should be open to doing without a few comforts and conveniences.
Swapping houses with another traveler is an ideal way to enjoy the comforts of home while traveling, and it’s practically free. To become a member of a home exchange network, you’ll typically pay an annual fee that costs about as much as a night in a hotel room, so after the first couple of nights of your vacation, your membership has paid for itself and then some. Learn more in SmarterTravel’s how-to guide to home exchanges.
All the conveniences of home—kitchen with all the gadgets, laundry with detergent, Wi-Fi—and usually, a location away from tourist traps and traffic. What’s not to love?
There’s always a chance something might happen (power outage, burst pipe, the homeowner’s angry ex banging on the door at 3 a.m.) and there’s no one around to take responsibility except you. Home exchange isn’t for the worried traveler: Will I break something? Will they trash my house? Am I safe in their home? Is my grandmother’s china safe in my home? If these concerns keep you up at night, do yourself a favor and sleep in a hotel.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 7 Ways to Score Free Lodging
- 12 Hotel Hacks That Will Save You Money
- How to Be a Good Guest: 14 Vacation Rental Tips
Jodi Thompson contributed to this article.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.