6 Surprising Ways to Travel for Free or on the Cheap

See recent posts by Kevin Brouillard

Were it not for the cost, many of us would spend significantly more time on vacation. The following free and cheap travel methods are certainly less conventional, but offer an array of culturally immersive, educational, and worthwhile experiences for those willing to get outside their comfort zone and stretch their travel budget. 

J Dimas/Flickr

J Dimas/Flickr

1. Couchsurfing

The notion of crashing on a friend of a friend’s couch is an age-old concept. However, Couchsurfing has run with this idea, giving its network of 15 million users access to finding locals with available space around the world. Joining Couchsurfing is completely free. Once you’ve made a profile, you can connect with hosts living where you’re headed. Past guests and hosts can also leave reviews for new Couchsurfing members to ease any trepidation about staying with complete strangers. Many seasoned travelers and hosts have dozens — and in some cases, hundreds — of reviews. 

Before reaching out to a host, do your homework and investigate that he or she has a clear photo, profile, and description of the couch or bedroom being provided. When getting in touch with potential hosts, send a personalized message reflecting the information they’ve shared on their profile. It’s a much more thoughtful approach — these people are offering to house you for free, after all. After your trip, consider returning the favor by offering up your own space for fellow travelers. 

Also, local Couchsurfing communities often organize events, such as language exchange classes, trying international cuisine, and group hikes. Plus, beyond stretching your travel budget, using Couchsurfing allows you to connect with locals, who may have more insight into a destination that your guidebook.


WWOOF is an acronym for two commonly used terms: World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms and Willing Workers on Organic Farms. Whichever you choose to use, the meaning is philosophically the same. Though joining WWOOF isn’t free (costs range from $0 to 72), it connects members with hundreds and thousands of organic growers and farmers who will provide room and board in exchange for work. Accommodations and food are provided by the host, but expect to pitch in.

As of 2016, 61 countries have their own national WWOOF organization, while 53 others are listed under WWOOF Independents. Australia, New Zealand, and the United States have the most WWOOF hosts, totaling over 2,000 each. WWOOFers (those volunteering to do the work) are typically expected to work between 20 and 25 hours per week. Different hosts will have different terms, so be sure to clarify what is expected before embarking. Work can range from gardening to shearing sheep, milking goats, or harvesting coffee beans. Many hosts are willing to teach WWOOFers the skills of their trade, so don’t be shy. 

It’s advisable to pick a host site that grants access to something off-site, even if you’re working on a vineyard in France or Australia. Most sites are rural, so picking a place with bicycle access also makes a big difference. Similar to Couchsurfing, WWOOFing provides travelers with an immersive cultural exchange that would be quite difficult to come across otherwise. Plus, it’s an excellent way to extend your travel budget in expensive destinations like New Zealand, Hawaii, or Italy, while still enjoying the spot’s culture and natural beauty. 

3. Home Swapping

The concept of swapping abodes for a budget vacation is nothing new, but a boom in exchange sites and companies have revived the trend. The introduction of home-swapping companies negates the free aspect, but it provides an added insurance and matching service that saves time and anxiety. The types of swapping range, from a simultaneous exchange of homes to staying at someone’s vacation home to spending the night as a guest in a fellow swapper’s abode with them. Memberships aren’t very steep, with HomeLink costing $95 for an annual international membership. Some of the newer sites offering more customer support, like Love Home Swap and Knok, cost $20 per month and $29 per year, respectively. Love Home Swap has properties in 160 countries, while Knok specializes in facilitating exchanges between families. It’s best to be clear about your expectations with fellow swappers for practicality and peace of mind. Consider all the necessary details that could arise, so you’re free to spend your vacation hassle-free in your borrowed home. 

4. Crew a Boat

Hitchhiking is a common practice in many parts of the world, but on a boat? Unlike standing roadside with a thumb out, boat hitchhiking requires a bit more commitment, as jumping ship won’t be an option until you reach port. The most common places for boat hitchhiking appears to be the Atlantic crossing from Europe to the Americas. The final port before embarking on the journey lies in the Canary Islands at Las Palmas. From here, sailboats travel for three weeks on the open sea. This unconventional practice doesn’t necessarily require sailing expertise, but you’ll need an open mind and serious flexibility. This account of the crossing provides practical tips and anecdotal references to the realities of the voyage. Shorter journeys in the Caribbean or South Pacific are made possible by offering one’s services on yachts and sailboats hopping between islands.

5. Fulbright Grants

Fulbright offers grants for a variety of purposes, including research, teaching, and language learning, among others. The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is more accessible and comprehensive, covering the previously mentioned pursuits. If you’re a U.S. citizen and hold a bachelor’s degree, then you’re all set to apply. Researchers will need some level of proficiency in the local language, but English teachers can often get this requirement waived. The Fulbright program wants to provide Americans with the opportunity to live abroad, which means having a prior connection with the country can be a disadvantage when applying. Additionally, creative and performing arts grants are available to anyone with at least four years of professional training or experience in the arts. For those who may not fit any of these molds, the Fulbright travel-only grant provides grants for international travel to Germany, Hungary, and Italy to supplement a student’s own funds for study. For obvious reasons, these grants are quite competitive, so do your homework before applying.

6. Miss Travel

Miss Travel, which is certainly the most controversial free travel method on this list, provides a platform for travelers to find dates for what is usually an all-expenses-paid trip. Users create trip requests, outlining where they’re going, what they’re planning to do, and the duration of the trip. Other users can browse trip requests and connect through there. The top five destinations for users include Las Vegas, Bali, London, Miami, and Cancun. Though the majority of the users are heterosexual men seeking female travel companions, all possibilities exist across the spectrum. 

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