Budget Travel: Accommodation

I am a budget traveler.

I have never had much money to spend, and once I caught the travel bug (after being a part of a short study abroad program in Ireland which was thankfully funded by my university), I realized how tight my daily budget really was. Coming from Hawaii, everything is expensive— rent, food, gas— everything. Saving enough money to do something “luxurious” like traveling is a test of will, income, and faith. There were many days when I had to weigh my dreams of traveling again against what I was going to eat that day, or for the rest of the week really.

That being said, I did manage— over the course of a year and a half— to save enough money to travel with. But even after all that time of saving money, I still didn’t have enough for a week at a resort or eating out at five star restaurants, and I wanted to make my time abroad last.

I am a traveler that travels to experience new cultures, languages, foods, and ways of life— not to feel pampered or as if I am on vacation the entire time. Travel is a source of learning and growth for me, not just relaxation (though obviously I enjoy some of that too). So in the months leading up to my departure I did a lot of research on how to save money primarily on accommodation and transportation, and how to keep myself out of the tourist mill as much as possible.

In this week’s post I will focus on accommodation services. Though my research turned up many resources, I will write about the ones that I used myself or felt would have been the most helpful while I was traveling.

Work Away

This was my favorite accommodation resource, and I used it for my time in both Italy and Spain. This website links volunteers with those who need volunteer work, most often in return for a place to sleep and usually some meals. Other times volunteers will be given a small stipend and a place to stay in place of meals, or some other variant of give and take.

When you create a profile through Work Away you will be able to view and contact the profile pages of the hosts that you may be interested in. Every host page includes a rating (as left by volunteers who have stayed with them), a section for comments or reviews, and of course, an outline of who the host is, where they are, what their availability is, what services they are looking for, and what qualities they may be seeking in a volunteer. Once you find a host you are interested in staying with, you can contact them through the site and hope that they respond!

A great way to enhance your chances of getting a reply is to spend time and effort on making your volunteer page (your profile) as accurate and interesting as possible. For example, I highlighted my love for the English language and my tutoring experience on my profile and in the course of a couple of months I received about a dozen requests to teach English to children from across Europe.

Work Away is a wonderful resource if you like to volunteer or give back to the communities that you visit in your travels, and if you like the idea of spending time with “local” people as opposed to tourism industry workers and other tourists. Hosts can be found in essentially every country around the world, and you can find volunteer work for virtually any interest— teaching English to children, restoring old buildings, working in gardens, work at bed and breakfasts, hostels, and hotels, animal care, house sitting, and many others.

Just so you know…

I must stress that every host is different. Hosts decide as individuals if they would like to host you or not, and an agreement on the time and length of your stay, your transportation, and other variables must be discussed directly with them. If you have issues, the Work Away staff is there to lend a hand, but they cannot force a host to accept you or change a host’s mind on what is required by a volunteer, etc.

There is also the matter that this service is not free. As someone who is not a member, you can view host profiles but you cannot directly contact the hosts without paying the fee of about 35 euro per year. I am not usually one to pay for these sorts of things, but in a lonely and worried moment in a hostel in Bath, I decided to take the plunge and I am so happy that I did!

My Experience

I spent five weeks in Bracco, Italy helping run a bed and breakfast that overlooked the little town of Moneglia and the sea. My host cooked three delicious traditional Italian meals per day, and some of my best memories were of helping cut vegetables and speaking our broken English and Italian back and forth. He took me and the other volunteers to nearby cities and I saw more of the beach during my time in Italy than I had seen in two years back home in Hawaii. I got to greet guests from all over the world (one of my favorite things was trying to figure out which language I would be hearing in response to my Ciao!), and made some very dear friends during my time there. I spent the mornings cleaning, doing laundry, and singing to myself and the afternoons lounging in the sun on the beach or reading a book in a corner of the garden shaded by grape vines. I cried when I left because my time there and the people I met became a part of my heart.

I also used Work Away for my time in Barcelona, Spain. For two weeks I spent weeknights helping teach young people Spanish, and spent the days and weekends exploring the magnificent city of Barcelona. My host was enormously kind, provided me meals, and took me on multiple tours of Barcelona in her free time. It was my first time alone in a big foreign city and I could not have felt more safe or at home knowing there was someone I could turn to if I really needed it. This peace of mind alone was worth my membership fee, and all of the experiences, people I met, and great times that I had were priceless.

Couch Surfing

I must begin by saying that I did not actively use this resource during my travels as I ended up solidifying plans through Work Away and by staying with friends, but I spent a good deal of time on the site during my travels and I asked multiple people that I met while traveling about their experiences with it— all of which seemed positive.

Couch Surfing is wonderful because first of all, it’s free.

You can make an account and create a profile where you can share a bit about yourself, your interests, and your travels. You can even add what countries you plan on visiting and when. Your account will also have an area for references, where people who have hosted you (and people that you have hosted) can leave a review about the experience, or where a friend who knows you can leave a personal reference (this really helps for people who are new to the platform as hosts are more likely to host those who have reviews).

There are hosts for Couch Surfing all over the world, and one of the great things about this resource is that nothing is expected of you (if a host decides to have you) other than showing up and leaving when you agreed, being respectful, and maybe bringing a little gift of appreciation (this last part is not required or even directly suggested, but it seems like a good rule, doesn’t it?). Most Couch Surfing hosts are on the site to enjoy cultural exchange opportunities. So for example, if you plan on staying with someone in Paris and you come from Seoul, maybe bring some popular candies or a post card from home, or use your cooking skills to cook them a “traditional” meal or share your language with them. This is part of what makes Couch Surfing such a fun community.

Just so you know…

Though Couch Surfing does have a sort of support team, it is a little less secure than other resources may be. What I’m saying is that it pays to be smart and selective when offering to host someone or when you are traveling and are looking for a place to stay. This is when references and profiles come in handy. Of course, there may be some great people out there who haven’t managed to rack up any shining reviews yet, but all I’m saying is be careful and be smart, as you always should when traveling.

My “Experience”

Though I did not directly have an experience with Couch Surfing, a dear friend of mine who I met in Italy told me that she has been both a host and a guest, and both experiences went very well for her. My Work Away host in Spain also uses Couch Surfing, and has hosted dozens of people from all across the globe (she even has a map in the spare bedroom where every guest can add a pin to identify where they come from). She is a leader of the Barcelona Couch Surfing forum— the group that listens to people’s concerns and issues as they may crop up— and after seeing her dedication to it, I had a lot more hope in the safety and kindheartedness of the Couch Surfing community as a whole.

I was thankfully able to receive a personal reference for my Couch Surfing profile from each of these wonderful ladies, and I created one for each of them. So hopefully next time I find myself traveling, Couch Surfing will be a useful resource for me.

These are the two accommodation resources that I found to be the most useful or prevalent for me in my travels. As I stated previously, there are other resources out there, which I will more than likely write about in the weeks to come, but these two provide people across the world with opportunities to travel affordably and also help form a community around travelers.

Next week I will post about the most budget-friendly transportation services that I found and what my experiences with them was like.

If you have any other suggestion for resources drop them in the comments!

(Image is of one of my favorite places in the world— the living room and kitchen area of the Bed and Breakfast called Bella Vita, in Bracco, Italy— where I had many delicious meals, conversations, and quiet cups of tea.)

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