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HOW TO: Find Cheap Accommodation for Long Trips

by Globetrooper Todd | 19 Responses
Camper Van Volkswagen Westfalia

Imagine traveling for a year on a budget you thought would only last a few weeks. That’s the reality when you find cheap accommodation. It can turn your trips from weeks into months and months into years.

I know what you’re thinking… youth hostels are the cheapest form of accommodation. But no, hostels are actually one of the more expensive options. Want to see the numbers? What to see cheaper alternatives? Want more adventure? Then read on…

I recently wrote about free accommodation such as couch surfing, wwoofing, house swapping, etc. But most of those options require you to work or socialise with your hosts for many hours per day.

Sometimes, you just want to travel on your own terms. You don’t want hard labour, you don’t want consecutive drunken nights, and you don’t want to be stuck in one place. So in this post, I’ll cover your options for cheap traditional accommodation.

Scenario

I’ll use the same scenario to compare each idea. The scenario is two people (Lauren and I), traveling for 3 months (~90 days), in an average-priced area (e.g. Auckland, Montreal, Melbourne, etc). I’ll also use USD as the currency for easy conversion.

Stay at Hostels

Depending where you are, hostels can cost less than $10 per night for a large dorm room in a developing country, all the way up to $60+ per night for a private room in a developed country. The advantage of hostels is that they’re all over the world and easy to get in to. The downside is that you often have to sleep around noisy youths whom haven’t yet learnt the art of mutual respect.

Cost per person is $25 x 2 people x 90 nights = $4,500

Hostel Dorm Room

Compared to a motel hotel or resort, hostels are relatively cheap. And because they’re easy to slip in and out of, for this $4,500, you can travel all over the place (within reason). The question is… can you handle sleeping with other people for 90 days straight? So let’s be more practical and suggest you hire private rooms for 20% of the time. That should keep you sane and in good spirits.

Cost per person is $25 x 2 people x 72 nights + Private double room is $60 x 18 nights = $4,680

Still not too bad, and it gives you the opportunity to mingle with other travelers AND some time alone to recharge and regroup.

Rent an Apartment

Apartment For RentIntuitively, a private self-contained apartment all to yourself would cost a lot more than a cramped dorm room with 20 other smelly people. Well, not necessarily. Actually, a self-contained apartment is often a lot cheaper. The downside? You have to stay in the same place the entire time.

Cost per month $1,000 x 3 months = $3,000

Wow, a lot cheaper; almost half the cost of a hostel. But unless you’re traveling very slowly, you’ll want to adventure yonder. So let’s assume we take mini-trips that require 20 nights of hostel accommodation. That 20 nights would afford say 6 or 7 mini getaways; plenty for the inquisitive traveler.

Cost per month $1,000 x 3 months + Hostel per person $25 x 2 people x 20 nights = $4,000

Still cheaper than the hostel-only option, but with limitations in some cases. In other cases, immersing yourself in one place for your entire trip can be very rewarding as you learn how locals really live. And arguably, renting a local apartment would be a more authentic experience than hostel hopping.

Buy a Hippy Bus

Okay, you’ve got me, this one’s my favourite option and the mode of accommodation Lauren and I have chosen for our upcoming road trip around Canada and the US. It can be expensive though, especially if you have bad luck or make a bad decision along the way.

We’re planning to buy an old Volkswagen Camper Van (sometimes called a Kombi, Westfalia, Vanagon, Bus, etc.). The type that’s 30+ years old and hopefully, fingers crossed, in good enough condition to drive thousands of miles. The plan is to buy the bus, not rent it, then sell it at the end.

$5,000 for initial purchase – $4,000 at sale time = $1,000

Volkswagen Westfalia Camer VanThat’s what I’m talking about! This is clearly a much cheaper option than hostels and apartments. The advantage is you can park anywhere, go anywhere, sleep anywhere, and have a unique adventure no matter what you do. The downside is you’re confined to the space of a matchbox and things can go wrong.

For example, if you have serious engine troubles, you could be up for thousands of dollars. Or if you pay too much for the bus, you could be left with a lemon that no one wants and a big loss. Also, where do you shower? And what about fuel?

So let’s be a little more realistic. Let’s say we lose more on the bus when we sell it. Let’s also assume we have some minor maintenance costs. And we pay for park fees for a few nights (where they have showers, power, water, etc.). As for fuel, this is a difficult one since it depends where we are. We also didn’t include all transport costs for the other types of accommodation, so I’ll only include some fuel.

$5,000 for initial purchase – $3,500 at sale time + $300 for maintenance + $500 for fuel + Park fees of $10 per night x 30 nights = $2,600

Still quite cheap, but of all the types of long-trip accommodation, this one has the most room for error. Also, road trips in a hippy bus aren’t always viable in dangerous or very cold areas. But imagine the adventure; I’m sure looking forward to it.

Mix Free and Cheap

The last type of cheap accommodation is a mix between free and cheap. What I mean is couch surf (or similar) for some of your trip and use hostels (or similar) for the rest. It’s rare that you’ll find willing couch owners for your entire 3 months trip, so this is the likely outcome for people looking to spend as little as possible.

Cost of couch surfing $0 x 60 nights + Hostel per person $25 x 2 people x 30 nights = $1,500

Couch Surfing Tom CruiseNot as cheap as you expected hey? That’s because hostels are relatively expensive when compared with the other types of long-trip accommodation. Not only that, but couch surfing is rarely free in the sense you feel obliged to pay something or buy your hosts gifts. Also, couches aren’t as readily available as hostels, so you may find yourself traveling long distances between stops.

Cost of couch surfing $5 x 60 nights + Hostel per person $25 x 2 people x 30 nights + Transport costs $250 = $2,050

Still quite cheap, but certainly not as free as you expected. With that said, there are other free options, such as house swapping, which really are free (other than a $50 bottle of wine left for your hosts). Also, working arrangements are free if you consider your time free. So it’s still possible to get by on a pitance if you’re resourceful, but you’re typically limited by working certain hours or remaining in the same place.

Sources of Costs

I used HostelWorld.com to find average hostels costs. Craigslist.com for the cost of a hippy bus. Then a range of Google searches and previous experience to arrive at other costs. Of course they’re all variable, so do the research yourself before making a commitment and allow for a margin of error. Most of all, have fun, explore the world and enjoy the adventure.

Posted in How-To Guides, Travel Hacking | August 24th, 2010

19 Responses to HOW TO: Find Cheap Accommodation for Long Trips

  1. These are great tips! I personally love the camper van option. We took a trip in Australia and rented a camper van. It was only 2 1/2 weeks so we didn’t buy one, but the adventure of living out of a box was the best part about it! We tried finding some couches to surf for a few nights but didn’t have any luck getting responses. If people want to go that route, I think they have to spend a lot of time hosting first, otherwise I’m not sure if people are as willing to trust someone who doesn’t have a reputation on couchsurfing.org. Thanks for the helpful post!

    • Thanks for dropping by OT. Australia is a great place for camper vans since it’s so big and there’s so much area to cover. Plus, the real Australia isn’t in the cities and you don’t get to see it unless you travel by road. We can’t wait to do the same across Canada. Great point about couch surfing too. It’s great it theory and works very well for some people, but sometimes it’s not as easy as it sounds.

  2. Love it! Great comparison. Hostels are definitely not always the best options for 2 or more travelers. I’m a huge fan of Priceline.com in the US.

  3. I have been hosting couch surfers, The first thing I check is their references, If they have none, I will not endanger my children or wife by accepting. So If you are considering surfing it may be a good idea to host for a few months first and get some feedback from your vistors. That feedback will help you get into my place for sure.

    • Makes me think we should have our couch surfers leave reviews. We’ve had a couple in the past month, but haven’t insisted on feedback. But that’s a good point, if we want more access to couches overseas, we should be a little more formal about the process :)

  4. I agree that couchsurfing isn’t always cheaper, as it’s respectful to buy a gift for your host. However, I don’t think someone should be couchsurfing just for a ‘free couch’. It’s also about meeting people, making new friends, and having someone taking some of their own time to show you around their city. And I’m a huge fan of the hippie bus idea :) Haven’t done it, but maybe one day?

    • Great point about couch surfing; sometimes those moments abroad with locals are priceless.

  5. Surf Camps offer packages including lodging (often you are able to choose from a variety of types of accommodation) and surf lessons for beginners and/or advanced surfers. Most also offer board rentals and surf tours or surfaris.

    • Great point. Language schools tend to have lodging as well included in their packages. But of course learning to surf sounds like a lot more fun.

  6. Hi there

    My partner and I are looking to spend about 6 months next year travelling and touring our music around British Columbia. We are on a fairly tight budget so like you we love the campervan option. Do you know if ‘tourists’ are allowed to buy vans/vehicles privately in Canada – or do you have to go through a Campervan company that offers the buyback options? Some people have told me that getting insurance when buying a vehicle privately as a non-resident is a nightmare and v expensive… thanks!

    • Hi Caroline, wow, sounds like a great adventure. I know you can certainly buy a vehicle, but I’m not sure how difficult insurance is. We were about to do a similar thing, but an opportunity came up to tour Peru, and we’re still here :) We looked at the campervan rental companies, but even for the cheapest vans, it was way too expensive. From our research, it seemed a lot easy to achieve in Canada compared to the US. Sorry I couldn’t be more help.

  7. Great list. I love cheap accomodation and have even toyed with the idea of living in an RV for a couple months. I wanted to give you some ideas:

    1. if going to San Diego, CA check out vans there – lots of surplus and LOTS of places to park since this is def. a large part of the culture here. Plus free bathrooms at most of the beaches.

    2. Not sure where in US you are headed but check out a monthly pass to a 24 hour fitness. The perk here being you can shower, shave, whatever 24 hrs a day and they have them everywhere! at least in CA they are everywhere

    3. Walmart parking lots – you can always spend the night in a walmart parking lot for free. It’s one of the perks they offer and not many people know about it.

    4. How about buying a sailboat and sailing up the coast? Of course this is only applicable if you know how to sail but again in SD the boats are super cheaper (cheaper even than your van), if you can sail your gas will be extremely inexpensive (I think i only spent $20 last year for the whole year!) and if you research it there are places you can dock (usually up to 72 hrs) for free. Doesn’t get much cheaper than wind power and free sleeping arrangements. Plus you get to have one heck of an adventure!

    Good luck – I can’t wait to hear about this trip and I really hope things work out with the RV!

  8. Great to hear from you Bethany. Unfortunately the road trip has been put on hold. We got the opportunity to head to Peru to do an Inca trek and we ended up spending a month in Cusco. So we’ll make the most of our time here, since it’s so far from home (Australia), and then may return to North America later next year. The tough part about North America is it’s so expensive compared to most other places. We already new that, but until we came down to Peru, we didn’t realise how much of a difference it makes. But we’ll definitely be back because we love Montreal.

  9. Great post and good comments too. But how come no-one mentions the good old fashioned tent these days for travel accommodation? I know in Europe these days that the facilities for washing and showering are much better than they used to be, and many camping sites offer a bar and a great social experience. OK, so you need to depend on the weather a bit, so thats a bit of a limiting factor.

    If camping gets to you, there’s always the option to spend the odd night “upgrading” to more typical accommodation. But I think its an interesting option to include in your budgeting.

    Mind you, having said all that, a hippy bus really does have that “cool” factor!

  10. Great list! I always wanted to buy a Westfalia and just drive and sleep wherever!

    Another great option for accommodations is house-sitting. We have been doing this for the past year around the world and have paid $0 for accommodation. Can’t get much cheaper than that. We are currently in Honduras and in July we have accepted a house sit assignment in Ireland. You can check out how to do this on our website at http://www.hecktictravels.com/housesitting

    Cheers!
    Pete

    • Thanks for dropping by Pete. The blog looks good too. Haven’t yet tries house sitting, but hope to one day.

  11. these are great suggestions for accommodations

  12. I was surprised you do not have an overabundance replies even though you written a noteworthy article which has to be remarked not to mention bookmarked. I’ve book-marked it using the heading: HOW TO: Find Cheap Accommodation for Long Trips and as well shared this among my local freinds.

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