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.
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
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
Intuitively, 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
That’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
Not 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.