where to stay on vacation

Ten Ways to Vacay Without the Hotel Stay

Do you find the cookie cutter accommodations of big hotel chains comforting? Do you like to know what to expect, night after night after night, with little or no surprises? If so, this not the article for you. On the other hand, if you like your vacations with a dash of adventure and are ready to immerse yourself in a unique and unexpected experience, read on.

We’ve compiled an eclectic list of 10 alternatives to your run-of-the-mill accommodations. With a little luck, an open mind and some planning, you’ll have yourself an amazing vacation—and possibly some amazing savings that can go toward your next vacation fund.

1. Short-Term Room or House Rentals

There’s no better way to live like a local than to live with one. And with short-term room rentals, you can do just that. The bonus here is that you have your own personal concierge—one who probably isn’t getting kickbacks for recommending a restaurant. And chances are, your host knows the area inside and out. Or, if you prefer the place to yourself, you can rent a whole house or apartment for the same local experience, minus the local. And the price tag? Usually much less expensive than a hotel. A two-bedroom loft that accommodates five people and is just 10 minutes from Manhattan goes for $150 per night. Try finding two hotel rooms for that price.

air bnb

Where to look and book:

  • Airbnb: This popular site offers rooms, apartments, houses and more unique accommodations in more than 190 countries around the world.
  • Roomorama: Similar to Airbnb, Roomorama offers 300,000 short-term rentals worldwide.
  • Craigslist: Craigslist does not have the benefit of customer reviews, and many listings don’t include photos. That said, you can still find some very good deals in their temporary housing section.

2. Home Exchange

Ever dreamed of living in a Manhattan brownstone? Or in a charming cottage in the French countryside? Well, you aren’t using your house while you’re on vacation, so why not let someone else stay in it? In exchange, you get free accommodations anywhere you choose. Sound like a dream? It’s called home exchange or home swapping, and it can be straightforward or with variations. You can stay in someone else’s house while you live in theirs (simultaneous exchange), you can stay in someone’s second or vacation home (non-simultaneous exchange), or you can stay in someone’s house while they’re there (hospitality exchange).

Established sites like HomeExchange.com, and newer sites like Knok, offer online resources that allow you to search for homes and connect with other homeowners. Some organizations, especially the more reputable ones, require a membership fee to list and book, and different organizations have different screening processes. You really have to do your homework beforehand, but the payback is a very inexpensive vacation with all of the amenities—you can even swap cars!

Home Exchange

Where to look and book:

  • HomeExchange.com: HomeExchange.com offers more than 65,000 homes in 150 countries. A 12-month membership is $150, which includes unlimited exchanges and a guarantee that if you don’t do an exchange in the first year, the second year is free.
  • Love Home Swap: Love Home Swap offers three different levels of membership, some with added benefits like airport lounge passes, a personal concierge and more.
  • International Vacation Home Exchange (IVHE): IVHE offers credit trades, direct home trades or a combination of both. Membership starts at $13.25 per month and you can cancel anytime.
  • Knok: Part home exchange, part apartment rental site and part travel guide, Knok advertises its site as the first travel network for families. It’s geared toward families with children, with reviews and travel ideas from other families.

3. Hostels

Although they’re sometimes called “youth hostels,” travelers of any age can take advantage of their cheap rates and central locations throughout the world. Accommodations are often several beds in a shared dorm room, but some offer private rooms at rates less than low-end hotels. Hostels aren’t the best option for families, especially those with small children, but can be ideal for single travelers or couples who are willing to keep it clean in the shared quarters.

Where to look and book:

  • Hostels.com: Like any booking site, you can search by country and date. There’s also a travel blog on the site, along with travel guides and a section dedicated to booking groups of 15 or more.
  • HostelWorld: HostelWorld boasts 30,000 properties in 180 countries and more than 3.5 million guest reviews. In addition to a travel blog, travel guides and group bookings, it also has sections for bed and breakfasts, and hotels.

4. Monasteries and Convents

Yes, really. No, you won’t have to wear a habit or become a devout follower, but you may have a strict curfew and will be expected to respect the faith and the community in which you are staying. You may be expected to attend the major masses and keep the noise to a minimum. In return, you’ll get a small, clean room with functional, but sparse furnishings, and a thoroughly unique cultural experience. In countries like Italy and Tibet, where religion is an integral part of the cultural identity, you’ll gain a whole new perspective from a rare vantage point. Prices range from $30 to $200, and private baths are the norm. But don’t even think about shacking up with your boyfriend or girlfriend—many monasteries and convents don’t even allow unmarried guests to share a room.

Stay at a monastery

Where to look and book:

  • A Basic Overview: Reidsguides.com gives you more in-depth information on what you can expect when staying at a convent or monastery.
  • Monastery Stays© : Monasterystays.com allows you to search for and book monastery stays throughout Italy. One-on-one agent help is also available, and there are plenty of reviews for each property.
  • Good Night and God Bless: Search for monastery guesthouses and convents all over the world under the “Accommodation” section. Although the site doesn’t include customer reviews, it does include listing and contact information.

5. Academic Housing

Even if you don’t want to relive your college days of kegstands and all-nighters, you can still get a great deal on a dorm room. Widely available all over the world in the summer when school is out of session, the rooms are basic, but clean and adequate. If you’re okay forgoing luxuries like air conditioning (most don’t have it) and private baths, academic housing may be a good fit. The perks include all of the restaurant, bar and entertainment options that often surround colleges and universities at a price tag that can be as low as $22 a night.

Where to look and book:

  • Reidsguides.com: This site offers an excellent section on academic housing, including a long list of links to university housing resources in Europe.
  • UniversityRooms.com: Although not the most robust site, it’s worth a look and includes college and university rooms in select areas throughout the world.
  • bigfuture: This site allows you to search for colleges and universities by location. After you locate a college or university in the desired area, visit the school’s website and contact them directly.
academic housing

6. Farmstays

Howdy, city slicker! Care to cut your teeth on an authentic farm experience? Then this is the vacation for you. Great for families and singletons alike, a farmstay offers a unique opportunity to observe, learn and contribute to day-to-day activities on a working farm. A wide selection of lodging is available—from camping and guesthouses to staying right in the family home—and breakfast is included in most cases. Rates are usually much less than your average hotel room and may include amenities like fire pits, air conditioning, wifi and a full kitchen.

Where to look and book:

  • Farm Stay U.S.: This comprehensive website includes farmstay options all over the country. You can search by region or state, type of farm and number of guests.
  • Farmstay U.K.: This booking site offers farm bed and breakfasts and self-catering cottages on farms throughout the United Kingdom.
  • Top Farm Stays 2015: Yahoo lists the nine top farm stay vacations for 2015 from all across the globe—California, Slovenia, the U.K. and more.

7. Couchsurfing

This is not that annoying thing your nephew does when he’s bored and feels like jumping on furniture. Couchsurfing is a free travel alternative that’s ideal for anyone who is very social, wants to make new friends and doesn’t mind “sharing” the life of their hosts—meaning you hang out with your hosts and their friends. The accommodations are not standard and include couches, spare rooms, a mattress on the ground, whatever. Of course, there are a few horror stories of guests and hosts that were less than courteous. But did we mention it’s free?! Just be careful. Trust your instincts, read online reviews of hosts and always have a backup plan just in case.

Where to look and book:

  • Couchsurfing International, Inc.: This is pretty much the go-to website for couchsurfing. You can stay with people from all over the world and offer up your couch in return.
  • Interesting Article on Couchsurfing: The New Yorker wrote an article a few years ago on Couchsurfing that describes a first-hand account of the practice—both the good and bad side of it.

8. Bed and Breakfasts

Somewhere between renting a spare room and a hotel stay is the bed and breakfast. There are many kinds all over the world. Some offer packages that include dinner and drinks or tours of the surrounding area, and some have on-site restaurants that are open for lunch and dinner—but all offer a full breakfast with your stay. If you hate the idea of sharing a bathroom, request a room with a private bath.

In most bed and breakfasts, the hosts are courteous, attentive and more than willing to give you information on what to do and see in town. The experience is more personal than a hotel, but slightly more upscale and expensive than just renting a room in someone’s house.

Where to look and book:

  • BedandBreakfast.com: From the lap of luxury to quaint and modest houses, BedandBreakfast.com lets you search internationally for a bed and breakfast by date, criteria, location and number of guests.
  • BnBFinder.com: The same kind of site as BedandBreakfast.com, BnBFinder.com also offers a good selection of packages to suit every interest under their “Specials” section.
  • Airbnb: There are many bed and breakfasts featured on this popular site. Just choose “Bed & Breakfast” under “Property Type” after entering the location.
Stay at a Bed and Breakfast

9. Camping

The oldest way to stay, camping is something everyone should try at least once. You may hate it, you may love it, but one thing’s for sure—nothing brings out the true nature of people than, well, nature. Sitting around a campfire with no wifi or television inspires the most interesting conversations ever. Plus, there’s something about waking up in nature that makes life feel simpler and more manageable. But you don’t have to go all-out, on-the-grass, under-the-stars camping. Many campsites offer cabins, showers, indoor plumbing and even hot water. And many kid-friendly campsites have pools, activities and games the whole family will love.

Where to look and book:

  • Reserve America: Find a campground, get camping tips and guides, and learn where to get gear with this comprehensive camping resource.
  • Best National Park Camping: The Travel Channel lists the best camping spots in the U.S. by type, including beach camping, forest camping, RV camping and more.
  • Go Camping America: Find parks and destinations, get ideas for games, learn about what to bring and more on this camping-focused site.
  • 25 Best Camping Spots in the World: If you’re looking to explore other countries while camping, here are 25 of the best spots from all around the world.

10. Volunteer Opportunities

Sure, a spa treatment and a day at the beach feel good. But does it feel as saintly, selflessly good as volunteering your time to help someone else? Nope, it doesn’t.

Now, before you start rolling your eyes like we’re asking you to donate a kidney, hear us out. This is not altogether altruistic. For a few hours of labor, you get free accommodations and meals—and yes, a little bit of old-fashioned righteousness to boot.

Here’s how it works: You work for a set number of hours a day in exchange for free room and board. The rest of the time is yours to do as you wish—exploring, sightseeing or just plain lounging around. But the work isn’t your average 9 to 5. It’s sometimes hard, often fun and always rewarding.


Where to look and book:

  • WWOOF: WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms and links organic farms and growers with volunteers who help with such chores as sowing seed, making compost, gardening, planting and cutting wood.
  • Appalachian Trail Conservancy: All-volunteer trail crews tackle large-scale projects such as trail relocation and rehabilitation, and bridge and shelter construction. In exchange, they are provided with food and basic shelter.
  • The Caretaker Gazette: This online newsletter posts new caretaker and house sitting jobs daily.
  • The Underground Guide to International Volunteering: This book—available online and in print—was written to help volunteers sort through the many volunteering opportunities and find an overseas placement that’s legitimate, enjoyable and beneficial for everyone involved.