Hostels, camping grounds, budget motels. If you’ve ever traveled on a shoestring (or on no string at all), you’re probably well aware of the many places where you can stay on the cheap. But there are also many places where you can stay for free — just as long as you put a little sweat into it. In fact, working to earn your stay isn’t just about saving money. Doing so is one of the best ways to integrate more deeply into a culture and experience all it has to offer firsthand. No one will treat you like a tourist when they’ve watched you move bales of hay around all day!
From the city to the country, land to sea, here are our top 5 picks for places you can stay for free after doing just a little labor.
Just like babies and pets, houses need sitting, too. On sites like HouseCarers, Mind My House, or Trusted Housesitters, homeowners looking to take a vacation or go on sabbatical advertise their homes along with the tasks they’d like a house sitter to perform. This could mean everything from letting the dogs out to tilling the garden to simply taking the mail in. Just make sure to read the requests carefully, as some can be more demanding than others, and it may not be worth the free accommodation. One other caveat here: you’ll probably need to stay for at least several days, not just one night.
Ever noticed a surplus of foreign workers in bars you’ve visited both at home and abroad? Many bar owners provide free accommodation to traveling workers right above the establishment. While some will prefer longer term workers, many are happy to take in a dishwasher or busboy/girl for the night. As long as you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and get scrubbing, you could have a free bed!
3. Farms and Ranches
One of the most popular places to work for a free night’s stay is on farms or ranches. Many travelers use an organization called WWOOF (Worldwide Organization of Organic Farmers) to find pairings with farmers worldwide looking for help. Destination farms are varied, from that little organic patch right in the heart of the city to that rugged, rocky soil right at the base of a mountain. You can choose to stay on one farm for months or to travel between many. If you love getting outside, contributing to the sustainable farming movement and getting to eat delicious, healthy food, then WWOOFing might just be for you. However, if you’re going to be around heavy farming equipment, it might be worth investing in a good trip insurance policy just to make sure you’re covered if any slip ups should happen.
The high seas can be an expensive love. Sailboats are a small fortune to purchase, not to mention all the resources needed to keep up with maintenance costs. But catching a ride on someone else’s sailboat in exchange for labor? Now that’s a good deal! If sailing is an abstract dream to you, start by taking sailing lessons. Then log on to a site like Find a Crew to see just who is searching for help, where they’ll be headed, and for how long they’ll need help. Narrow the choices with your own preferences, like whether or not you’d like to stick to the East Coast or sail all the way around the world. Before you sign up for anything, make sure to inspect the boat for signs of neglect, like too much rust or frayed rope. If it passes the inspection and you like the owner and crewmates, voila! You’re ready for a working adventure (and many nights’ free stay) at sea.
5. Hostels and Hotels
Not surprisingly, one of the most common places that travelers work for their stay is hostels, where long-term shoestring travel is baked into the culture. Working at a hostel can mean everything from checking in guests to scrubbing toilets and washing the sheets to manning the bar. Use sites like HostelWorld or HostelBookers to identify fun looking hostels on your route and email the owners to ask about openings.
Hotels are also a good option, though their form of work for accommodation tends to differ slightly. For example, hotels love to be reviewed by popular bloggers, and if you’ve got a big platform and are eager to write throughout your stay, you might not only get a free room but other perks as well. Some hotels also reward even more creative work. The Clarion Hotel in Stockholm, for instance, accepts artwork as currency as a part of their Room for Art program. Hey, if you’re an artiste at heart, this one might not even be work for you!
There are many more ways to work your way into free accommodation while traveling abroad, especially if you plan on being away for awhile. Most experiences won’t require you to work more than four hours a day, allowing you to both explore the culture in a new way and indulge in more traditional tourism. For the greatest breadth of experience, sites like Workaway and HelpX are invaluable resources. So make your free accommodation bucket list, start emailing and begin fantasizing about your free time away!
Leah Kaminsky studied and worked in London in 2005 and 2007, and took a round the world trip after college. She writes blogposts, web copy and white papers for marketing companies and small businesses. She is also the founder and head writing consultant at Just Start Applications, a company that helps high schoolers, college and graduate students tell their unique stories. Her fiction writing and terribly drawn comics are available on her blog.