Traveling for Free: Home Exchanging in Panama!

There are many, many methods and resources to travel for free — methods, tips and tricks that we share in detail, with links and examples and thorough explanations, in our book.

DSC_2207Of course, we have our favorites and most-used. These include utilizing frequent flyer miles for airline tickets, and scoring free accommodations through home exchange and bartering. We are currently in the middle of a 7-week trip in South and Central America — in Panama at the moment — where we have utilized all of these methods for pretty-close-to-free travel.

First of all, we scored next-to-free airline tickets using mileage points. We accumulate a LOT of mileage points, mostly through credit card offers that give us 25K, 50K or more in miles. And we just charge the minimum amounts required on the cards to be awarded the miles, by charging regular expenses that we would incur anyway (groceries, eating out, car and house repairs, medical bills, etc). So far this year, we have accumulated over 140,000 in airline miles and have three new offers in the works (which should give us another 130,000+ miles).

With these miles, we were able to book FIRST CLASS tickets from Austin to Quito, Ecuador. We explored Ecuador for several weeks, then came to Panama and will venture on to Costa Rica in about a week. Our return first-class flight is out of San Jose, Costa Rica. Our total cost for these tickets? About $35 for the fees.

DSC_2216In Panama City, for the last week we’ve been staying in a high-end, high-rise luxury condo through a home exchange. The exchange is non-simultaneous — when we knew we were coming to Panama, I contacted several listings on to see if they would be interested in exchanging for my Austin place. The owners of the Panama City condo we’ve been staying in were already traveling during our proposed dates, anyway — so they let us stay here, in exchange for them staying in my Austin condo at a later date. Total accommodation cost? FREE.

Dinner - Langostino and mussels from El Mercado de Mariscos! Delicious and cheap.

Dinner – Langostino and mussels from El Mercado de Mariscos! Delicious and cheap.

And besides the free place to stay (and a GREAT place at that, two bedrooms with a building rooftop swimming pool and gym), home exchanges can also save you money on food because you have a full kitchen at your disposal. We bought breakfast items at a grocery store 2 blocks away, as well as ingredients to make several delicious dinners in — all for a fraction of the cost of eating out every day.

We also bartered to receive several hotel stays for free, during this trip — in our case, because we are a travel photojournalism team, our barter was to write about and photograph the properties in exchange for a few nights’ accommodations. But bartering can work for all kinds of things, as we outline in the book; particularly with very small, individually run inns, hostels or guest homes. What skills or expertise can you offer? Many such places will exchange for work, whether that be painting and renovation, cleaning, legal services, marketing or website design, and much more. Our book lists numerous barter/exchange networks that can get you started.

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Enjoying our favorite meal of the trip, at Tiesto’s in Cuenca Ecuador. Still only $25!

Is this trip completely free? Of course not — we have enjoyed ourselves, spending money on attractions and recreation, buying a few souvenirs, eating out (mostly very economically, affording a few splurges here and there) and we have paid for several accommodations at inexpensive hostels or small inns.

But the bottom line is how we define FREE TRAVEL. Sometimes people post comments or send us questions debating our term “Travel for Free,” as if that means every single thing won’t cost you a penny. To us, the definition of traveling for free means that we can travel the world while spending the same amount of money, or less, than if we had stayed at home.

During this trip, I have my condo back in Austin rented out, so I am not losing rent money while I’m traveling. Add up all the other small costs we’ve spent on this trip and compare it to what we would be spending if we were home, on eating out and groceries and gas/car money, and we are definitely not spending more money to be having exciting adventures in Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica.

Traveling for free is the best way to go!


About Shelley Seale

Shelley is a wanderer and student of the world, yoga chick, voracious reader and dog lover. She pounds the keyboard as a freelance writer, author and publication designer, based in Austin, Texas when she isn't traipsing around the globe. Shelley has written for National Geographic, USA Today, The Guardian, The Week, Fodor's, The Telegraph and Texas Monthly, among others. Shelley has performed a catch on the flying trapeze, boarded down a live volcano, and was once robbed by a monkey in India. But she doesn’t know how to whistle.
This entry was posted in Accommodations, Airfares, Airline Points, Central America, Frequent Flyer Programs, Home Exchange, Hostels, Money Tips, South America and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Traveling for Free: Home Exchanging in Panama!

  1. Pingback: Friday Travel Dreaming – 8/9/13 | How To Travel For Free (or pretty damn near it!)

  2. Geoff Silve says:

    Home exchange is a wonderful system! I actually use for home swapping and travel, and it’s been a joy. What a great way to stay anywhere with free accommodations, right?

    Anyway, thanks for the great post!


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