Traveling for free sounds too good to be true. And in some cases, it is.
If you’re set on the specifics (location, time of year, accommodation, etc.), it can be difficult to lower the price tag.
But if you’re willing to compromise and be flexible, you can easily reduce the price of your trip.
In this guide to traveling for free (or otherwise lowering the price), you will discover how to organize a trip that will cost little to nothing!
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The Ultimate Guide to Traveling for Free
It’s probably the hardest to find freebies for transportation.
You’re more likely to reduce the cost rather than get rid of it altogether, so let’s get this one out of the way first.
Compare planes, trains, and buses
This should go without saying, but if you have more than one possible mode of transportation at your fingertips, then compare compare compare!
You should look into websites that will do the work for you.
I personally use:
- Wanderu to compare trains and buses in the US
- GoEuro to compare trains, buses, and planes in Europe
- Rome2rio to compare all types of transportation, including ferries, in South America
(FYI: Rome2rio is an excellent comparison tool for anywhere in the world, not just South America.)
Of course, any mode of transportation is going to cost something, but finding the cheapest one is a good first step in lowering the price tag as much as possible.
(If you want to learn more in depth on how to save hundreds of dollars on planes specifically, take a gander at 12 Ways to Find the Cheapest Flight Possible.)
Look into carpooling
Carpooling is a lesser used mode of transportation, but it gets the job done just as well.
To find a legitimate carpool, you can use BlaBlaCar. Simply plug in your departure, arrival, and date.
The site will then generate a list of people who are driving to or around your destination on the preferred day, with at least one extra seat in their car.
Each driver will have their own profile with reviews from past carpools. I’ve used BlaBlaCar several times in France, and have never felt uncomfortable or unsafe.
And the cost is usually on the cheaper side, especially if there’s more than one person in the carpool.
Note: BlaBlaCar is only available in certain countries.
Look into discounts
No matter what form of transportation you take, look for discounts applicable to you!
I always look for student discounts. Even if you already graduated, you can still use your student ID as verification.
You can also look into discount memberships. This will initially cost you a good chunk of change, but it may be worthwhile, depending on how much you use it.
For example, when I lived in France, I bought a “Carte Jeune” (Youth Card) for 50 euros, and saved about 30 euros each time I took the train across the country to Paris.
Note: This will only be worth the investment if you use it enough so that your savings cancel out the initial cost of the membership.
Use rewards system points
Regardless of the transportation you use, make sure to sign up with each company’s rewards system. This should absolutely cost you nothing.
As you continue riding with or flying with these companies, you will gain points that you can use to lower the cost of a later ticket.
If you save up enough points, you could be looking at a FREE trip.
Of course, keep in mind you can only use the points you earn with the corresponding company.
Be flexible with when and where you’re going
The fact of the matter is, some destinations are going to be cheaper than others, and every destination’s price will fluctuate throughout the year.
It’s worthwhile to do some research beforehand, and to consider destinations that will cost you less.
If possible, you should also plan on traveling when the tourist season for any one location dies down.
Essentially, going against the grain will be better for your wallet.
(Again, more info on this in 12 Ways to Find the Cheapest Flight Possible.)
Consider hitchhiking (or not)
Last (and probably least, to be honest) is hitchhiking, the only completely free form of transportation.
This is a personal call.
I’ve never hitchhiked, and I’ve heard stories about hitchhiking that range from enlightening to life-threatening. I think this entirely depends on the circumstances (where you are, who you’re with, etc.).
Bottom line: If you’re comfortable, go for it. If you have no other option and absolutely need to leave, go for it. If you have any inkling of doubt, DO NOT go for it.
Free transportation is great, but your safety and wellbeing take priority.
You’ve probably heard of hostels and AirBnBs as cheap alternatives to hotels, but there are a few options that cost you NOTHING.
Couchsurfing is a website that connects travelers with hosts for FREE. You simply create an account on the website and search for a host in the city you’re staying in.
Each host will have their own profile, including whether or not they’re verified, and reviews from other people who’ve stayed there.
Even though it’s called COUCHsurfing, you can choose to look exclusively at hosts who have an extra, separate room for you.
Once you find someone who fits your criteria, you send a request (similar to AirBnB), which they choose to accept or deny.
Oftentimes, whoever’s hosting you will even show you their corner of whatever city you’re in, giving you an inside look at where you’re staying!
If you’re serious about Couchsurfing, you will want to create a reputable profile.
To show that you are, indeed, real, you should upload several decent photos of yourself, fill out as much info on your profile as possible, and request other people you know on Couchsurfing to be your friends.
I also highly recommend that you shell out a one-time fee of $60 for your ID, phone number, and address to be verified.
Verification not only leads to otherwise locked features (like unlimited messaging), but it also increases your chances of a host accepting your request.
According to the website, you can find a host up to 2x faster when verified.
Think about it. Would you want to stay with a complete stranger who’s not verified?
I’m sure your future host feels the same way.
And lastly, as common courtesy, you should bring your host a little trinket from wherever you are (think something cheap, like a postcard).
After all, they are welcoming you into their living space for free.
Another way to find accommodation for free is by house sitting. Yes, people leave their houses and you get to stay in them.
You don’t usually get paid for this, and you will probably have to look after their pets or plants, but it’s FREE accommodation.
You can go on sites like TrustedHousesitters to find a potential house that needs sitting.
Like with Couchsurfing, you will want to work on making your profile as reputable as possible so that when you send out a message, you seem like a real person.
It’s also important to have a few references on your profile.
If you have no experience in house sitting, you can still ask a recent employer to write a recommendation for you, focusing on the qualities of a good house sitter (trustworthiness, responsibility, etc.).
You can find out more info on how to find success as a house sitter in TrustedHousesitters’s article, Top 10 Tips on How to Become a House Sitter.
I’ll be candid. Overnight transportation is not glamorous.
I have done overnights on both buses (with a bunch of old, crotchety people) and planes (with a bunch of crying, screaming babies).
But it takes away a whole night of accommodation, meaning your trip just got a lot cheaper (not to mention the price of your transportation becomes more bearable).
As long as you bring your survivor pack, complete with a traveling pillow and earplugs, you’ll be okay.
(For more extensive tips on overnights, head over to 15 Essentials to Survive Long Flights — these tips work just as well with trains and buses.)
Staying with people you know
When traveling, I try to find cities where I already have friends or family. It’s a no brainer.
And if all of your people are quarantined to the same town, there’s no harm in asking them if they know anyone who would be willing to let you crash on their couch for a night or two.
Networking, my friends.
(For even more free options, check out How to Find the Cheapest Accommodation Possible.)
I know what you’re thinking. Packing’s already free, right? Right.
But there’s some preventative measures you should take when packing, which will save you money later on.
Follow the height, weight, and width restrictions
Every transportation company, be it plane or train or bus, will technically have luggage restrictions.
You should look up these restrictions ahead of time to ensure that your luggage is within the correct height, weight, and width dimensions.
To be honest, I’ve never had an issue with my luggage on a bus or train. The restrictions just don’t seem to be very well enforced.
Airplanes, on the other hand, are a bit trickier.
Checked bags are always…well…checked. So you will definitely want to make sure any checked baggage is within the correct dimensions.
This is ultra important, because if your bag is too heavy or too large, you will have to pay an extra fee.
(If your luggage is overweight, head over to 12 Ways to Find the Cheapest Flight Possible for some tips to avoid that extra fee.)
As for your carry-on and personal item, you should have more leeway with these.
I’ve always used a backpack and tote bag, neither of which have ever been checked by any airlines (or buses or trains, for that matter). Of course, I can’t guarantee the same for you.
(For more extensive tips on carry-ons specifically, make sure to check out How to Pack a Carry-On Like a Pro.)
Bring a reusable water bottle
I’ve never been one to believe in buying anything you can get for free. As such, buying plastic water bottles literally makes my soul cringe.
Instead, I highly recommend investing in a reusable water bottle (preferably one with a filter).
I bought a Brita water bottle when I first lived abroad, and it worked perfectly (up until I lost it…).
Contrary to popular belief, you can bring a water bottle onto a plane. Just make sure it’s empty before you go through security, then fill it up at a water fountain or in the bathroom sink (this is where the filter comes in handy).
Bring anything else you don’t want to pay for
My pet peeve purchase is plastic water bottles.
If you have anything you absolutely hate buying (preferably something disposable), bring a reusable version from home.
For example, another pet peeve purchase of mine is pads (seriously, why are they so damn expensive?).
So, I invested in reusable period underwear (highly recommend), and use that instead.
These reusable versions will always save money and space, not to mention their environmental benefits.
Leave empty space
Regardless of how many pieces of luggage you’re bringing, make sure to leave extra space. This will account for any souvenirs you bring back.
For the record, I always tell myself I’m not going to bring back that many souvenirs.
And as always, I have to cram some things and sacrifice others because yes, I do end up bringing back that many souvenirs.
Take it from a repeat offender: you will bring back that many souvenirs. Account for it ahead of time, and you won’t have to worry about the extra weight.
Bring back no-cost souvenirs
Instead of buying shot glasses and t-shirts, bring back something that you can get for free.
I’ve brought back pressed flowers and sand, paper placemats and (unused) napkins, etc. Each of these will come with their own memories attached, and cost nothing!
(Confession: I splurge on postcards, because they’re super cheap and I have no photography skills.)
Tourism is an industry.
As such, lots of attractions will cost money. I’m not saying that you should avoid every tourist attraction.
But, you should determine how badly you want to do the attraction vs. how much you don’t want to pay for it, and go from there.
Luckily, there are some ways to potentially reduce the price of these attractions, as well as find cheaper (and free) alternatives.
Research free attractions
Lots of museums in Europe have free admission, or at least let students in for free (something to do with placing the value of culture over capitalism).
Again, if you’ve already graduated, use that ID card regardless.
There are also tons of free walking tours, which are exactly what they sound like: A “volunteer” tour guide brings a group of people around the city, sharing knowledgeable tidbits along the way.
This is one of the first things I do when I get to a new city.
The tour guide usually has their own tips for saving money, and you’re always welcome to ask for their recommendations at the end of the tour.
Note: Although these tours are free, everyone is invited–nay, encouraged–to tip the guides at the end of the tour. I usually give between 5 and 10 bucks (or whatever currency applies) depending on how dynamic they were.
Each city will have its own specific freebies, so do some research and take advantage!
Look for discounts…again
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, look into applicable discounts.
If being a student doesn’t automatically give you the get out of jail free card (emphasis on the “free”), it should at least be able to get you discounted prices.
One of my favorite pastimes is sitting on a park bench, and simply watching what unfolds around me. Why?
Because humans are weird.
And on another level, the humans I’m watching (hopefully not in a creepy manner) are often from a different culture.
With different cultural norms, I’m bound to see or hear things that are just unusual for me, but completely normal for them.
For example, when I lived in Argentina, I would watch (and sometimes partake in) groups of people passing around a little gourd filled with an (extremely bitter) herbal drink.
Everyone would take a sip from the same straw, whether you were friends or strangers.
At first, this was SO weird for me, as my hygiene-obsessed American-ness made me very aware of ALL THOSE GERMS passing from mouth to mouth.
But this is a cultural norm in Argentina, where communal sharing is prioritized.
People watching will not only amuse you, but it should also give you some cultural insight, which is really the whole point of traveling, right?
And if you’re not into people watching, then just go to a park bench and read a book.
Live Like a Local
9 times out of 10, a local will not spend as much money as a tourist.
Of course, you’re there to tour a new place, so you don’t want to completely adapt to the local lifestyle. But even following only a few of their customs will be sure to save you some money.
Walk instead of taking public transportation
Walking obviously costs you nothing, and it forces you to slow down and really see the city (not to mention it helps you hit the recommended 10,000 steps).
If you’re trying to get to a certain destination or are just wandering, make sure you do a little bit of research first. Every city will have its own “rough” parts, which you’ll of course want to avoid.
(Couchsurfing hosts and tour guides will especially come in handy with this information.)
Take public transportation instead of a taxi/Uber
And if your destination is too far for walking, don’t be afraid to take a subway or bus instead of hailing a taxi or ordering an Uber.
Public transportation will be much cheaper, and sometimes more efficient.
If you know you’ll be taking public transportation quite a bit, you should look into buying tickets in bulk.
For example, if you buy 10 tickets ahead of time, the total cost may be cheaper than buying a single ticket 10 separate times.
Again, ask your Couchsurfing host or tour guide for their insight.
Buy your food and drinks from a grocery store
To avoid shelling out dozens of dollars every time you want a meal, buy groceries at a local store instead of eating at restaurants.
You can probably fund a whole week’s worth of meals with money that would be spent in one day at a restaurant. Not to mention you’ll find much healthier options.
The same rule applies for alcohol.
Instead of going out and spending tons of money at a bar, it’s much cheaper to buy a bottle of wine and drink in the company of your new friend (assuming you’ve now made friends with your host).
Research whether or not you’re expected to tip
If and when you do go to a restaurant (let’s be real, you’re not going to want to cook all your meals), research ahead of time whether or not you’re expected to tip.
Most countries pay their servers an actual decent wage (revolutionary, I know), so tipping isn’t expected.
(And in some cases, it’s even considered rude.)
Don’t fall into tourist traps
Unfortunately, there are always going to be people trying to exploit tourists. (To be fair, the tourism industry itself is pretty exploitative, but I digress.)
In Argentina, my taxi driver tried making me pay twice the normal fare. In Morocco, a vendor tried making me pay quadruple times the average price for a scarf.
In Ireland, a guy tried getting me to sign up for something sketchy using very personal information. In Chile, a group of women tried opening my purse to take my money, under the pretext that they wanted to give me a “gift.”
My point is, you have to look out for these traps no matter where you go.
(DISCLAIMER: For as many exploitative stories I can spin, I have even more heartwarming tales of locals who have helped me out in times of need.)
Advocating for yourself will depend on the situation.
For example, since I was the only one in the taxi, I felt safer simply paying the extra money and internally crying about it later.
But in Morocco, where haggling is customary, I was able to bring the price back down (and walked away with a BEAUTIFUL scarf–the one in my About Me photo).
Don’t feel like you have to do something just to be polite (for example, giving away personal information to a sketchy stranger).
And don’t be afraid to walk away from a situation (for example, when multiple hands are trying to reach the zipper of your purse).
As always, your safety comes first, and saving money comes next.
Phew! We covered a lot in this guide to traveling for free (or otherwise lowering the price). To sum up the best ways to travel for free:
- Transportation: This will be difficult to find for free, unless you’re comfortable with hitchhiking or have racked up tons of rewards points
- Accommodation: Look into Couchsurfing or house sitting, stay with people you know, or book overnight transportation
- Packing: Make sure your luggage is within the correct dimensions, bring reusable things from home rather than buying new ones on your trip (i.e. a water bottle), bring back free souvenirs
- Entertainment: Do free walking tours, look into free attractions, use applicable discounts to get in for free, people watch
- Live Like a Local: Walk walk walk, avoid money-munching tourist traps
And if you’re interested in traveling for free longterm, check out 13 Jobs that Pay You to Travel. You’ll discover jobs abroad that pay for your transportation AND provide accommodation AND give you a wage!
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