Between the ages of 25 and 27, I traveled to 41 countries. My globetrotting mission was twofold:
- Learn as much as I could about happiness and the human condition from the widest possible variety of geographical, socioeconomic, and cultural viewpoints so I could disseminate and share my findings with an increasingly disenfranchised generation struggling with mental illness.
- Stay in decent places without going broke.
Bullet #2, surprisingly turned out to be the more challenging goal of the pair. Everyone I spoke to, from business owners in Bhutan to Buddhist monks in Mississippi, gladly shared their wisdom for free (or, for a small bribe of oolong tea).
So the wisdom came free.
The travel, of course, didn’t.
Anyways, I ended up publishing everything I learned while researching Bullet #1 in The Millennial’s Guide to Making Happiness.
But I’ve never precisely sat down and published everything I learned in Bullet #2.
So, after years of cavorting with like-minded, penny-pinching globetrotters, what are the best travel hacks I’ve picked up? Should you stay in hotels, hostels, Airbnbs, or something else when it comes to affordable accommodations?
And finally: what’s it like to stay in a capsule hotel, where your personal space can best be defined as a human-length washing machine?
Before you book: five travel accommodation money hacks
Before choosing which type of accommodation is right for you, consider these travel hacks to help guide your decision!
See what travel discounts your credit card does (and doesn’t) offer
Even if you don’t have a travel rewards card, you’d be surprised how rewarding your regular rewards card can be while you’re on the move.
For example, the Chase Freedom Flex℠ isn’t considered a travel rewards card, but it still grants access to booking through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, where you’ll get better rates on flights, hotels, and rental cars. Plus, you get 5% cash back on all purchases.
A good chunk of modern cards include up to $25,000 worth of trip insurance. Check your card’s terms and benefits to see if you already have:
- Trip Delay/Cancellation Reimbursement.
- Lost/Delayed Baggage Insurance.
- Emergency evacuation coverage.
Conversely, you’d also be surprised how many travel rewards cards don’t include no-brainers like trip insurance and cash back. And if your card offers 3% cash back on “Travel,” be sure you know what that does (and doesn’t) include. For example, “accommodations” may only include certain hotel chains, not hostels or Airbnbs.
If you’re in the market for a new card, check out Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards: Snag Up to $1,000 in Travel.
Stay in small towns, not big cities
Small towns aren’t just charming; they’re cheap.
Virtually all forms of accommodation are more affordable in the suburbs than in the big city. After visiting the Arctic Circle, I wanted to stay in Stockholm for a few days…until I discovered that the cheapest Airbnb was $168/night.
So instead of the beating heart of the city, I stayed in the cute little suburb of Knivsta for $39 a night. Combined with a $22 train ride to Stockholm, I saved $100 a night – enough to buy 1.5 beers in Sweden!
Book your stay for the middle of the week, and be mindful of local holidays
Generally speaking, hotels and Airbnbs are cheaper in the middle of the week when there’s less demand. If it makes no difference to you, consider looking at dates a few days before and after your general target date to see if there’s a steep price drop.
Also, be mindful of the major holidays in your target destination. I couldn’t find out why rates were so high in Jaipur, India, until I spoke with a hostel owner, and she clarified that it was due to an upcoming local festival.
Mix and match your accommodation types
As we’ll cover in detail below, each type of affordable travel accommodation has its own distinct advantages: hotels offer privacy, hostels have more young people to chill with, etc.
So why not mix and match so that you can maximize the perks of each?
Let’s say you have three days in Istanbul before the next big leg of your journey. You want to relax and refresh, but you also want to meet people and explore the city together.
- If you book a $100 hotel for three nights, you’ll be comfortable, but you may not meet anyone your age to hang out with.
- If you book a $30 hostel for three nights, you’ll meet cool people in the lobby, but you may end up a little drained and exhausted before the next big leg of your journey.
So here’s what I recommend:
- Book the hostel for the first two nights ($60) and then treat yourself to a $200 hotel for night three. This way, you’ll still get the social experience of a hostel, and you’ll have 500-thread count sheets to look forward to. Best of all, you’ll save an extra $40 to spend in the Grand Bazaar.
Book with a youth-oriented travel company
They don’t pay me to say this, but I’ve booked several multi-country odysseys with G Adventures and have only had overwhelmingly positive experiences. For a flat fee, all of your local transportation, accommodations, daily activities, your guide, and most of your meals are taken care of.
Booking group travel is also much cheaper than booking everything on your own since you’ll be getting group rates everywhere you go. It’s also much safer, and you get the added benefit of having a diverse, built-in friend group upon arrival.
Where to stay? Your five options for frugal accommodations (plus pros and cons of each)
When you’re traveling on a budget, you’ll typically have at least three of these five types of affordable accommodation to choose from:
- Capsule hotels.
- Couch surfing.
Generally speaking, hotels will be your most expensive option no matter where you go.
Even still, the ancient concept of “inns” still holds value for modern, budget travel. Having stayed in hundreds of hotels ranging from $12 to $1,200 a night, the first word I think of when I hear “hotel” is privacy.
Hostels, capsules, and most cheap Airbnbs are all shared spaces. You may have a private room in a cheap Airbnb, but you’ll likely share at least a bathroom.
A hotel room, by contrast, is a private sanctuary. You can take refuge, fully decompress, and let your shoulders loose during a hotel stay.
There are also things you can only do in a hotel room that you can’t do in any other form of affordable lodging on this list – be intimate with your partner, sing loudly in the shower, etc.
- Safety and privacy – Hotels are pretty much the only option on this list where you’re guaranteed to be alone and have your own bathroom. That alone might motivate you to exclusively book hotel stays, and you wouldn’t be judged for it!
- Housekeeping and fresh towels – Hotels all over the world have housekeeping services that will provide clean sheets and fresh towels upon request – and believe me; fresh towels can be a rare and precious commodity to weary backpackers.
- Predictability – I don’t have many “stories” from the hotels where I’ve stayed, if you get my drift. Like fast-food restaurants, hotels worldwide try to provide a dependable and straightforward experience with no surprises.
- Expensive – Except for a few fancy Airbnbs, hotels will typically be your most expensive option in most places. They also rarely offer free WiFi or complimentary breakfast, which hostels often include free of charge.
- Busy – Hotels have a broader appeal to a wider range of travelers than hostels or cheap Airbnbs, so availability may be limited – especially for last-minute arrangements.
- Lonely – On a more personal note, I’ve typically felt the most lonely while in a hotel room. Privacy is a double-edged sword, and it’s harder to make friends when you don’t have a hostel lobby full of Gen Z travelers or a chill Airbnb host to show you around.
If you’re willing to pay a small premium for privacy, a hotel may be the right fit for you.
Traveling to a foreign land is already a leap outside your comfort zone, so no one would judge you if you wanted to decompress in a private sanctuary after a long day of adventuring. As fun and eclectic as hostels are, I was very grateful for the few nights I spent in hotels during my long travels.
Hostels are travel inns for young people, consisting of big, shared rooms with anywhere from four to ten bunk beds each.
There are also a few shared bathrooms with showers, a communal kitchen, and common areas to chill and meet folks. Many hostels even have slick rooftop bars where you can relax and overlook the city.
Hostels may not be the most private, but they’re the #1 accommodation for young travelers for a few reasons:
- First, hostels are cheap. Even in major cities, my experience has been that hostels rarely cost more than $30 a night, but most are around $15. Living in a hostel is cheaper than paying rent back home.
- Second, hostels are gathering spots. Most hostel guests have similar goals: to make friends with other solo travelers and explore the area together.
“We’re going to check out Thai boxing, who wants to come?”
“Hey! I’m Juan, this is Astrid and Maya. Where are you from?”
I’m still good friends with many folks I’ve met in hostels – even some I only spent 24 hours in. That’s why I recommend that in each city you visit, try to spend at least one night in a hostel.
- Cheap – In my experience, hostels can cost as little as $30 a night, averaging around $15 – so they easily cost a fraction of the nearest Airbnb or hotel.
- Social – The fastest and easiest way to make friends in a new city is to head to your nearest hostel. They’re typically a magnet for outgoing young travelers eager to form groups and explore the city together.
- Unique and cool – Hostels can be filled with art, feature rooftop bars, and more. No two hostels are the same.
- Lack of privacy – While some hostels have a few private rooms, you’ll most likely be sharing a big room full of bunk beds as well as a communal bathroom.
- Curfews – For safety and noise control, many hostels will have nighttime curfews starting between 11 pm and 1 am – which may make late-night check-ins difficult.
- Potentially loud – One in four adults regularly snores, and hostels can often have up to ten guests in a room. Bring earplugs.
Hostels are ideal if you don’t mind trading privacy for cost-savings and companionship. I’ve had the most fun at hostels, but after a few days couldn’t wait for a private hotel room!
Airbnb and Vrbo
In terms of pros and cons, cheap vacation rentals are a nice hybrid of hotels and hostels. You’ll get the benefit of having your own private space without paying full price for a hotel room, and if you have a fantastic host, you’ll connect with someone like you might at a hostel.
The “challenge” with booking a cheap Airbnb, however, is that you have two factors to weigh:
- The room.
- The host.
Out of 50-plus Airbnbs I’ve booked under $50 a night, I’ve only ever stayed in one “bad” room with too much light and a squeaky mattress.
But my experience with hosts has ranged from life-changing to slightly terrifying.
Half the time the host is awesome and we stay friends.
Half the time I never actually see the host.
- Semi-private for less than the cost of a hotel stay – Airbnbs can offer the privacy of a hotel for a much lower price.
- Hosts can make a stay magical – Superhosts often go above and beyond – feeding you, acting as tour guides, and more.
- Access to amenities – Depending on the specific booking, you might have access to a kitchen, a full-sized fridge, and more.
- Pricier than hostels – You’ll pay more for an Airbnb, but the bed will be comfier and quieter.
- No housekeeping – Unlike a hotel, Airbnb hosts generally won’t clean your room while you stay. You pay a flat fee for a cleaning crew that comes in when you leave.
- Hosts are a grab-bag – Your Airbnb host could become your next best friend, be a weirdo, or anything in-between.
If you’d like more privacy than a hostel but don’t want to shell out $100+ a night for a hotel room, an Airbnb is the perfect compromise. Just be sure to thoroughly research your hosts and ask questions!
As the name implies, a capsule hotel is basically a really comfy morgue for the living. Having launched in Japan in 1979, the concept has spread to India, Poland, Belgium, China, and more.
Capsule hotels are usually priced around $30 a night – similar to hostels – and consist of rows of “capsules” containing A/C, power sockets, a TV, and a shockingly comfy bed.
The beds are comfy because capsule hotels are like hostels for business travelers. They’re pragmatic and sterile – not a place to hang out like a hostel.
So while they’re comfy and cost-effective, you wouldn’t book a capsule to socialize.
- Cheap – Capsule hotels typically cost little more than a hostel – $18 to $40 a night – and are significantly cheaper than hotels in the same city. They also tend to have decent WiFi.
- Surprisingly comfy – Capsules cater to adults, so the beds are surprisingly plush. My capsule bed in Tokyo was the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in outside my own.
- Novel – If you’re traveling the world you’re probably seeking out novel experiences, and staying in a capsule hotel definitely checks that box.
- Claustrophobic – If you’re uncomfortable in tight spaces, don’t even consider a capsule hotel (as if you were up until this point!).
- Not a social destination – Capsule guests are not there to make friends, but rather, save a buck on a business trip (or sleep off the booze before going home).
- Still lacks privacy – One in four adults regularly snores, and capsule hotels can have dozens of sleepers within audible range. Bring earplugs.
I’d recommend staying in a capsule if you’re looking to save money in an expensive city without sacrificing a comfy bed. Its two biggest value propositions, after all, are comfort and cost-savings – as long as you’re not claustrophobic!
Last but not least, couch surfing is basically a free Airbnb. Friends, family, family friends, or even complete strangers offer you a place to stay out of the kindness of their hearts.
You can’t beat free, and couch surfing offers many of the best benefits of Airbnbs and hostels. If you’re lucky, you’ll get your own bedroom. Plus, chances are that anyone offering respite for a weary traveler will offer you food and companionship, too (be sure to offer to fetch/pay for ingredients!)
However, the drawbacks to couch surfing can be steep:
- It’s hard to “book” couch surfing stays – I’ve actually never once had luck booking through sites like Craigslist, TrustRoots, or Couch surfing.com, possibly because I had no ratings yet.
- You may quite literally get just a couch, and your sleep quality is far from guaranteed.
- You’ll have to work around someone else’s schedule. If they’re up by 5 am, and asleep by 9 pm, you probably are, too.
All this being said, I’ve had the most success couch surfing with family friends. After having no luck with the couch surfing sites and apps, I simply reached out to my extended family:
“Does anyone have contacts in Japan I could stay with?”
Turns out, my Uncle’s roommate from business school had a friend in Shiga Prefecture near Kyoto. But that loose connection was good enough for Yoshi, who was kind and gracious enough to let me stay with his beautiful family in the Japanese countryside:
It never hurts, then, to simply ask your network if anyone has a connection in your destination country.
Asking to stay with them might be uncomfortable, so you can start by asking for recommendations for places to stay – and if they offer a place to stay, bingo!
- Free – You can’t beat free, although you should think of kind ways to pay the family back (pick up groceries, help with chores, or even just a heartfelt thank you letter)
- Quiet – One of the underrated perks of couch surfing is that you’re often in a whisper-quiet home-y space versus a chatty hostel.
- Hosts can be awesome – Chances are that if they’re hosting an international traveler, your couch surfing hosts will spend some time connecting with you.
- Hard to “book” – Couch surfing is nice to have when you can find it, but finding opportunities is the hard part.
- Comfort isn’t a given – You may quite literally get just a couch, and it can be awkward/uncomfortable to ask specifics before you arrive since you don’t want to sound ungrateful.
- Unpredictable, unreliable – As well-intentioned as couch surfing hosts are, things happen – spouses disapprove, there’s a family emergency, etc. – and you may be kicked out at any moment.
If someone offers you a free stay, you should definitely consider it – especially if you think you’ll get your own bedroom and you know and trust your hosts (the latter is more pertinent for solo female travelers).
Booking the right travel accommodation – one that merges value and social connectedness without sacrificing comfort and privacy – can seriously double your enjoyment of a trip. Trust me, you don’t have to stay in smelly sketch motels to save money. By mixing and matching hostels, hotels, Airbnbs, and more, you can sleep on a king one night – and party like one the next.
Featured image: Shutterstock.com/ Pajor Pawel
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