Several weeks ago, I was traveling. In one week, I traveled to Dresden, Berlin, Granada and Budapest. And I spent $0 on accommodation. That’s right. I did not pay a penny the entire week.
But Nina … there must be a catch. I mean come on. You paid something, right? Like you paid $5 a night. Or you got some good discount and you’re calling it “free.” Or … you’re just trying to get us to click on this post, you blogger!
While “How I spent $0 on accommodation for a week” would be some amazing click bait, I promise you that every single bit of that sentence is true. All I want to do is tell you how. As someone who loves to travel and does it on a teacher salary, I am always looking for ways to save money while traveling. It’s kind of a two-part thing. You first save money to travel. Then you save money while traveling so you can travel even more!
How I spent $0 on accommodation for a week
The first part of this story involves a smart phone, the sharing economy and some patience. Have you heard of Couchsurfing? Likely if you’re around my age (late 20’s and early 30’s), you have. You might have even used it when traveling or just to meet new people. It really is quite an amazing community.
What is Couchsurfing? Well it’s an online platform where you can connect with other travelers for accommodation or friendship. Basically through this community, you can find people all over the world to stay with. You figuratively “surf their couch.” The idea is that you stay with a local rather than in a hotel and get to know the culture in a more personal way. It’s not just a free place to stay but also just a human connection.
I used Couchsurfing when I was in my early 20’s with two friends. On a whim, we decided to go to Chicago for Lollapalooza. We found out that we could attend the festival for free if we volunteered. We were stoked. We just needed a place to stay.
I had heard of Couchsurfing before and might have even created a profile. I honestly cannot remember that detail. I just remember that the three of us decided we would try to couchsurf. When you couchsurf, you have to find a host willing to host you. This means that you send messages to them.
However there’s an art to the message-sending. Why? Because couchsurfing is more than just a free place to stay. Like I said above, it’s a human connection. You have to read the host’s profile and show that you have read it in the message. In fact, some hosts will even put things like “mention xxx to show me that you read my profile.” Likely they get inundated with requests daily. I’m sure it can be overwhelming.
What I do is put in my dates and location. I then click on profiles of people who are accepting hosts and read through their profiles. If they seem like a cool person who I would genuinely like to get to know anyway, I send them a request. I start by introducing myself and why I’m coming to their city. Then in the next paragraph I mention a few things that we might have in common or that we could discuss. Things like “I read that you spent some time living in Spain! That’s awesome. I actually currently live in Spain and love it. I’m sure we would have a lot to discuss.”
You can customize your search by more specific preferences. I know as a solo female traveler, I tend to request more women than men. However I will say that in Berlin, I had a male couchsurfing host who was wonderful. I’m not opposed to requesting male hosts. I just go off of the vibe I get.
How do you know it’s safe?
Well there’s nothing guaranteed here. However you can leave reviews for people and they can leave reviews for you, like on Airbnb. If someone has nothing but positive reviews, they’re probably going to be a wonderful host.
Hosts can also verify themselves. This means that they pay a fee of $50 to Couchsurfing and scan their ID. I think they have to enter their street address as well. Basically, a verification is when Couchsurfing says “this person is who they say they are and they actually live where they say they live.” So this is another nice way to feel safe. You could literally only request verified hosts.
Lots of people use Airbnb. The idea is the same here except you pay. However there’s always the possibility of ending up in a bad situation there too. Or you could end up in a bad situation in a hotel … or just walking down the street.
At the end of the day, I love couchsurfing because I’ve met nothing but wonderful people through it. I don’t request every person I see and I exercise caution. If a host is sketchy and I just don’t feel comfortable (which has yet to happen), I can always go to a hostel.
But does making a profile sign me up to host?
Absolutely not. My profile is set to “not accepting guests” right now since I’m not in Spain. The only time I was accepting guests was when I was in college in Kentucky. We had basically no requests. I’m sure being a host in Granada would be quite different. However I will have to speak with my roommate about whether she’d feel comfortable with me hosting this year. I like to be a respectful roommate.
Having a profile does allow you to find others to meet up with. In larger cities, the Couchsurfers will often put together pub crawls and meet-up events. They’re perfect if you want to meet some new people. They’re also great if you’re traveling solo like I was.
In Berlin, I went to this super fun pub crawl with something like 30 people. I also went on this tour led by Syrian refugees about the situation in Germany. It was powerful. Both events were advertised on Couchsurfing.
I couchsurfed twice during this week. The first time was for two nights in Berlin. The couch I slept on was like a bed. It was big and very comfortable. My host was knowledgable about Berlin and just a cool person to talk to. I made sure to buy him a bottle of wine to thank him for his hospitality. We ended up drinking that bottle together and talking about life my second night that I stayed there. Overall, it was an awesome experience.
I also couchsurfed for 4 nights in Budapest. My host was female and had this cute apartment in the city that was right next to public transportation. I slept on a very comfortable mattress on the floor. I slept super well.
I really enjoyed getting to know my host in Budapest as well. She took me to Budapest’s most famous ruin bar called Simpla. She also cooked me this amazing Hungarian dish that’s pasta with a mixture of yogurt and cottage cheese. It sounds weird but it tastes amazing.
Both of my hosts were wonderful people who I hope to see again at some point in my life. Perhaps they will end up in Spain couchsurfing with me one day.
Blogging got me free accommodation
I also stayed in two different hostels while traveling that week. However both gave me a complimentary stay in exchange for a review on my blog. This is something I’ve actually done several times in the past.
As bloggers, we can collaborate and mutually benefit with companies within our niche. If you blog about travel and have readers, you can collaborate with hotels and hostels too. A lot of bloggers think that you need crazy big numbers. However I have had success at landing hostel collaborations in cities like London, Lisbon, Liverpool (apparently also a lot cities that begin with the letter L) and the Azores Islands. My social media following and page-hit numbers aren’t nothing but also aren’t as big as some bloggers.
Businesses are looking for different things. Some will want only bloggers with large followings. However a lot of them care about engagement. Do your followers comment on your content or social media? Is your following engaged? That is what they look for more than anything.
Before a trip, I always reach out to various hotels and hostels. I figure it couldn’t hurt. I’ve also worked with tour companies as well this way.
I also want to note that it is tougher in the high season. This trip is actually the perfect example. I initially had intended to find a collaboration for all three nights in Berlin. The one hostel who was interested told me that they don’t do Friday or Saturday night collaborations during the high season. Since I was going to be in Berlin that Sunday, I figured I might as well see if they would go for that night and then figure out my accommodation for the other two nights.
I’ve actually created a free hotel/hostel comp checklist. Click here to get it!
What about Granada?
I live there. I stayed with a friend.
So as you can see, between the sharing economy, Couchsurfing and friendship, I spent $0 on accommodation for a week.
How do you like to save when you travel?