Traveling for Free: Seven Tips
From Couchsurfing to "Skipped Food," here are seven ways to travel, even if you're broke
By Laura Ricketts
I have been traveling for the past 3 years on a budget. Occasionally someone will ask me, “How can you afford it?”
To those who don’t know, or have only ever been on short, often expensive, holidays, traveling long term can seem out of reach for anyone less than a millionaire.
But I am here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be expensive, in fact, there are even ways to travel for free.
The main expenses for anyone traveling whether short or long term, are food, accommodation, and transport. However, there are ways to get by without spending money on any of the above.
While most people seem to opt for cheap hostel rooms or beds when traveling on a budget, I would suggest giving Couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing.com) a try.
Couchsurfing is a global community of people who are willing to let someone stay in their home for free. Simply create a profile, and have a look for willing hosts in the area that you are headed.
Of course, your potential hosts also have profiles so you can go have a look and see if you have anything in common before requesting to stay. Some have code-words on their profile to ensure that people do not send out blanket requests, so do read each persons’ carefully before asking to stay.
The review system, whereby everyone is able to leave reviews for either hosts or guests, reduces the risks sometimes associated with this kind of travel.
Couchsurfing, though now an enormous community, is still an incredible opportunity to meet local people. Hosts can often give insight into the culture and lifestyle of the country you are visiting in a way that a hostel simply cannot do.
What’s more, they can take you to fantastic places, off the beaten tourist path, that you might never have discovered on your own. I have been shown secret woodlands full of snow-drops in Hungary, been taken to a hidden sauna in Finland, and tried amazing home-cooked food in Kazakhstan.
Yes! Some hosts will even cook for you!
It is good to come willing to share a skill or something valuable when staying with someone. Perhaps you can cook food from your country for your host one night, play some music or help them to practice their English. Whatever your skill, a willingness to share it is part of what makes this community so great.
Even better, when you return home and suffer from the post-travel-blues, you can, in turn, host couchsurfers; paying forward the hospitality you received and meeting more interesting people in doing so.
If you are not such a people person and prefer some time to yourself as you travel, perhaps wild camping is for you. It is not legal in every country, so do check in advance - it is usually possible to search online for the latest information. In New Zealand, it's called 'Freedom Camping."
Even in countries where it is legal, I prefer to hunt for a good camping spot a little distance from the road or footpath I am on.
I have pitched my tent in some amazing places, from the vast plains of northern China to the beautiful lakes of Sweden. Wild Camping allows time to enjoy the place I am in with no distractions, simply watching the world around me unfold.
It is important to remember with this one to leave no trace, making sure to bury any human waste and carry all your trash out with you. That way, the next person can enjoy it as much as you!
Skipping food, or dumpster diving as it sometimes known literally means jumping into trash bins and collecting food that has been thrown away. Everybody who does it has their own standard of “edible food” and whilst I am not suggesting anyone eat week-old moldy vegetables pulled out from a bin, it can be a great way to survive for free.
I have managed to find eggs, pasta, oats, smoked salmon (still in date) and even Lindt chocolate on some occasions. However, the down side to this particular way to eat for free is the lack of choice (meaning some days you are eating nothing but cheese whilst others you have a glut of baked beans). It is also not recommended in very hot countries.
However, if you do want to give it a try; bakeries are particularly good places to look. They often throw out a lot of fresh bread and pastries on an evening as they will be stale by the following morning. Of course, be subtle, and don’t dive into bins during opening hours!
This has to be my favorite – volunteering in return for free food and accommodation. It might not seem like something a traveler would want to do – after all, surely you are trying to escape work?!
However, I have found that this is, without doubt, the most wonderful way to meet local people and get to know them. Not only do you get to stay with them, often in their home, but you get to share their life, working to help them.
Unlike couchsurfing, it provides a framework in which you can give something back to those you are staying with and help to make a difference; whether that is teaching English in Cambodia, helping on a farm in Spain or building houses in the Philippines. There is something for everyone, and even opportunities to learn new skills as you travel!
Cultural immersion, new skills, and beautiful places, what more could you want?
There are a few websites online that cater to those individuals seeking to travel in this way. Try workaway.info and wwoof.net for farming specific opportunities. Both have an initial startup membership fee.
Cycle touring has become an increasingly popular way to travel, and with good reason. Not only is it free (once you have a bicycle of course), but it also allows slow travel, so you can really engage with the environment you cycle through, and the people you meet along the way.
As Lucy, an avid cycle tourer from the UK, says “Cycle touring allows you to travel immersed in your own world, and the world around you...no more metal and glass box between you, [just] the open air, hearing and smelling everything... In short, your trip will become a talking point and you will soon be absorbed in the communities around you.”
The only downside of cycling is setting up to do so can be a little expensive. However, plenty of people have old stuff that they are willing to give away so don’t be afraid to ask on social media. You might be surprised what you find donated. If you can find a way to get there with your bike, you'll have a free way to get around where ever you want to go!
If you don’t have a bicycle or don’t know how to ride one, perhaps walking might be for you? There are hundreds of long trails around the world famous for taking the adventurous traveler through some stunning scenery.
Olli, who has just completed the 3,000km Te Araroa walk that runs the length of New Zealand says, “Go as light as possible, stretch and eat right. Roads suck, hills are good, walking poles are knee savers and cheap stuff falls apart.”
Like cycling, a long walking trip may require an initial expense for the right gear, but once you have it, you can go anywhere you like, and walk as far as you like.
If you’re not such an avid outdoor enthusiast, hitchhiking might suit you better. Like Couchsurfing and working or volunteering abroad, hitchhiking can be a great way to meet locals. In Quebec, Canada I saw many, many hitchhikers, both men, and women, and I was told that it was totally safe up in that remote region.
It is good to have a map with you so that you know where you are going (maps.me can be a really good offline option for your phone) and remember to stock up on food before your journey.
It is also worth having a phrasebook if traveling in a country where you don’t speak the language, as this can often make an otherwise very quiet journey a lot more fun. Everyone loves it if a foreigner gives their language a go so don’t be afraid to make people laugh as they drive you somewhere new!
Enjoy the Adventure
Whatever you decide to do, and however you decide to travel, these ideas can not only save you some money but also make your travels a more enjoyable experience. Traveling on the cheap, or even for free, may not seem like such a hardship when you discover so many incredible experiences this way.
Laura Ricketts is from the UK but has spent the last three years working and travelling abroad. She does not fly, instead, finding alternative ways to travel to reduce her environmental impact and to engage with as much local culture on the route as she can. Her favorite mode of transport is a bicycle. She has worked in Hong Kong, China, and Thailand and writes about her adventures on www.wanderlustforwildplaces.com
If you like the articles we publish, maybe you can be one of our writers too! Make travel plans, then write a story for us! Click here to read our writer’s guidelines.