Top 5 Alternative Accommodation Sites You Should Be Using
Next time you travel, ditch the hotel and pick a home, couch, hostel, or farm of your choosing instead. Not only is it cheaper than a hotel (most of the time), but it allows you to see your destination like you've never seen it; connecting you with the locals and dropping you right in the center of local neighborhoods and hang out spots. If you haven't already caught on to the hottest, newest, or free alternative accommodation websites, here's your guide to them.
This is probably one of the oldest alternative accommodation sites out there, and by now you've probably heard of it. Sure, there are some horror stories out there, but for the majority of Couchsurfers their experience is both positive and free. Yes, free! Couchsurfing in practice works on the principle of reciprocity. That is, your host offers you a free place to lay your head, and in return you provide them with a pleasantly social experience. The goal is to build cross-cultural relationships globally and make friends while traveling. Couchsurfers are also encouraged to host people in their own homes, although this is not a requirement. With over 10 million users (and counting) in over 200,000 cities in every country, there is no shortage of potential hosts wherever you end up.
To use Couchsurfing you will need to set up a profile and give up most of the same information you would for a dating site or social media. The more information you have on your profile, the more likely you are to have successful matches. Your potential host will also have a profile and picture, or description of the sleeping accommodations (sometimes it's a couch, sometimes it's a bed or even a whole apartment). If you have friends on Couchsurfing already, they can provide positive references (particularly if you link through your Facebook account). Positive references act as a safety check both for you and your host. As a new Couchsurfer, scroll through the city you want to go to, find locals with similar interests, or who you think you may get along with and send them a request. Always tailor your request to each host and try to find hosts with numerous positive references.
While not free, Airbnb is still a cheaper alternative than hotels, particularly in larger cities such as New York, L.A, or Chicago, where the cost of a hotel room can quickly get outrageous if you're not willing to slum it in a Motel 8. Having access to a home kitchen also helps cut costs by allowing you to make your own meals. Launched in 2008 and now in over 190 countries, Airbnb lets you rent a room, whole apartment, or house from locals (the tree houses for rent are worth checking even if you choose something more down to earth).
Accommodations can be searched based on rooms or entire homes, and listings tend to have most of the information you may have questions about (parking, security deposits if any, check in and check out time, cleaning fees, etc.). Hosts and travelers both rate each other after the stay, which means you can read reviews before you stay, while also protecting hosts from less than ideal guests.
As with Couchsurfing, you will need to set up a profile; however, Airbnb tends to be less involved. Profiles for hosts and travelers are verified through Facebook, Google Plus, or LinkedIn. Payment is handled through Airbnb itself, and not handed over to the hosts until after the first 24 hrs of your stay, making sure that you're both happy with the accommodation and arrangement first. Most hosts tend to be very helpful leaving handy guides or offering personal suggestions for food, drink and entertainment.
3. HomeAway.com and VRBO.com
Owned by the same parent company, HomeAway and Vacation Rentals by Owners (VRBO) both allow you to rent homes from their owners. These sites are less personable than Airbnb or Couchsurfing and tend to have owners who have been renting secondary homes for a long time, or professional management companies with national and international properties. They, however, have the same cost saving benefits over traditional hotels, while allowing you to choose a vacation home that is more personalized to your needs. These sites are particularly handy if you're planning a large group vacation, family get-together or even a professional retreat as they tend to offer larger homes with amenities galore.
The sites are also easy to maneuver and work much like Airbnb, but with fewer requirements. You can search listings without a profile, and when you're ready to book, simply set up a profile using your email address and payment information. Like Airbnb, home owners have traveler reviews; unlike Airbnb, guests do not receive feedback from the home owners. It is unlikely that you will meet the home owners during your stay. However, hosts tend to leave handy guides and local recommendations allowing you a taste of what the locals enjoy.
Hostels can seem like scary, intimidating places for the novice, but they offer a cheap alternative. If you are traveling alone or internationally, hostels are also a great way to meet other people with shared interests. Staying in a hostel doesn't mean that you have to stay in a dormitory style room with 6-8 strangers either, as most hostels offer a variety of rooms and sometimes even private rooms. While in L.A with a friend, we stayed at a hostel in West Hollywood in a private room with a private bathroom and balcony for $45 each a night. You really can't beat that.
If you're willing to give hostels a try, Hostelz.com is your go-to site. The site offers a database of 49,332 hostels in 8,991 cities. The site lists information on hostels globally, offering prices and availability, and whether or not the hostel uses an online booking system. Because the site lists hostels free of charge, it also means that the playing field is leveled and no one hostel can out-buy another's placement or ranking. There are also handy reviews from Hostelz.com professional reviewers and real travelers to help you narrow down your choices. Booking on Hostelz.com is as easy as booking a hotel, with no profile required and (required, and) they offer reward points for every booking made through their site.
Wwoof, which stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, is for the far more adventurous and seasoned traveler. The concept involves connecting volunteers with organic farms globally where they provide work in exchange for free food and accommodation. If you have an interest in food, organic farming, or cultural immersion, Wwoof is a unique opportunity to experience the world, learn from and live with the people in it. The site does charge a fee for travelers looking to find hosts, with the fee dependent on the region of the world you would like to travel to, and averaging about $30.00 annually.
Using Wwoof does entail more planning than your usual trip, but Wwoofers (as they're affectionately known) report a genuinely amazing experience unlike any other. The first step to Wwoofing is to set up a profile and select a region where you would like to participate. Once you've done this, you gain access to all the farms looking to host travelers, and what type of assistance they are looking for. Per the Wwoof website, “In most countries the exchange is based on 4-6 hours help-fair exchange for a full day’s food and accommodation.” How long you stay and what you do while Wwoofing is up to you and your host. If you're new to farm work or the site in general, it's a good bet to start small to make sure you are able to live up to expectations.
By Kari M.
Kari is a freelance writer born and raised in Nairobi and currently living in the Midwest. When not mulling too deeply over things, she is making lists out of her lists. You can follow her on Twitter @the_warm_fruit.