The Internet has changed travel. Sometimes hasn’t been for the better (one just needs to see how many people are checking Facebook in a hostel to agree) but it has allowed people to share, connect, and collaborate in ways that haven’t been possible before.
And for the budget traveler and culture enthusiast this change has been terrific. There are now so many more ways to travel on a budget as well as get the most out of your destination and learn the hidden secrets of the places you are visiting. Here are some top notch sites and services (some old, some new) that you can use to travel cheap and connect with locals.
Hospitality networks have been around for decades but were really popularized with the creation of Couchsurfing. Founded in 2004, this old standby really took advantage of the web and brought together travelers and locals. It connects travelers with locals who are willing to give them a free place to stay (couch, room, floor, etc) and get a local perspective on a destination. It popularized hospitality networks and, with 7 million members, is now the biggest. I don’t use the accommodation service that much anymore since I like my own space, but I still value it as a resource to meet up with locals (you will find a lot of group meet-ups on the website). Some similar sites are Be Welcome, Hospitality Club, and Global Freeloaders.
For cyclists, check out the website Warm Showers, which is a free hospitality exchange for cyclists.
Hotels are expensive and maybe hostels aren’t your thing, so what’s the next best choice? Renting someone’s apartment (or a room in it)! On apartment sharing/rental websites, you can rent a room, couch, or whole apartment at much cheaper rates than a hotel room. Plus, you’ll have a local host to show you around and a kitchen to prepare meals. It’s the best middle ground between hostels (and Couchsurfing) and hotels. I think Airbnb offers the most robust inventory for finding a spot in someone’s house and I prefer them the most, though it’s important to always check all the rental sites because, unlike hotel sites where properties appear over multiple websites, listings are at the owner’s discretion and some owners list their property on only one site. Similar services include VRBO, HomeAway, Wimdu, and Roomorama.
Camp in My Garden
Camp in My Garden is a UK-based website started in April 2011 that is slowly expanding around the world. Its simple premise: connect campers to people who will let them camp in their backyards for a small fee. You have to bring your own camping gear but most properties will let you use their facilities (no peeing behind a bush!). Locations are found predominately in the UK and Europe but the site is gaining traction around the world.
Eat With Locals
This relatively new website allows you to eat home cooked meal with locals. Eatwith lets locals post listings for dinner parties and specialty meals that people can sign up for. There is a fee (everyone sets their own price) and you can pick from a variety of meals (depending on what the person wants to cook). The dinner parties are small and a chance to do something different, pick a local’s brain, and make a new friend. Eat With A Local, Meal Sharing, and Colunching are similar websites worth using.
The Ghetto Gourmet is an older version in which locals organize free dinner parties. It’s not as widespread, but it’s the free option.
Share a Ride
Need a ride? Check out Lyft or Sidecar and get locals to pick you and drop you off where you need to go. It’s about 30% cheaper than a taxi, though rates are “suggested” donations and the companies take a commission. I prefer it to Uber since they don’t have surge pricing (i.e. increased rates during busy times), it’s not a car rental service, and it’s less formal.
Share Someone’s Car
Need a car for a few hours? Rent someone else’s. Getaround allows you to rent people’s unused cars by the hour. Renters and owners are vetted by the company, who also insures both parties in case an accident happens. It’s a good cheap alternative to more traditional car rental services. Rates start at $7 per hour. The downside to this website is that it is only available in a handful of U.S. cities. A more established service is ZipCar, though they are based mostly in U.S. cities.
Another alternative is FlightCar. FlightCar lets people parking at airports rent their vehicles to other travelers. All cars are insured up to a million dollars and users are verified and checked out ahead of time. If you are a traveler, this option lets you make some extra money for future travel. Like Getaround, it is only in a few U.S. cities. Other companies include:
- Liftshare (based in the UK)
- Mitfahrgelegenheit (German based)
- Gumtree (UK/Australia/NZ)
- Kangaride (Canada)
- BlaBlaCar (Europe)
Rent Anything You Need
Need a tent for the day? A bike? A ladder? Skis? A beach chair for a few hours? Rent it from people who aren’t using theirs. Instead of buying new products, temporarily rent people’s unused stuff at a lower rate. It’s cheaper than buying something you may only need once or twice on the road and creates less waste. Websites that facilitate this service allow you to travel a lot lighter. Two websites that facilitate this are Zilok and Snapgoods.
Get a Personal Tour Guide
Want to take a tour with a local expert? Connect with local guides and hire them for unique experiences through the website Vayable. A rating system for the guides allows you to know in advance if the guide/tour is worth your time. I enjoy and like this site because it allows you to experience niche, offbeat and interesting tours that bigger tour companies might not run (like a street art tour in Los Angeles). Plus, the groups tend to be very small, making for a more intimate experience. Local Guiding is another similar and good website.
The rise of “the sharing economy” has made it so much easier for people (especially travelers) around the world to connect with each other. People can now advertise and promote their local services and knowledge that allow travelers better access to destinations, people, and services in a way that saves people a lot of money and creates a more unique and intimate travel experience.