I love to travel, and when I travel I love to score a deal on where I stay. If you're looking for some unorthodox ways to save money on accommodations, check these out:
1. Find cheap vacation rentals by owners
As longtime listeners to my show are aware, it's now become commonplace when you're looking for a deal to rent a condo or a home directly from the homeowner rather than renting a traditional hotel. I love VRBO.com (aka Vacation Rentals by Owner) and AirBNB.com for this purpose. As the name suggests, this Web site helps you rent straight from the owner -- whether you're talking about a home, condo, cabin, villa or apartment!
I always look for places that are built in last five years (or renovated in the last four) and that have a lot of pictures posted online. Both factors help ensure that the rental will be in tip-top shape. But at the same time, you want to be somewhat wary of pictures of the accommodations supplied by the owner; photography can cover up a lot of sins. Don't be shy about asking for more pictures beyond just what's posted online. What you get initially may be misleading, so watch out!
This is another case where you want to cull the collective wisdom of the public to find a real winner. Make sure any rental you consider is accompanied by a lot of positive reviews from satisfied customers. And only book if you plan to pay by credit card, so you have the right to do a charge-back with the card issues if the accommodations turn out to be not what was promised.
2. Stay with new-found friends for free
I'm not thrifty, I'm downright cheap. But there are some lines even I won't cross. For example, I won't bunk with a stranger. However, it is my duty in my line of work to bring you ideas that could save you money.
CouchSurfing.com is a site that allows people to meet others around the world and stay at their homes for free. It's like crashing at a friend's pad, but you don't know the friend. This site -- which lets community wisdom vet out any potential unsafe travelers or hosts -- is free to use. Talk about doing a good job of making hostels seem expensive!
To tell you the truth, though, I wouldn't have done this even in my young, mostly broke days. But that's just me. A couple of producers on my show, Joel Larsgaard and Kimberly Drobes, had some animated discussions about the possible dangers of CouchSurfing.com when I mentioned it in a staff meeting.
Joel says he has stayed with people he didn't know before, but he didn't meet them through CouchSurfing.com. He does, however, tentatively have plans to try out this site and see how the experience goes.
Kim, meanwhile, found an article on the ABC News site that reports CouchSurfing.com has been around since 2004 and only had one minor theft incident in all that time. The Web site uses a system of reference, vouching and verification to ensure the safety of all its members. While it is not a dating site, CouchSurfing.com has resulted in at least one known baby that's come about as a result of a host/traveler connection!
Fortunately, CouchSurfing.com doesn't have an exclusive corner on the sleeping-in-strangers-homes thing. HospitalityClub.org is another site that's free to use, while EvergreenClub.com is a pay portal geared toward more mature travelers looking for a home in which to crash.
3. Try a home exchange arrangement when traveling
If you're a little wary of staying with people you don't know, perhaps you'd consider staying in their homes by yourself. There are a variety of exchange services that pair families in different countries who want to swap homes for a week or so each year.
HomeExchange.com is the gray beard in the business. If you've ever seen the romantic comedy The Holiday with Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet, this is the service they were using to swap homes in Los Angeles and London.
Homes in the United States are often much nicer and more spacious than accommodations in European countries, so be realistic in your expectations. You can also use the service for domestic swaps. There's a $150 annual fee that gives you the opportunity to make unlimited exchanges for a year.
Other sites that offer similar services include HomeLink.org and SabbaticalHomes.com, the latter of which is geared toward the Ivory Tower crowd.
For more money-saving tips, visit ClarkHoward.com. Money in Your Pocket. Advice You Can Trust.