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How I saved over $4,000 on accommodations in one year of travel

Reader Mail: Trisha, what a great life of adventures! I am very jealous of all your travels and I don’t know any Filipino who is as well-traveled as you are. Cheers to that! I’ve been following you since 2014 and noticed that you always get free accommodations. Is this because of your blog? I know you also do family stays but I am a very shy person. I want to overcome this by traveling. Do you have any advice on how I can get free accommodation and at the same time immersing myself in a culture like you are doing? Thank you so much!
– Nicole, Philippines

 

This is not financial advice but recently, I’ve realized that I haven’t paid for any accommodation since I started traveling South America. 17 months of traveling paying for nothing (accommodations) is all because of volunteering and making friends on the road. I slowly computed all these, analyzed the different methods I used and I found out that I saved over $4,000 USD on accommodations!

So here it is. I am going to tell you the history of my accommodations for over one year of travel. I am not really good in Math but I tried my best to explain each item by including the host, accommodation type, number of days, hostel price per night (by city), and the amount of money I saved. I also included a brief history of how I met these people while traveling.

The connections are amazing and I am quite surprised I made them through friendship! Some short stories about how I got free accommodation. I actually never planned this but when I was a young backpacker in South America, I was determined not to pay for accommodations because I did not have that kind of money.

However, this did not hinder me from traveling the region for 3.5 years. Here are the best moments and experiences I cultivated, the friends I made on the road, and the languages I learned while I am on it.

How I got free accommodation in one year of travel

Couchsurfing in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Sao Paulo was my first destination when I went to South America. It was a very strange period of my life so I didn’t really have a lot (financially) and I was gambling on something I wasn’t sure of. Going to a place where you know no one and you don’t speak the language is very challenging but I pushed myself to survive a different environment.

free accommodation

My Couchsurfing host, Livia also introduced me to most of her friends! / Sao Paulo, 2013

  • Nightly hostel bed rate in Sao Paulo: $10. I stayed with Livia for 3 months so if you think about it, that’s $900 USD saved on accommodations!
  • How I met my host: I never really wanted to try Couchsurfing in South America. I was 22 and was told there’s a lot of danger in venturing in this kind of free accommodation for travelers. So, I picked a girl host. She was the only one I contacted and after a few hours, she said yes right away!
  • How I spent my time in Sao Paulo: Livia works in a government office during the day so I have the house to myself. I was working 8 hours a day but at the comforts of her home. I walked her dog whenever I wanted a break from work and I also got to know Sao Paulo better. We ate out three times a week and I got to meet most of Livia’s close friends. Every Wednesday, we attended Couchsurfing meet-ups and had occasional drinks in the neighborhood. Some weekends, her family comes to visit so I was able to spend time with them, too!
  • Other expenses: Eating out, buying personal stuff, night outs, bus/train fares.

After Sao Paulo, I explored some parts of Brasil like Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, Pouso Alegre, Iguazu and Ouro Preto. All expenses in this trip are mine since I was able to save money when I was Couchsurfing in Sao Paulo.

Family stay in Barranquilla, Colombia

Barranquilla is not always on the list of places to visit in Colombia but I decided to go there to stay with the family of one of my friends. A small city where Shakira hails, Barranquilla is located in the northern part of Peru and relatively close to the famous port city of Cartagena.

Read: What’s it like to live with a Colombian family

My extended family in Barranquilla, Colombia. I met all their family members!

  • Nightly hostel bed rate in Barranquilla: $12.22
  • How I met my host: I got exposed to Couchsurfing at a very young age. When I was living in an apartment in Makati, Philippines, I hosted this Colombian girl called Andrea. At the time, she was working in China as a Zumba instructor and had a short trip to the Philippines. When I told her I am planning to go to Colombia, she told me that I will stay with her family and she won’t accept no for an answer. I ended up living with her family for 3 months while she was still in China! And it definitely let me save money on accommodation during that time.
  • How I spent my time in Barranquilla: Cultural experience on a different level. Andrea was the only one in her family who spoke English fluently. She was still living in China when I stayed with them so communication was pretty hard because I had to learn how to speak Spanish in order to communicate with her family. This pushed me to learn Spanish and after three months, I was fluent! I lived with them for free (including food, including everything) so the least I can do is to put any effort into talking to them. I participated in all their family activities – eating out, grandmother’s birthday, Christmas dinner 2013. I was literally part of the family.
  • Other expenses: Personal stuff only. Food & transport were free.

After Barranquilla, I traveled to some places in Colombia like Cartagena, Santa Marta, and Taganga. All expenses in this trip are mine since I was able to save enough when I was staying with a family in Barranquilla.

Volunteering in Medellin, Colombia

Medellin rings as the home of the infamous Pablo Escobar, the star of this hit series Netflix but I honestly didn’t think that it will emulate the same TV setting. Bagged as the city of eternal Spring, there is no perfect time to visit Medellin but every day.

Related: The digital nomad guide to Medellin
free accommodation

Hostel workmates and guests. Julien (2nd from the left) lives in Mexico and we’re still super friends right now!

  • Nightly hostel bed rate in Medellin: $11.91
  • How I met my host: The hostel I worked in was newly opened so they were always looking for last-minute volunteers. I found them through a volunteering website.
  • How I spent my time in Medellin: I did reception work for them during the day (with blog work in between) and during the night, I took the hostel guests to bars and parties. I met most of my closest friends in this hostel and we are still in touch up to now! The owners are our age and were very much up for anything the volunteers suggested. During my free time, I had the chance to explore the city, also with the hostel guests. Everyone is so random we just did whatever we wanted.
  • Other expenses: Eating out, buying personal stuff, night outs, bus/train fares. Food was provided for the volunteers.

After Medellin, I traveled to some places in Colombia like Guatape, Bogota, and finally Cali to cross the border to Ecuador. All expenses in this trip are mine since I was able to spend less when I was volunteering in Medellin.



Volunteering in Quito, Ecuador

Colombia-Ecuador was my first real hardcore overland crossing so I was pretty excited to get to Quito. I didn’t have any plans to go to Quito. The idea of the trip was to get to Colombia and Quito was the easiest (and most popular) option.

free accommodation

Super old picture of the hostel gang in Quito. But we’re complete!

  • Nightly hostel bed rate in Quito: $10.50
  • How I met my host: Like the hostel I worked in Medellin, I also found this listing through a volunteering website.
  • How I spent my time in Quito: Reception work. I dealt with guests and mostly everything they needed. The people I volunteered with are also my friends up to now! After our shifts, we went out for drinks and did a lot of eating. We cooked together, slept together, did crazy things together – this is one of the best things that can happen to the young person I was.
  • Other expenses: Eating out, buying personal stuff, night outs, bus/train fares. Food was provided for the volunteers.

After Quito, I traveled to the south where I got to visit Cuenca, Baños, and coastal cities like Montañita and Guayaquil. From Guayaquil, I crossed the border to Peru and stayed in Mancora for a while. All expenses in this trip are mine since I was able to save money when I was volunteering in Quito.

Homestay with a friend (of a friend) in Lima, Peru

Lima, the capital of Peru is full of life and of course, gastronomic choices. Always in the ranking of the 50 World’s Best Restaurants, Lima is one of the food capitals of the world that we don’t know much about. Aside from that, the nightlife is alive as a lot of young people opt to live here.

See also: The best things to do in Lima, Peru

free accommodation

  • Nightly hostel bed rate in Lima: $15 USD
  • How I met my host: When I was in El Nido, Palawan some years ago, I met a Peruvian guy called Salvador and we kept in touch ever since. When I told him I was going to Peru, he introduced me to one of his close friends (Guillermo) via Facebook and I stayed with him for the short period of time I was in Lima.
  • How I spent my time in Lima: Through my host, Guillermo, I was able to get to know the nightlife and young vibe of Lima.
  • Other expenses: Eating out, buying personal stuff, night outs, bus/train fares. Food was provided by my host.

Volunteering in Paracas, Peru

Just a 3-4 hours drive from Lima, Paracas is one of the coastal towns that are often skipped by tourists. It’s very small, quiet and home to Paracas National Reserve, the so-called mini Galapagos of South America. Most visitors come here for a Kitesurfing Holiday as its strong ‘surf-able’ waves have a good reputation around the world.

free accommodation

The best year of my life was in Paracas. I can write an entire book about my stay in Paracas!

  • Nightly hostel bed rate in Paracas: $10
  • How I met my host: I found this work exchange gig on a volunteering website. I worked there for 4 months and the following year, I went back and they offered me a paid job as bar manager!
  • How I spent my time in Paracas: Probably the craziest days of my life! Since it’s a hostel bar, I drank (of course!), I met friends, shared my life with a bunch of volunteers who are more or less have the same vibe as me, lived by the beach, lived the good life. Think about all the craziest things that can happen to a young person: that sums up my life in Paracas.
  • Other expenses: Eating out, buying personal stuff, night outs, bus/train fares. Food was provided for the volunteers.

After Paracas, I slowly made my way to Cusco where I got to briefly stop (1-2 weeks) in places like Ica, Huacachina, Nazca, Arequipa, and Puno. All expenses in this trip are mine since I was able to save money when I was volunteering in Paracas.

Volunteering in Cusco, Peru

Finally, I arrived in Cusco with the dream of climbing Machu Picchu (I did it twice but that’s a different story). I signed up for a 3-week volunteering gig because I want to get used to the altitude of Cusco. If you are climbing Machu Picchu and you are not physically fit like me, you need to acclimatize because you might have difficulty with the Machu Picchu trek if you do it right away. Cusco used to be a very sad and cold place for me but when I stayed longer, I got to discover a lot of many ‘young’ things in Cusco. It really is so much fun!

  • Nightly hostel bed rate in Cusco: $15
  • How I met my host: I found this work exchange gig on a volunteering website. Maya is an Israeli cook married to a Peruvian who decided to live in Cusco. More than Peruvian, I learned a lot of Middle Eastern dishes from her. She generously shared her recipe and I was really happy working with her.
  • How I spent my time in Cusco: Probably the craziest days of my life! Since it’s a hostel bar, I drank (of course!), I met friends, shared my life with a bunch of volunteers who are more or less have the same vibe as me, lived by the beach, lived the good life. Think about all the craziest things that can happen to a young person: that sums up my life in Paracas.
  • Other expenses: Eating out, buying personal stuff, night outs, bus/train fares. Food was provided for the volunteers.

Volunteering in La Paz, Bolivia

Straight from Cusco, I crossed to Bolivia by land together with my friends whom I volunteered with in Paracas. 7 of us wanted to travel together and we started our luck in La Paz.

Traveling with the same people from Peru to Bolivia. This was the first week that the cable car in La Paz opened. The rides were free for a week!

  • Nightly hostel bed rate in La Paz: $11
  • How I met my host: Walk-in. Since there were 7 of us, it was nearly impossible that one volunteer host will take us so we started walking in. Leading the team, we went to several hostels and I explained to the bar managers our working dynamics – we are a good team because we’ve worked together before. I was firm when talking to the managers: it’s 7 of us or nothing. In the end, we found something that took us all! One of my mates was even offered a managerial job!
  • How I spent my time in La Paz: I say this a lot to everyone: In my head, I had a picture of Bolivia as a very backward country and living in the old age but La Paz is different. There was a very vibrant nightlife although food choices were limited. I couldn’t believe I lasted this very cold city!
  • Other expenses: Eating out, buying personal stuff, night outs, bus/train fares. Food was provided for the volunteers.

Couchsurfing in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

A sporting event like the FIFA World Cup will entail double the usual prices. Everything was so expensive because Rio de Janeiro was kind of the main host city as it is home to the Maracana. Even if I did have enough money to go through a full month of not working, it was still quite a heavy load because everything was unreasonably priced.

free accommodation

After 2014, I stayed with Thais again in 2015 and 2016!

  • Nightly hostel bed rate in Sao Paulo: $25
  • How I met my host: I rented a shared space outside Copacabana and Ipanema (literally outside, but still Rio) so every time I watch the games and drink with friends, I have to travel by bus for 40 mins to get there. On top of that, I also should leave early because the bus schedules suck. The last trip to my shared apt is at 20:00 – games are not even halfway finished at that time! Remember I worked in a hostel in Medellin? I told you we hang out with guests a lot and one of those guests was a French dude who was also at the World Cup the same time I was! We were really close and when he found out I was traveling that far every day, he asked his host if I can stay with them a few days a week if I want to spend more time in the beach area. His host is a darling. We clicked and she ended up hosting me for 90 days!
  • How I spent my time in Rio de Janeiro: Another chapter of crazy. World Cup is one of the best things that ever happened to my life. Up until today, nothing beats that. Rio de Janeiro is a very young city and I really think it’s a good place for young people to live. Although expensive, you can always find ways on how to make it work like everyone else. World Cup was only for a month. In the two remaining months, I dedicated myself to being creative, meeting more people, and of course, applying for a visa to Uruguay, my next stop.
  • Other expenses: I paid for everything except for accommodations.

After Rio de Janeiro, I slowly made my way to the south of Brasil to cross the border to Uruguay. I was able to visit Santa Catarina, Iguazu, and the surf area of the south-west.

Local family stay in San Jose, Uruguay

Uruguay is definitely not on people’s bucket list and I honestly did it because it was on the way of the route I was taking. But when I came, I realized there were a lot of things to discover and cultures to savor in the unknown grandeur of Uruguay.

Read: What’s it like to live with an Uruguayan family?

free accommodation

  • Nightly hostel bed rate in Montevideo: $25
  • How I met my host: I remember this vividly: it was my birthday month so I wanted to put a different twist to my travels. I want to stay at someone’s house (with a local family) to learn how to cook and improve my Spanish better. I posted in Couchsurfing: “I need a host but not an individual. I need someone who lives with a family.” In today’s Couchsurfing setting, everyone’s living on their own and it was very unlikely that I will get someone who still lives with their family. Andres, the first message I received in my inbox was pure magic. He said he asked his parents, they said yes, and 14 hours later, I found myself in their humble abode.
  • How I spent my time in Montevideo: I learned how an Uruguayan family speaks, cooks, eats, and sleeps. I never did any touristy stuff while I was there because I can always save it for later. I did everything the family did – from visiting their grandparents to another city, to hanging out at a friend’s place to going to concerts, shopping for groceries, etc. I lived with them the best way I knew how. I participated in the family.
  • Other expenses: Personal stuff only. Food & transport was free.

After the family stay, I took a few days to get to know Uruguay better. I visited Punta del Este, explored beaches, hitchhiked, met more friends, and finally took a ferry ride to Buenos Aires. It was a good time to travel alone.

Staying with people I met while traveling in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Did you know that Buenos Aires is one of my favorite cities in the world? I was really excited to be here. I had so much fear that I won’t be granted an Argentine visa because I don’t have a job and proof of funds is slowly declining. In the end, the Argentine consulate in Montevideo gave me 72 days!

free accommodation

My favorite Argentines forever! Lio and Luciano are my super friends up until today!

  • Nightly hostel bed rate in Buenos Aires: $12
  • How I met my hosts: Just as Buenos Aires is my favorite city, most of the people I met while traveling South America (and eventually became friends with) are all living in Buenos Aires. I only had 2 weeks to stay there and almost 4 people volunteered to host me in their homes. I didn’t want to say no to everyone so I divided those days to each one of them. I stayed with (1) Daniela (my host family in Barranquilla) for 3 days; (2) Mauro and Mili, a couple I met while working in the bar in Paracas for a week; (3) And Lucio, a backpacker I met while traveling Taganga, Colombia for a week. It was a bit tiring to move every now and then but still, I was able to see everyone!
  • How I spent my time in Buenos Aires: A lot of eating (I mean a lot), crazy nightlife and loads of concerts!
  • Other expenses: I paid for everything except for accommodations.

4 ways on how to get free accommodation

#1: Couchsurfing

You will see lots of my articles mentioning Couchsurfing a lot because I really maximized this platform! My long-term friends are all from here and I assure you, this will happen to you, too. “You have friends all over the world, you just have not met them yet.” This is what I learned through my Couchsurfing journey and up until today, I still use this platform!

free accommodation

Now with regards to safety, many people who travel solo always ask me: how would you know if it’s safe? There are many Couchsurfing crimes that happened over the years but my best advice is to stay with people who are verified and have reviews.

I know that sometimes, you’re in a rush to find a host because you’re trying to save money but my rule of thumb is to only stay with people who have more than 10 references. In the beginning, I also just stay with girls but I realized there are lots of good male hosts, too! You will come across them if you read their profile carefully.

#2: House-sitting

I also did a lot of house-sits, especially in Brazil. The World Cup (2014) was super expensive for me but that still did not stop me from going. The bulk of our expenses is usually on accommodations so if you love animals and caring for pets, house-sitting is the best option for you!

free accommodations

I joined Trusted House Sitters in 2013 and continuously improved my profile to be able to get more gigs. Basically, homeowners who sign up for this platform are those who have pets. They always look for sitters whenever they go traveling so that someone will watch after their pets.

#3: Volunteering

If you noticed in my stories above, I also did a lot of volunteering in South America. I consider this the easiest way to get free accommodations, since the accommodation is not free per se. You are exchanging it for a few hours of work a day so there are very clear expectations between you and the host.

best volunteering websites

Click here to get a 10% discount when you join Worldpackers.

The volunteering website I use is Worldpackers, where you will find thousands of opportunities all over the world. This is where I found most of my Argentina volunteering work. You don’t have to always volunteer in a hostel like I did – this website has hundreds of categories you can choose from farm work, animal care, sustainable volunteering, charities, NGOs, etc. Just make sure you know to choose the field you are interested in, and something you will enjoy doing. Don’t just volunteer just because you are looking for free accommodation – make it count!

If you are new to this kind of travel, you can read my article about volunteering tips for first-timers.

I’m a really shy person. What’s your advice to get cheap accommodations?

I understand that staying with strangers can be a bold move, especially if you are a first-time solo traveler. My advice is to start with cheap accommodations to ease out your shyness.

If you use HostelWorld, you will find beds in hostel dorms for less than $10 USD. Hostels are a great way to meet people as you are going to share the bedrooms with strangers. I know this isn’t ideal for COVID but at the moment, hostels are not doing 100% capacity. I remember being alone in my hostel dorm in Puerto Escondido, Mexico because of the COVID regulations for accommodations!

I also relied on Booking.com a lot because of their ‘pay at the property’ policy. Basically, you can secure a reservation that is 100% confirmed on this platform without having to pay online or provide your credit card details. In the event that you change your travel plans, you can always cancel without incurring cancelation fees.

Lastly, if you are really really really shy and don’t want to stay in dorms or hostels, try Vrbo. I just tried this platform last year and it’s way better than Airbnb. Hosts at Vrbo are more attentive and are very caring. This is a good way for you to slowly get to know people before trying the free accommodation options that I suggested. If you want to see more cheap accommodation options, you can visit this page where I described how each hotel booking platform works.

In summary, I paid $0 on accommodations for over a year of traveling. How amazing is that?! With this, I am really thankful for all the people who took me in. Thank you for accepting me into your home and always being enthusiastic about my visit. Even if there isn’t enough space, you’ve pushed beyond your means to make me comfortable during my stay.

Aside from saving money while traveling, it’s about making friends and eating, breathing, speaking, and living a culture that is far away from yours. I promise you all that you are always welcome in my home (actually my parents’ house because I don’t have a house at the moment) when you visit the Philippines.

Cheers to kindness, love, and friendship! Save on accommodations and try these methods. Let me know how it will work for you!

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How to get free accommodation on Pinterest: save it for later!

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mayuri patel

Tuesday 29th of August 2017

accommodation is major expenses while travelling, you did great work and saved lot of money,nice article and loved your post please can you give name of websites which gives volunteering jobs??

Sandy N Vyjay

Wednesday 12th of July 2017

Couch surfing and volunteering are great experience in themselves. Also the fact that your accommodation is taken care of is another bonus. Accommodation accounts for one of the major components of the travel budget, hence anything we can save here is of great help.

Kim-Ling Richardson

Tuesday 11th of July 2017

You've had some amazing adventures! I've heard Couchsurfing is a really big thing for backpackers and solo travellers. I personally haven't tried it, but I think it would be a great option for solo travel. I certainly love the idea of becoming fluent in Spanish in only 3 months! I'd be keen to do volunteering in exchange for board (and food, if possible!). Did you ever find you missed having your own space though?

Cai Dominguez

Tuesday 11th of July 2017

Very impressive. But first I noticed a drastic changed on your blog. "Drastic" talaga. Super clean, neat, organized. ganda girl. Anyway. I haven't tried CS pa maybe I'm worried to try it. But because of you I will definitely give it a try the next time Ill do long term traveling again.

Megan Jerrard

Monday 10th of July 2017

That's an impressive savings on accommodation - home stays, couchsurfing, these are all incredible ways to save on you accommodation, but I totally agree that it's a double benefit because it usually means you're able to immserse yourself more into your new destination, and experience it as through the eyes of a local :)