When traveling without money I hear a few basic questions every day and one of them is, “where do you sleep?” Traveling without money is certainly not for everyone but this blog is simply a guide on how you can travel your country or the world without spending a penny on lodging. Or if not to that extreme than at least drastically reducing the amount of money you spend on lodging. All of my suggestions in this blog come from a fair amount of experience. I’ve embarked on four long distance adventures without a penny and traveled on a shoestring budget over the last decade through six continents and 35 countries. Some of these suggestions may be for you, others may not, so my advice is to take what you’d like from this guide and turn it into action, whether it be in your own city or in a far off land.
This guide not only aims to save you a lot of money, but also to help you travel more earth friendly and more deeply connect with your destination than you typically would by staying in a hotel room. Although this guide is primarily designed for traveling you certainly could use this in your city to sleep for free as well!
First and foremost before you leave for your adventure I recommend packing basic camping gear. The must-haves are a tent, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, and a pillow. By having these you’ll be able to sleep for free in just about any pinch you get into.
Here I am loaded up for my second bike ride across the USA. I had everything I needed and more on this bike.
I’ll go more into the possibilities with your tent later and for now just say, go camping and explore nature!
And camp out under the expansive sky!
There are some campgrounds and parks that charge money but nature is completely free all around us. Get out there and explore the earth’s natural beauty. Whether you are cycling the country, hitching, road tripping, or taking public transportation you’ll be sure to find plenty of natural places where you can set up camp for free for the night (or week) if you’ve got your eyes open.
Stay with strangers! There are many ways to stay in people’s houses around the world. One of my favorites is Couchsurfing.org. This is a fellow I stayed with in Nicaragua while hitching through central America.
Couchsurfing is a network of over 6 million people around the world, many of which offer their place for free to other members. The website is free to use as well so this is 100% free lodging. It’s about a lot more than saving money though. It’s about making friends in the places you travel, seeing the places you visit through the eyes of the locals, and sharing your travels and experiences with others. At least that’s what it is about for me. I’ve couchsurfed with dozens of people all over the world and it’s been an incredible way for me to see the world. Hotels and hostels were only $2 a night in Indonesia but I still couchsurfed. Not to save the $2 of course, but to immerse with the locals in the wild places I visited. Here, for example, is a Muslim wedding I was invited to in South Sulawesi, Indonesia where I was the only white person and the only person who spoke English besides my host.
Hosts and travelers have profiles with reviews too, so it’s pretty easy to tell whether the potential host is an honest and safe person to stay with. I know hundreds of couchsurfers and 99% of the experiences have been positive.
Warmshowers.org is a network of cyclists around the world who host other cyclists in their home without money ever exchanging hands. I’ve used it a few dozen times on both of my cross-country cycling trips and it’s been an absolutely wonderful experience. This is my first ever host, Patrick, who I stayed with in Vernal, Utah.
Long distance cycling is one of the best ways to experience the world, in my opinion. Spending time with Juanita and her husband Chris in rural Louisiana was a time I’ll never forget.
Another option is to stay with friends and family. Here’s my mom and I in Ashland, Wisconsin.
Just visit the places that you have friends or family and stay with them. Crash on the couch or in the guest bedroom or wherever they have space for you. Just make sure you contribute to the house, respect their place and communicate clearly about your plans. It’s not always easy to remember where all your friends have moved to so a social media shout out may be in store to find out who lives in the places you’d like to visit!
WWOOF stands for “world wide opportunities on organic farms” and for anyone that is interested in growing food this is a truly incredible way to travel nearly for free. There are thousands of organic farmers around the world that are looking for volunteers to work on their farm. Typically five hours of work per day is expected in exchange for lodging and healthy home grown meals. Wwoofing is a great way to learn organic farming, help the healthy food movement grow, and travel in a very low impact manner. Hitching between farms is a very simple way to travel with next to no money.
Do a work exchange. Help Exchange and Workaway are two great websites where you can work in exchange for food and accommodation.
Work at a hostel. There are a lot of hostels listed on work exchange websites but you can always just walk up to one and ask them if they are in need of help in exchange for a bed in one of the bunks. You could travel from hostel to hostel working for your stay.
House-sit. There are people all over the world who are looking for someone to watch their house while they travel. You’d be amazed at the cool places you can stay for free by house-sitting. Here’s a house-sitting guide from The Guardian
Volunteer. There are a lot of volunteer programs out there that cost money but there are a fair few that are completely free as well. I personally have little desire to pay to volunteer and would much prefer an exchange with no money. VolunteerSouthAmerica.net has a really great list of free volunteer programs that I would recommend checking out
Offer a service of your own. You could cook, do massage, clean, garden, or landscape in exchange for a place to sleep. Use whatever your skill is or learn a new skill.
Stay at a fire station. I’ve found that all over the world firefighters are about as kind as people come. If you are traveling through a town and are in need of a roof over your head there is a good chance that the local friendly firefighters will take you in. They may let you stay in the bunk and use the kitchen, but they might just offer you a place to put your tent. Which brings me…
Back to the tent! When you have a tent with you you’ll always be able to find a place to sleep. On my cross country cycling tours and international hitch hiking tours I’ve slept at gas stations, in city parks,
on the streets,
in semi truck beds, churchyards, fire stations, baseball fields, backyards, and even cemeteries. When I’m cycling I often just pull off to the side of the road and set up my tent.
I’m a man of 5’10” and there are an unlimited number of places that I can comfortably fit my small body for the night. I’ve napped in quite a few places too. This soft lawn was calling me after a long day on the road.
There’s always abandoned buildings as well to rest in for the night. This is a building I took shelter in from a storm in rural Kansas. (Note: I am talking about truly abandoned buildings such as the one in this photo. I am not talking about unoccupied houses, but truly abandoned buildings. I have never broken into a building nor do I recommend it).
And this is a building somewhere in the Appalachian mountains outside of a rural convenience store. I asked inside and they said I could sleep there for the night.
I’ve had nothing but good experience when approaching the police in other countries. This is a solid bet in most places, but I would do some asking around to make sure the police in the area you are staying aren’t corrupt. You can ask if you can sleep in the station or set up camp outside.
Bus stations make for a safe place to sleep for the night. Many bus stations have security guards or police at them and are lit all night. They are far from the most comfortable place to sleep for the night but if you roll up in a town late bus they will often make for a safe place to stay for the night.
Go for a long hike. You could hike the Pacific Crest Trail or the Appalachian Trail in the US for example, but there are a lot of trails you can do and sleep for free at the end of every night. This is a couple of PCT thru-hikers that my girlfriend Cheryl and I met when we were out camping in the desert.
Along many of the great trails you’ll find awesome shelters like this.
Not every place that I mentioned is extremely comfortable and if you only want to sleep in comfort then I would simply advise you to plan your accommodation ahead of time. That could mean arranging your next lodging while you’re in your current situation or it could mean planning an entire trip before even leaving your house. If you are covering large distances and travel every day such as a cycling tour or hitch hiking you are likely to need to sleep in the rough at least time to time though.
For those of you who aren’t traveling and are looking for ideas on how to sleep for free you are in luck! I’ve got a few ideas for you.
Get a tiny house and set it up in somebodies backyard in exchange for doing work on their land. Here’s my tiny house where I live off the grid in San Diego.
My house is just 50 square feet but you could get a bigger one if that would suit you better. It’s served me really well and the guy who lets me use his yard is very happy with the situation we’ve worked out. You could also just get a camper or a van to park in a backyard.
In the past, I had a three-bedroom apartment and for a while I rented out all three rooms and slept in my 6 x 6 closet. The guests loved the furnished bedrooms and the surfboards and bikes that were included in the rent and by doing this I lived for free in my own apartment.
Or there’s always getting a van or camper and traveling in your home. This is something I’ve not actually done, but I have many friends who are in love with their van life!
When the earth is your home, you will never be homeless. Get creative, have fun, and explore!
For more traveling tips check out:
How to Travel the USA for Free (without mooching)
My book: Dude Making a Difference
Traveling: How to reduce your impact traveling