Best Hotel Alternatives for Travel

Michelle Radcliff
colorful houses

Hotel rooms aren't the only accommodation option when you're on the road. Vacationers and even business travelers are often opting for more budget-friendly, non-traditional accommodations. Hotel alternatives range from private vacation homes to a simple couch in a host's home.

Vacation Rentals

If you're looking for privacy and room to spread out, consider renting a vacation apartment, home, cabin, villa or condo for your next trip. You'll be able to live like a local in the heart of the community while enjoying the comforts of multiple living spaces.

Accommodations in a local neighborhood always have a different vibe than those in the touristy parts of town. A vacation rental can feel like a home away from home but include many perks not found in your own home such as a Jacuzzi, swimming pool or a beach within walking distance. What you won't find are the services standard in a hotel.

On NeverStopTraveling.com, seasoned traveler Jim Ferri indicates that he became a fan of vacation rentals after renting an apartment in Barcelona. He plans to "definitely rent more apartments in the future" and indicates that it's a "great money-saving alternative" to staying in a hotel.

Pros:

  • Access to laundry facilities and a full size kitchen - save big bucks on your trip by eating in.
  • Good option for family vacations with kids and those traveling with pets, as pet-friendly properties can be found.
  • Traveling groups of family or friends can stay under one roof together and split the cost.

Cons:

  • No one is going to come make your bed for you each day. You must keep the place tidy and leave it as clean as you found it.
  • With a group of traveling adults, there may be a debate over who gets the master suite.
  • Unlike a hotel, if the heater isn't working, getting new accommodations is not a simple matter of walking down the hall.

Where to Book

Vacation rentals are easier than ever to find. Check out:

Home Away

HomeAway has over 1 million live vacation rental listings in 190 countries. Choose your vacation destination and look for homes that meet your needs. Create a favorites list which you can send to friends or family to help you choose the property. You can also look up the property on a Google map to make sure it is near any attractions you want to see.

Rates vary by property size and location. A two-bedroom apartment rental in New York City sleeping 4 to 6 people costs between $200 and $300 per night. A four-bedroom townhome or apartment in Manhattan sleeping 8 to 14 people varies from $405 to $960 per night.

Flip Key

Flipkey is owned by TripAdvisor and has a database of 300,000 vacation homes in over 11,000 cities throughout the world. Flipkey offers three methods for inquiring about and booking a vacation rental. You can send an e-mail inquiry by filling out the form on the right side of the listing. If the property owner or manager has provided a phone number, you can call them directly to ask more questions or expedite the booking process. Listings that feature the 'Book on Flipkey' badge allow you to reserve and pay for your rental online.

Rates vary by property size and location. A one-bedroom condo in San Diego sleeping 3 to 4 people costs between $90 and $150 per night. A three-bedroom home or condo near the Bay Area's Mission Beach sleeping 6 to 12 people starts as low as $185 and goes up to $500 per night.

Homestays

If you've ever wished you had friends or relatives living in Paris, Sydney or San Francisco, a homestay might be an appealing option for you. Homestays allow you to rent a room from a host or family. Condé Nast Traveler indicates that homestays are a great option for independent travelers and those wanting to meet the locals, experience another culture and make friends and connections along the way. The concept was inspired by exchange students living with host families in other countries.

On Road Warrior Voices, solo journeyer Jessica Festa indicated that she enjoyed sharing cultural anecdotes with a family of herb pickers during her homestay in Slovenia, a small European country just east of Italy. According to GoAbroad, the opportunity to taste local cuisine is one of the benefits of staying with a host family. Traditional meals prepared by a host give the guest a better understanding and appreciation of the culture.

Pros:

  • A homestay can be an inexpensive and safe option for college students, interns, volunteers, educators and solo leisure travelers.
  • It can provide an excellent way to learn a new language, offering opportunities to practice and sharpen your vocabulary skills while becoming more fluent in the local dialect
  • You'll have an opportunity to live like a local, participating in daily activities, preparing and cooking traditional food and experiencing local pastimes.

Cons:

  • You must be respectful and abide by the house rules of your host, so you might not be able to come and go late at night or bring a guest home for a nightcap.
  • Lack of privacy may be a concern. One of the biggest compromises of a home stay is giving up some of your personal space.
  • If you like to connect with travelers from other countries during your travels, you might not find the isolation of a homestay to be appealing.

Where to Book

The best way to search for a host family is to use a website that helps verify and screen people offering rooms for short term rentals. Options include:

Homestay

Homestay.com is a Dublin-based site that launched in 2013 and has a database of hosts in over 150 countries. This site caters to anyone interested in traveling abroad. An internal messaging system allows you to contact hosts and inquire about availability. If you receive an e-mail reply advising you to proceed and book online, you will be required to pay a 15% deposit. The balance can be paid in advance of your stay in or upon arrival, depending on the host's preferences.

Rates vary by host. Homestays in Tokyo, Japan typically range from $25 to $83 per night. In Sydney, Australia rates vary between $18 and $180 per night. In San Francisco, rates typically range from $38 to $144 per night.

Couchsurfing

Couchsurfing.com was conceived in 2004 and differs from other travel accommodation sites in that it is more of a social networking platform. Instead of searching for low-cost accommodations in other areas, you create a profile of yourself and your lifestyle in an effort to connect with the online couchsurfing community. The end goal is to acquire free accommodations on someone else's couch or spare bedroom in the area you wish to visit. The only catch if there is one, is that you must also be willing to offer up a couch or spare room to a fellow community member interested in visiting your city.

Rates: Free

Home Exchanges

Vacation home exchanges have become a very popular alternative to hotel accommodations. The concept is similar to vacation rentals and homestays. There are three ways to proceed with a home exchange:

  • Simultaneous swap - an exchange partner stays in your home at the same time you are staying in their home
  • Vacation home exchange - you allow an exchange member to stay in your vacation property
  • Guest exchange - you remain in your home and host an exchange partner or family during their stay

Although the accommodations are free when doing a home exchange, you must pay a fee to sign up with most home exchange communities. The service easily pays for itself if you are able to arrange at least one exchange within the year.

Over the course of three years, New York Times author Amy Virshup has swapped her Manhattan brownstone for a canal house in Amsterdam, an apartment in Spain, an apartment in Stockholm, a houseboat in Copenhagen and a ski condo in Utah. Virshup recommends a home exchange as a way to embrace slower paced travel and to experience your destination like a local. However, The Independent Traveler warns that home exchanges are not for everyone. If your home is in a remote location, you will have to work much harder to find a willing exchange partner.

Pros:

  • It's affordable - the annual fee to join a home exchange community is comparable to spending just one night in an upscale hotel.
  • Home exchange is a good option for families or groups as there is room to spread out and enjoy comforts similar to your own home, such as a full kitchen and laundry facilities.
  • You'll have more of a local living experience than a hotel would provide.

Cons:

  • You may find your exchange partner has a different preference on cleanliness.
  • When you arrive at the home, you might discover problems such as a broken water heater or nonfunctioning appliances.
  • If you don't live in a popular vacation destination, it can be difficult to arrange a successful exchange.

Where to Book

Although you won't be able to contact any members until you join, you can browse the listings on home exchange sites to see which one might be the best fit for you. Check out:

HomeExchange

HomeExchange was founded in 1992 by a pioneering exchanger named Ed Kushins. It started as a printed book mailed to members. A team of over 50 home exchangers representing various nationalities has helped the company grow into one of the biggest home exchange communities on the Internet, with over 65,000 listings in 150 countries. USA Today readers voted it the best site for booking a stay.

Rates: A one-year membership costs $150.

GuestToGuest

GuestToGuest was founded by 22 experienced home exchange families living in France, Belgium, Great Britain, Spain, the United States and Qatar. The goal was to create a free social network of home exchangers built on a system of hospitality, trust and freedom. In addition to simultaneous swaps, you can earn GuestPoints by allowing people to stay in your home when you are away, by signing up for an account, referring friends and becoming a verified member. Use GuestPoints to stay in other people's homes when it suits you to travel.

Rates: Membership is free. Get verified for a small fee of 25 euros (or about 28 USD).

Academic Housing

For summer travelers, an empty dorm room at a college or university may offer the perfect no fuss, low-cost accommodation. The available options can be harder to find than other non-hotel alternatives because most universities don't advertise the availability of their dorm rooms.

However, more colleges and universities are realizing the revenue potential of renting dorm rooms to summer travelers and corporate groups needing low-cost accommodations. The money raised helps maintain the buildings and keeps student housing costs down. The New York Times reports a large number of universities offering dorm room rentals across Britain and Europe. According to the Los Angeles Times, many universities in Southern California are a great option for school groups and sports groups, as well as casual and business travelers.

According to FrugalTravelGuy, accommodations vary from sparse, small rooms to spacious, fully furnished rooms. Check the listing carefully and don't hesitate to ask the administrators in charge of the rental about what you can expect.

Pros:

  • College dorm rooms provide cheap accommodations in travel hotspots such as Europe and Southern California.
  • Staying in a dorm room is a unique experience that provides on-site access to many world-famous institutions.
  • The money you spend helps support the educational facility.

Cons:

  • Rooms can be small and sparsely furnished.
  • Availability is limited when school is in session.
  • Guests often have to share a communal bathroom.

A dorm room stay can also bring a nostalgic feel of one's former college days, as noted by travel writer Susan Spano on Smithsonian.com. She used academic housing during a budget-friendly New York getaway.

Where to Book

You can get listings of universities and colleges from the Chamber of Commerce or city websites in areas you are interested in visiting. From there, look up the colleges online and contact them directly to inquire on summer dorm rentals. Examples of helpful sites include:

UniversityRooms

Based in the UK, UniversityRooms offers vast listings of universities across Britain, Europe and Australia and a few colleges in other areas of the world. You can check availability and book the rooms right from the website. Many European colleges offer year-round accommodations but some can only be booked two to three months in advance.

Rates vary by location, room size and occupancy. Dorm rooms sleeping two in London cost $100 to $212 per night. In Paris, the cost nightly cost is about $92 and it's around $60 per night in Barcelona. Ask about discounts for group rates or extended stays.

MidwestWeekends

MidwestWeekends features a list of colleges and universities in the Midwest offering summer accommodations and some year-round rentals. The site provides links to their websites and phone numbers.

Rates vary by location, room size, length of stay and occupancy. Northwest Michigan College offers single rates of $55 per night/person, double rates of $35 per night/person and a family rate of $80 per night. A 6% tax is added if staying under 30 days. Discounts apply to stays over 30 days and for groups.

Make Your Next Vacation an Adventure

Hotel alternatives can help you save money on your next vacation, and they can also provide an exciting new experience. Do your research to determine the best option for your needs and have fun exploring a new way to travel.

Best Hotel Alternatives for Travel