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Image: Jazz Hostel, Miami Beach
J. Pat Carter  /  AP
In this file photo, Anja Plangger, left, and Michaela Mark, from Austria, pack, after spending a week at the Jazz Hostel on Miami Beach, Fla. Hostels offer a cost-conscious alternative to hotels, which can eat up significant portions of a vacation budget.
updated 2/3/2011 10:03:20 AM ET 2011-02-03T15:03:20

Aside from airfare, lodging is typically the expense that takes the biggest bite out of a vacation budget. But there's no need to rack up hotel stays for $100 - $200 a night or more. Creative travelers who are willing to consider alternatives to hotels could pay a fraction of that price —or nothing at all — by taking advantage of the following options.

Short-term room rentals
This is a relatively new trend in the travel world — a cross between vacation rentals and homestays. Using Web sites like AirBnB.com and Crashpadder.com, travelers can rent a room in someone's house, a cottage or a private studio apartment for low nightly rates (it's not uncommon to see prices under $50 per night). It's a way for hosts to open up their homes and make a little extra money, while giving travelers a great deal and a local's-eye view of a destination.

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Religious housing
Depending on where you're traveling, there may be affordable lodging offered by religious organizations — such as convents and monasteries in Italy (see MonasteryStays.com), or Christian or Jewish guesthouses in Jerusalem. An Internet search or a visit to the local tourist board's Web site can help you find these options.

Though they're commonly known as "youth" hostels, this form of accommodation can be ideal for budget travelers of any age. Even if you're not up for the cheapest option — a bed in a shared dorm — you can often get a basic private room at a hostel for significantly less than the cost of a low-end hotel.

Sleeping in someone's spare bedroom or on the living room couch is by far one of the cheapest ways to travel. In many cases, it's free, and it's also a great way to meet locals. You can organize a homestay through long-established hospitality networks like Servas International, or check out newer sites like CouchSurfing.com. For more information, see our guide to Homestays and Farmstays.

Vacation rentals
A Paris apartment, a villa in the Caribbean, a log cabin in Vermont ... vacation rentals offer unique and affordable lodging around the globe. Because they tend to be more spacious than hotel rooms, they're a particularly good bargain for families and groups who can divvy up the cost. And having your own kitchen can save you big bucks on restaurants. Learn more in Vacation Rentals: Right for You? 

Academic housing
When students go home for the summer, many colleges and universities open their dorms to visitors. Expect basic but very affordable accommodations (bathrooms may be down the hall, for example). There are few central databases of this type of lodging — University-Rooms.com is one to try — but it's worth calling a few local campuses directly to see if anything might be available during your trip. The local tourist board may also be able to help.

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From rural B&B's to working ranches and cattle farms, this type of stay can cover a wide range of accommodations — and you don't necessarily have to be willing to milk a cow to take advantage of it. Farmstays are particularly popular in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Learn more in Homestays and Farmstays

Sleeping under the stars can be a magical experience — and it's one of the cheapest options on our list, especially if you cook your own meals over a campfire instead of eating in restaurants every night. And don't worry ... you can opt for cabins or luxury tent camps if you'd rather not be slapping mosquitoes away all night. Get inspired with our Top 7 Spots for a Camping Trip.

B&B's with shared bathrooms
Bed and breakfasts can often save you money over hotel rooms, especially if you're willing to use a bathroom down the hall. And it may be less inconvenient than you think: A few years back, I stayed in a New Mexico B&B where the bathroom was supposed to be shared between my room and one other down the hall — but because the other room wasn't booked for either of the nights I was there, I ended up having the bathroom all to myself.

Home exchange
Swapping houses with another traveler is an ideal way to enjoy the comforts of home while traveling — and it's practically free. To become a member of a home exchange network, you'll typically pay an annual fee that costs about as much as a night in a hotel room, so after the first couple of nights of your vacation, your membership has paid for itself and then some. Learn more in Home Exchange: A How-To Guide.

Video: Tips for a great hotel rate

  1. Closed captioning of: Tips for a great hotel rate

    >>> "today's travel," how to get the cheapest hotel rate. you don't have to pay full price for a great hotel room anymore. that's according to consumer reports senior editor todd marks. he's a man with a plan to help you save big. todd , good morning.

    >> good morning.

    >> happy to see you given the topic we're talking about. how do hotels set their rates?

    >> well, they use this intricate system called yield management . they track supply and demand . it's done in realtime. meaning that, you know, you'll know exactly months, weeks, days out how much anticipated demand is going to be there and what the supply is. the rates are adjusted accordingly. if you've got a big convention coming to town, rates are going to go up. if a convention drops out, it's going to go down. it changes all the time, like airline tickets.

    >> you say -- you've got some surprising tips. number one, start haggling.

    >> yeah. americans as a culture, we don't haggle. 35% of people we surveyed who try to haggle, 80% of them were successful. only 35% tried. 80% were successful at negotiating a room upgrade or a lower rate.

    >> it's easier to haggle if you know the lingo.

    >> if you know the lingo. what are you talking about when it comes to rates? well, there's the corporate rate. people don't know, but everyone is entitled to a corporate rate. you don't have to be on business. that's typically the lowest rate. however, that's not necessarily the best available rate . the best available rate is typically the lowest non-refundable rate with no strings attached. so you've got to know what to ask for. but then there can be lower rates. any limited-time specials or promotions that can add free parking , free breakfast and other perks.

    >> you need to know to ask for these things for the lowest or cheapest rates. you can start to ask for other things in addition.

    >> you have to be proactive. there's no way that the hotel is going to come out and tell you, here, we've got this special today unless you push the issue. i try to book a room in philadelphia five different ways. the best rate at one point was 209. by the time i tried five different methodologiemethodologies, it was down to 134 plus free parking . but i had to keep asking.

    >> the other thing you recommend is to really be loyal. if you go back to a hotel over and over again, they'll maybe even voler tear some of these deals.

    >> sure. these loyalty programs -- like the supermarket bonus programs. you build up points. it's the same way with hotels. they are -- remember, hotels are coming off their worst year ever in this terrible economy. so what they've done, they're giving out perks like free amazon gift cards, get a third day free, get a free resort fee. all of these extras. if you're a local member, you'll get things like late check-in, late departure. kind of things that make it easier for you in an era when so many more fees are being attached to everything.

    >> todd , thank you so much. you also recommend using social networking sites and also reading online reviews. thank you so


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