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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.