7 alternative European accommodation options

If you love to travel but are having difficulty finding a way to pay for that trip to Europe, consider some alternative lodging options. Not only will these unconventional options save you a few bucks, but you’re bound to end up with some amazing stories in the process, since everyone else stays at hotels … but YOU were far more resourceful.

Convents and Monasteries

In Italy there are over 400 convents and monasteries located in both metropolitan cities and in the countryside, all of which offer incredible savings. Many cost as little as $40 dollars a night, while some ask only for a voluntary donation or assistance on the grounds in lieu of a room charge. This is a great way to save money while enjoying the beauty of historic — really historic — buildings.

Convents and Monastery resources



Farm Stays
Staying on a working farm is very popular in Britain, France, Spain and Italy and can offer savings along with a unique cultural experience. In addition, this vacation will work your muscles, too, so you’ll actually come home fitter than when you left!

Farm stay resources

  • Budget Travel has a nice primer on the subject.
  • GoNomad has a thorough roundup (with contact information) for numerous farm stay opportunities.
  • Reid’s Guides also has an excellent roundup of farm stay options.
  • Agritourism.net leads you directly to the home pages of those farms offering rooms for rent.




Home Exchange
Don’t rent a room; stay in a house! If you’re willing to offer your home to someone else to stay in, you can have access to thousands of listings, which can include homes, motorhomes — even boats — in dozens of European countries.

Home exchange resources


Hospitality Exchange
Couchsurfing is a network that connects travelers who host each other in their homes. This allows for a more social experience, since you’re hanging out in someone’s home with them. There is no cost, and the database can match you up by interest as well as by location.

Hospitality exchange resources

  • Couchsurfing is hands-down the leader in this lodging option.
  • However, the Times Online has a nice explanation of the process and lists several alternatives to this already alternative lodging style.




Volunteer

If you’re looking for an opportunity to immerse yourself deeply in a foreign culture, there are many programs that allow you to volunteer your time in exchange for free accommodations.

Volunteer resources

  • Europe Up Close has a nice overview of the process and some suggested organizations.
  • Transitions Abroad hosts numerous “volunteer reports” so you can learn what the experience is truly like.
  • United Planet lists volunteer options by destination and by duration of stay.
  • Workaway.info is a database that lists a variety of volunteer opportunities in over 24 European countries, in a range of fields.




Organic Farming

If you have a strong interest in organic farming, then there are several options for you. In exchange for lodging, guests are expected to help work on the farm. On the face of it, “work on the farm” doesn’t sound like a vacation, but spending some time outside with animals in a rural setting seems pretty idyllic to us.

Organic farming resources

  • WWOOF offers opportunities in over 24 European countries.
  • Help Exchange offers farm stay options in Europe and elsewhere.


Hostels

OK, so hostels may not be all that unconventional any more, but a lot of people are still nervous about or unfamiliar with them. Understand this: Hostels are no longer geared just to the student traveler or the drunk English stag party. You can find hostels that cater to families and even some that offer private rooms with private bath.

Hostel resources

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Remember: a trip to Europe isn’t about staying in certain hotels. A trip to Europe is about exploring the destination.

What better way to really explore a destination than to get outside a conventional hotel and experience something new, unusual … and just a little foreign?

Top ten alternative lodging options

When it comes to lodging, most people automatically look for a hotel. And if you want room service, a business center, gym, and all the other perks that come with a hotel, that may be your best bet. But if you’re looking for a more unique place to stay, if you want to save money, or if you want to experience a destination in an entirely new way, you have a whole range of options outside the sphere of Marriotts, Hiltons, and Four Seasons. Here are the top ten alternative lodging options.
Bed and Breakfasts/Guesthouses
A bed and breakfast (which in some countries, goes by the name guesthouse) is always my first choice for accommodation. Do I have a deep-seeded fetish for doilies, furniture that looks like it belongs in my grandma’s house, and forced interaction over tea and scones? Definitely not. Luckily, not all B&Bs fit that stereotype. Many offer chic, modern décor and accommodations that are just as luxurious and stylish as their hotel counterparts.

The reason I choose these types of bed and breakfasts is this: generally, as it’s a small business, the owners are very hands on and present. You don’t feel so much like another anonymous customer as a welcomed guest. At bed and breakfasts I’ve stayed at, the hosts have been more than happy to sit down and give me personalized recommendations for the city I was visiting, to offer champagne toasts on New Year’s Eve, and even to provide me with a ride to the airport when my cab didn’t show up on time.

Bed and breakfasts tend to be located in more residential areas of a city, which means that you can better imagine what life is like for those who live here, you see a different side of the city, and best of all, rates are often much lower than the average hotel. Plus, the included breakfast means you save even more.

Boutique Hotel/Inn

Boutique hotels and inns are often very similar to a bed and breakfast. They may not go by the name because they don’t want to be associated with the stuffy Victorian image of other B&Bs or perhaps they aren’t truly a B&B if they don’t serve breakfast. Many are more of a hybrid between B&B and hotel. Thanks to their small size, they may offer the personalized service of a bed and breakfast, but with some of the amenities that you’d find in a hotel. Every boutique hotel I have ever stayed in has offered free wi-fi and many have had small lounges for afternoon drinks or snacks.

Hostel
Maybe your days of sleeping in bunk accommodations with young, unwashed travelers are long gone. You’d never even think about staying in a hostel again. But if you are a budget traveler, you may want to reconsider that position. Many hostels offer private double rooms (with shared or private baths) in addition to dorm style accommodations. Actually, several that I have stayed at in the last year have only had private rooms and the shared bathrooms, while located next door to the room, were only shared between 2-3 rooms and were single-stall locking bathrooms. Sure, you still have to go down the hall to use the loo, but for a traveler on a budget, saving $10-$20 per night in exchange for doing so may be worth it.

At every hostel I have stayed at, I never had to wait for the bathroom, the other travelers were older budget travelers like myself, internet was free, and every few rooms shared a small kitchenette, which meant I could save even more money by cooking lunch or dinner in the hostel a few times. And again, the hostel prices were significantly cheaper than comparable hotels.

Apartments/Cabins
If you’re planning an extended stay in one location, or are traveling with kids or a few friends, an apartment or cabin rental can really make financial sense. It may cost a bit more than a hotel, but the money you’ll save being able to cook your own meals, enjoy a few drinks in your living room, or wash your clothes in your own laundry machine, may offset any extra expensive. And if you have a few friends to split the cost with, you can save big.

Camping
When I think of camping, I think of packing a tent and a cooler and heading “up north” with friends. Or at least, that’s what I used to think of. Now I’ve learned that you can camp just about anywhere – in the US, Asia, Africa, and even just outside of Europe’s biggest cities.
Camping doesn’t have to mean roughing it either. Many European campsites, for example, are located 15-20 minutes by bus outside of the city center and offer dining halls, internet access, swimming pools, and modern bathrooms. In Africa, if you can’t quite afford a $500 per night luxury lodge, just buy a tent when you arrive, drive to the game park, and pick one of the many available camps where you can score a spot for about $20 per night, eating in the camp’s dining hall and relaxing in the communal swimming pool.

Agritourismos/Farm Stays
When visiting a city, I generally like to stay in the city. I want to be able to step outside of my lodging directly into the fray. I want to wander all day down cobble stones streets, and then be able to totter home after a few drinks to fall asleep to the sounds of the city. But in some areas, the way of life is more rural. In these places, I want to get the full experience. Here, I want to look out my window and see rolling fields. I want to see how the people live off the land, and I want to retire each night to watch the sunset from my deck while eating food produced just a few steps from where I’m standing. In these places, I want to stay at an agritourismo.

Like a bed and breakfast, and agritourismo is family run and generally offers breakfast included in the accommodation. But an agritourismo or farm stay also offers much more. Guest will get an education in farming while immersing themselves in nature – horseback riding, wandering through fields, and learning about (or even helping with) the operations of the property.
Servas
Servas is an “international, nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for personal contact between people of diverse backgrounds. Members need to apply and pay a membership fee so there is a bit more investment required that with CouchSurfing, and the emphasis on cultural connection is even higher. Both hosts and travelers need to be interviews by a local coordinator in order to be accepted, and have a certain degree of responsibility once they become members.
Hosts welcome guests for one or two nights, and offer some kind of cultural exchange during the process. They are expected to spend time with guests and invite them to share an evening meal. Guests are expected to view the host site as more than just a place to stay. Then interview process and application fees for joining may help set some hesitant members’ minds at ease and people who aren’t quite comfortable with CouchSurfing may be more inclined to try Servas.
AirBNB
A cross between CouchSurfing and a guesthouse, AirBNB is a service that connects hosts – those with a space room or sometimes just a spare couch – with a guest in need of a place to stay. The catch is that unlike CouchSurfing, guests have to pay for rooms booked through AirBNB. Where CouchSurfing is more about community and cultural exchange, AirBNB is more about commerce.

But, many of the AirBNB listings are more than just offers for a couch. Dozens are listings for entire apartments, often at rates much lower than what you would pay for a hotel. The site has more comprehensive offering for big cities than small towns, especially in the US, so while you might score a pretty great deal for someone’s pied a terre in NYC or Chicago, you may have a harder time finding an apartment rental in Tuscany or Bavaria.
Homeswaps
Homeswapping requires a degree of flexibility, but the rewards can be great. Here’s how it works. You sign up on a homeswapping website like Home Exchange, pay your annual fee (usually under $50) and then list your house or apartment. You can wait for the requests to come in and respond according to your schedule, or you can approach others for a swap based on your travel plans.

Say you’re looking to plan a trip to Paris this summer. You check out the available houses in the city and begin sending inquiries to the owners asking about your preferred week. One couple may have a house available, and have an interest in coming to visit the city where you live, but they might not be able to travel on that exact week, so you work together and come up with dates that are convenient for both of you.

Most successful homeswappers live in a city that is more popular. For example, it might be harder to find someone from Paris who is interested in traveling to Cincinnati, Ohio, than New York City.
CouchSurfing
The most famous of all free accommodation, CouchSurfing is a million-member strong community of travelers. Some are offering places to stay, others are looking for a host to take them in on their travels. You post a profile and it’s up to you to decide who to host (or if you want to host at all) and who you feel comfortable staying with. Members span all walks of life, but they all seem to have one thing in common – a desire to see the world and travel cheaply, and to connect with other like-minded people while they do so.

Many hosts and surfers make a point to get together during the hosting period. When I stayed with a couple in Austin, Texas, last year, we all went out for dinner one night. We had a great time and they ended dup showing me a side of the city I never would have discovered on my own. Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of staying in a stranger’s house. And if you’re looking just to relax and escape this might not be the ideal situation. But if you want to connect with another culture and see a place from an insider’s point of view, give CouchSurfing a try.