Beyond Hotels: 4 Ways to Save Tons on One-of-a-Kind Vacations

A standard American vacation goes something like this: Save up dollars and vacation time. Select a destination. Book transportation. Book hotel. Arrive. Lounge. Explore. Come home.

But with only a week or two to spend on your annual jaunt, do you really want to spend it at a generic hotel room that could be in any destination in the country? Or the world? Isn’t the point of a holiday to get away from the routine? For cost-effective alternatives that get you out of the tourist zone, check out these funky alternatives.

Rent, Borrow, or Swap a Home

When I visited Paris, a woman I hardly knew gave me the keys to her flat when she left town. Living in a neighborhood instead of a tourist district gave me a glimpse into Parisian culture I wouldn’t have had had I booked a room near the Champs-Elysees.

Whether you’re traveling solo, with a partner, or with your family, you can dive into a local culture by renting someone else’s apartment or vacation home, or exchanging your place for theirs when you travel. Whether you want to negotiate this arrangement on your own or through a third party, there are many websites to help. Airbnb, HomeAway (AWAY), and HomeExchange are just a few, and offer excellent tips for getting started.

Couch-Surfing for Beginners

Ever crash at a friend’s when you were visiting their town? is exactly that, except with strangers. Sure, it might be a little out of most people’s comfort zone (it was for me, the first time), but staying with a local gives you an experience you won’t get at most hotels, including firsthand knowledge of their city, the intimacy of staying in a home, and in most cases, laundry. (My former hosts will tell you I’m a fan.)

There’s no fee to couch-surf, although karma suggests that you host in your hometown when you can. Accommodations vary, but each prospective host will plainly list what’s available on his or her profile page. From sleeping in a VW camper van in Zurich to a guest bedroom in Split, Croatia, the arrangements are as varied as the hosts. Some people are happy to host families and/or pets; others can only put up singles or couples. You can link to your Facebook page to see if any hosts are within your social network.

Ditch the Tent; Stay in a Cabin

Even if you’re not the camping type — and why wouldn’t you be? — many campgrounds offer furnished and unfurnished cabins. These are especially handy and cost-effective accommodations if you’re planning trips to national parks or recreation areas, but don’t overlook them in urban areas, either. I once spent three nights in a tent at a KOA outside of New Orleans, which offered free shuttle service to and from downtown.

The Family-Friendly Hostel

Far from being just the purview of backpackers and bicyclists, hostels have had a resurgence in the States and abroad, and many feature a clean, modern living environment with kitchen privileges and amenities to rival some of the nicest hotels. Groups of friends and/or families can often rent out their own rooms, and previous travelers are not shy about posting honest reviews on sites like

Checking In, Checking Out

Where you stay will of course depend on what you want to get out of your vacation. Looking for a budget-wise place to crash while you explore the area? Want to dive headfirst into a new culture and language? Interested in meeting other travelers? With a little thought and some research, you can have the kind of vacation that your friends will envy, that will leave you with great stories, and that won’t break your budget.

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Molly McCluskey has rented a flat in Athens, couch-surfed in Switzerland and Spain, and stayed in hostels in Australia, Ireland, and San Francisco. She’s currently traveling around the world. Follow her travel and finance tweets on Twitter at @MollyEMcCluskey. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of HomeAway.

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