How to Find Cheap Accommodation Almost Anywhere
This month I had to find a reasonably-priced place to stay in one of the most expensive cities on earth.
The average price of rent here in San Francisco is $1200+ per month for a shared apartment, but I found a place to stay indefinitely, last minute, for $25 a night ($750 a month).
This basic process can be used to find a place to crash just about anywhere, but in general this much effort is only required in big cities. Outside the city I’ve never failed to find something by asking people on the street.
Whether you need a place to stay right now or in a few weeks, follow these steps:
Step 1: Use your Lonely Planet guide up to a point.
In some parts of the world, especially where internet is sketchy, Lonely Planet is the bible. That’s why you’ll see the same people everywhere you go (which is good and bad).
The problem with Lonely Planet and other paper guides is that the information is only as good as the day it was printed. That being said, I’ve used old guides and had no problem finding the same hostels they recommended years ago (some things don’t change that much).
Unfortunately, paper guidebooks all have their strong and weak geographic areas. Sites like Hostelworld (below) became more relevant when I went to Europe, where Lonely Planet is basically useless for hostel recommendations (sorry guys. great job in Central and South America though).
If you don’t have internet you can always default to a paper travel guide’s recommendations but in some places this will really restrict your options.
Step 2: Search Hostelworld.com
There are a few good online search sites for hostels and hotels, but I’ve always had the best luck with Hostelworld. They list a combination of hostels and discount hotels, as well as things like campgrounds that have bunk-beds (basically a wilderness hostel–check out Tiber camping outside of Rome!).
Some of the most notable deals I’ve found on this site:
- €6 per night in downtown Prague
- €6 per night in Berlin
- €7 per night in downtown Budapest
- €10 per night just outside Rome
To use Hostelworld I’ll run a search for 1-2 nights in the city I’m looking at, sorting (usually) first by price and then by review. The easiest way to find super-budget accommodation is to choose the top-rated hostel/hotel from among the cheapest.
I’ve found the reviews to be an excellent indicator on this site. Trust them. Try to go 80% or higher if possible. You’ll be sorry if you ever have to stay in a place rated less than 60% (trust me).
Tip: Hostelworld takes a small booking free from transactions. Pay them $10 and they stop doing this. Totally worth the $10 if you’re traveling for a while.
Step 3: Search Airbnb.com
Airbnb excels in some parts of the world (but fails miserably in others). If you haven’t heard of Airbnb, crawl out of that cave you’ve been living in and take a look. Want to rent out a real apartment for a week or two in Budapest? Here’s your chance.
Airbnb can really shine in countries where the price of living is reasonable (think Croatia), but occasionally you can score big in major destinations. Additionally, if you’re traveling with another person this can be a really budget option (the price listed is usually for up to 2 people per night).
Unfortunately, the general theme on Airbnb (it’s a San Francisco-based company after all) is listing outrageous apartments at outrageous prices. Or, in some countries, it’s listing total sh*tholes at outrageous prices. I’ve seen people trying to list their couch for $50/night in some cities (this seems to happen a lot in poorer countries where people are trying to use it as a major vs supplementary source of income).
Where this site really shines is for temporary lifestyle upgrades, eg you’ve been traveling for a while and you want to relax in one place for a few weeks or a month (but you don’t want to go through the hassle of finding a real apartment). I’ve seen a lot of really nice apartments listed for $20-$30 a night, which isn’t that bad when you split it with another person.
Getting into the apartments have been seamless for me, and I’ve never felt any kind of security issue at all. Most of my bookings have been last minute (day or two ahead) and I’ve had no problems when I really want to find a place.
Tip: For some fun, open up the world map view on Airbnb and filter by apartments under $40 per night. There are some incredible deals out there in places you wouldn’t expect.
One major gripe: Airbnb’s fees are ridiculous: tack 6-12% on to the price listed. Be advised that a lot of people use Airbnb to find the place, then switch to offline payments to save some $$$.
Step 4: Spend some time on Couchsurfing.org
Love it or hate it, Couchsurfing.org is amazing when it works. That is, when it works, and it really is work to make it happen.
The whole idea makes a lot of people uneasy: sleep on someone else’s couch? Can you say ‘rape scenario’? Yeah well, just like anything else, do your homework and use your head. Most people with great reviews are probably great people.
Here’s what my last Couchsurfing experience was like:
- Last minute found a host in Vienna.
- Walked into beautiful Vienna apartment.
- Handed key to apartment.
- Shown my own room.
- Told “stay as long as you want.”
- Taken immediately out for 1 liter of Austrian beer.
- Taken to show my host’s friends were DJing at a local club.
Total price: $0
Uh, is this real life?
Couchsurfing is a great option when either the country is insanely expensive (like the US, Austria, Switzerland, etc), when you want to hang out with locals, or when you want to scope out a city before finding more permanent accommodation (your host can help you with this).
The problem is that finding a couch can be a fruitless, time-intensive effort. I once tried finding a couch in Rome and I quickly realized that unless I was 5’10”, blond, and female, this wasn’t going to happen (ok so not a great example of where the site is used effectively).
Often you’ll send a lot of messages to find a couch, but when you score you score big.
Step 5: Visit Craigslist.org
Craigslist doesn’t work everywhere but it’s worth checking out. It’s where I found every apartment I’ve lived in in the US, but I’ve never used it abroad only because I’ve never seriously looked for long-term options.
Be aware that scams are a bit rampant in some parts of the world. I once sent out a few emails about apartments in Brussels. They were ridiculously under-priced ($200 per month or something like that) and it quickly became clear that it was a straight-up con.
Note that there are no fees for either listing and apartment for rent or for renting one. The site makes its money on business listings.
Step 6: Local Apartment Listings + Ask a Local
This takes a bit more insider knowledge to pull off, but that’s one reason to meet or stay with locals when looking for long-term accommodation. You can also tap into people you know who have been there.
For example, a friend of my lived in Berlin for several years and told me that this local Berlin apartment listings site has prices 1/3 to 1/2 of anything you’ll find on Airbnb. You (can sort) of use Google Translate if you don’t read German.
Another thing I’ve done is ask the guy (or girl) at the front desk of the hostel where I can find apartment listings, or if they know of good places to stay. I once hooked up a $200 / month apartment (vacant student apartment during the summer) in Budapest by asking the guy at the front desk.
Note: Sometimes you can’t get around speaking the language or finding someone who can translate for you. Even if you convert online listings into your native language you’ll still have to talk to the person renting the place out.
Example Scenario: What I did in San Francisco
I went through all the steps here to find a place in SF, which is a notoriously difficult place to rent. I skipped step 1, the Lonely Planet listings, because I already have a good feel for the hostels available and they’re all listed on HostelWorld.com anyway.
I figured Airbnb would be too expensive, so I went straight to Craigslist, which I hoped would come through with a short-term sublet. Results: total, absolute failure. I got two responses out of 20 inquiries. Both said “Sorry, it has been rented.”
I went through Couchsurfing.org for a while and decided and I was tired of sleeping on couches and wanted a place were I could come and go freely.
End result?: Believe it or not, I found a $25 a night place to stay in San Francisco on Airbnb.
Total time investment: Less than 2 hours.
Sure, the place I”m staying is not exactly high-end, but my money is going into other projects right now, and as long as I can get 8 hours of sleep (sometimes a tall order) I don’t really care much beyond that.
More on this adventure later, but these tips should get you up and running in just about any destination on earth. Any other sites or sources of information you’ve used successfully? Let me know!