It’s no secret that travel costs have risen significantly over the past few years. Combine that with the weakness of the US dollar, an unstable economy and a more cautious parting with our precious expendable income, and affordable international travel can easily seem like an impossible reality.
As a budget traveler with years of experience searching for the cheapest flight and accommodation (I lived in London and traveled Europe for a year on an intern’s “stipend,” the equivalent of babysitting money), I’ve done my fair share of inexpensive travel. And I know what you’re thinking: budget airlines like RyanAir, where you pull your hair out in a free-for-all for unassigned seats in exchange for only shelling out a few Euros for a ticket, unsanitary hostels where not only are you certain the sheets haven’t been washed, but you are sharing a bedroom with seven others who certainly haven’t washed either (not that you’d want to wash in the cleaning closet that doubles as a shower, anyway).
While those options still exist and, from personal experience, make for some pretty amusing anecdotes after you’ve returned home unscathed, there are ways to sacrifice the price, but not the quality, of your trip. In fact, sometimes I’d argue to say you pay less for a more comfortable, more authentic experience.
One of the biggest changes travelers are seeing today is the proliferation of quality alternatives to the traditional hotel stay. A number of short-term rental sites have surfaced in the past few years, such as istopover.com, crashpadder.com and airbnb.com, the largest of such resources. It’s now possible to travel with the comforts of a hotel, the comforts of home, even, for a fraction of the cost.
A step up from couchsurfing, a member service that enables you to crash on others’ couches for free by offering up your own for other travelers, these sites offer private rooms, often in someone’s house or sometimes their entire apartment. The costs vary, but are comparable to a higher-end hostel. To the skeptic, it may sound like a risky approach, but anyone offering up–or looking for–accommodation must create a profile, and such sites typically include reviews from site users who have stayed in the past, giving an added measure of confidence.
The whole concept is sort of like social networking for accommodation. It makes use of our global interconnectedness to bring travelers together in an effort to help each other out when visiting a new place. Plus, it makes for a more genuine experience. In a hotel, you are a tourist; in a home, you are essentially a resident (albeit short-term).
I had my first apartment stay experience when traveling to Paris in the summer of 2009. My friend Amy works for a large international company and through an internal email exchange we were able to swap her West Village NYC pad for a Paris employee’s apartment just a stone’s throw away from La Tour Eiffel. For the few days we were there, it was as if we were locals. We weren’t staying in Paris; we were living there–temporarily and for free.
We were lucky in that my friend worked for a company at which she felt comfortable swapping apartments with a colleague who was really a stranger, and that we had an apartment to swap (the shoebox I was living in at the time would not have made for a fair trade). And while I haven’t yet had the opportunity to try out these short-term rental sites, I have to say my experience in Paris gave me the confidence to try it out when the appropriate time presents itself–which I hope is sooner rather than later.