Everyone agrees that travel is a wonderful thing. Leisure travel is not only relaxing: visiting new places can expand your horizons and help pad your resume as you experience new cultures and familiarize yourself with different ways of interacting with the world.
However, most of us would consider frequent travel outside our budget, no matter how attractive the benefits. To start, there is the cost of plane, train or boat tickets. Once you arrive, you will often find yourself shelling out even more for hotel, food and attractions. This amount doesn’t include any additional purchases, such as souvenirs or emergency supplies. Some people can save all year for a few days’ vacation, and still find themselves in the red when they get home.
Until recently, when thinking about how to travel for less, the go-to method was hitchhiking. This form of travel was seen primarily as the domain of younger or reckless individuals, as there is a particular inherent risk in hitchhiking. There’s no guarantee you’ll get a ride; if you do get one, there’s a chance they’re not going where you’re going; and finally, there’s no sure-fire method of judging the safety of your driver. It’s no wonder many dark tales start with a hitchhiker innocently entering a stranger’s car.
Since most of us are uncomfortable with hitchhiking, the question remains: is there a way to travel for free?
The answer is yes and no. There are ways to travel without putting down any money, however, depending on your travel goals and needs, you may have to put in some labor or exchange of services. That said, the results will be a trip that doesn’t empty your bank account. In fact, some of the options below can even allow you to return home with a few extra dollars in your pocket!
Before looking into ways to travel for free, think about what kind of trip you want to take. Are you purely looking to vacation? Are you interested in seeing the world past your country’s borders or are you content exploring your own state or coast? Do you want to go on tours? Would you like to adventure on your own or with friends?
Answering these questions can help you find the right way to take your next trip for cheap or free. Once you have your travel goals firmly in mind, use the ideas below to plan your trip and you’ll be on the road in no time!
Completely Free Travel
Are you feeling lucky? Entirely free travel is possible, though rare. It takes a certain amount of good fortune to find a deal that requires no payment on your part, but with a little digging, it is possible to obtain such windfalls.
The most obvious way is to enter and win an all-expenses-paid vacation through a contest, promotion or sweepstakes. Contests offer no guarantee, but every competition has to have a winner, so why can’t it be you? When looking for contests to enter, be careful to keep an eye out for scams, as there are many. Good rules of thumb include only entering contests run by well-known companies, and ones that do not ask you to make a purchase or to give your banking information. Always be skeptical of calls that claim you’ve won a trip you didn’t enter for, or that ask you to make a down payment over the phone that will be later reimbursed. If it’s a legitimate win, they’ll be giving you their information, not taking all of yours!
While contests are exciting, they aren’t sure-fire free ways to travel. If you’re looking to get a free trip guaranteed, a growing popular option is through credit card signup bonuses. Many credit cards offer generous points for joining, points that can be redeemed for airline tickets, hotel stays and other travel staples. In general, when you’re looking for credit cards, it’s a good idea to look for ones that offer perks. Many companies provide cards through airlines which can be used to rack up further travel points. If your job requires you to take domestic flights on a regular basis, see if you can purchase your tickets with your card and be reimbursed by your employer so that you can earn personal travel points while working. This can create a steady stream of free travel opportunities. Just be sure to use your card regularly so you can maximize the rewards!
A final, totally-free option for exotic travel is finding Diaspora Youth Programs to sign up for. Many religious and ethnic communities offer free, all expenses-covered, touring trips to places like China and Vietnam as a way of connecting young people with their roots. The Israel Birthright trip, for example, is a popular tour that gives young Jews who have never been to Israel before the opportunity to see the country at no cost. Food, lodging and activities are included in the package, with several tour options available. There are similar tours available for groups like Birthright Armenia and Heritage Greece. If you are from an ethnic or religious group that has strong ties to a particular country, it is worth researching if there is a Diaspora Program available for you.
Free-to-Almost-Free Travel Options
Even if you’re not eligible for one of those special trips, you might still be eligible for a travel scholarship. These are scholarships that provide stipends for study abroad. They can range from grants for $1,000 to over $20,000 and can cover a few weeks to a few years away. And chances of snagging a scholarship are higher than the odds of winning a travel contest: there are scholarships available for specific minorities, specific areas of study, specific regions, specific life experiences and more. A little research into local and national grant listings should reveal several that are unique to you, giving you a leg up towards earning one.
Another nice thing about travel grants is that they’re often not limited to college-age students only; many are open to people of all ages and interests. Depending on what you want to learn and where you want to learn it, there are scholarship options, and not all of them are degree based. Some scholarships are for language training programs, and others are simply for individuals interested in learning more about a specific country. Though not all scholarships will allow you to visit a foreign country completely free of charge, many come rather close to a full ride.
Fundraising is yet another way to travel for cheap or free. Many charitable organizations hold annual events, such as marathons, in vacation locations. If you join a team and fundraise for the charity, depending on the organization they may pay for your travel and lodging expenses during your participation period. Though this method of free travel involves soliciting donations from friends, family and coworkers, it is for a good cause and can be fulfilling.
Like fundraising, a meaningful way to travel for free is to sign up for volunteer work. Many churches, charities and relief organizations will pay for your travel, food and expenses in exchange for your help with a project. Though you’ll be working for your trip, you won’t have to put down actual money for it, and in addition to the good karma you’ll get through your volunteer work, most of these positions take their volunteers sightseeing and on tours, so you will have some play time. You’ll also be able to add valuable experience to your resume!
Make Money While Traveling at (Almost) No Cost
Exchanging services for travel doesn’t have to be completely altruistic, though. If you have a particular skill, you could get a part-time job as an instructor. Resorts will often put up their instructors for free and pay them a token salary. So not only might you be saving money traveling this way, you might even make some! There is a high demand for ski instructors, surf instructors, language teachers, camp counsellors and other professionals in many tourist destinations. Think about what marketable skills you have and then go looking for a part-time job in a place that interests you. You may have to do a little work, but the result can be the vacation of a lifetime!
In this vein, many people travel for free by signing up to be an au pair. Basically babysitters, au pairs are often hired to watch other people’s children over a vacation. If you’re good with kids, consider this option, as it’s a way to get paid to see some incredible locations. You’ll get to go to the same attractions as the family you work for and enjoy the travel perks they get.
If you’re looking to travel close to home, another free option is to offer yourself as a transport driver or mover. Advertise yourself as a cheaper alternative to a big name moving company. For just the cost of gas, lodging and food, you’ll move people’s stuff cross country for them, or deliver their merchandise. If you’re not comfortable driving a truck long distances, another variation of this travel strategy is to offer to drive someone’s car to their new home as they fly or otherwise travel to where they’ll now be living. In either case, it is possible to not only get your road trip financed this way, but to even make a few extra bucks, depending on how you market yourself, or who you work for.
One final way to travel at a discounted rate is to house-swap. House-swapping is a trend that has become increasingly popular over the last few years, with many websites popping up to help facilitate swapping. In this method of travel, you arrange to switch homes with someone in your target destination. While house-swapping won’t take away all costs--you’ll still need to get to the location and pay for food--it does knock off the considerable expense of lodging. And if you’re savvy, you can take away some of those other expenses using some of the tips from this article, such as utilizing credit card bonus points to pay for your flight.
Though many will tell you that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, the truth is it is possible to get free or almost free travel. Following the different methods above, it is possible to reduce the costs considerably or even make money while you visit the places you’ve always wanted to see. With that in mind, happy planning!