The Ultimate Guide to Free Travel
Nine ways to score a free trip. They're not for everybody: Research, patience, good timing—and often a bit of luck and sweat—are required. But there's just no beating the price.
There are three major players in hospitality exchanges, none of which charge a membership fee. HospitalityClub.org debuted in 2000, and currently has more than 328,500 members. It features the most comprehensive security procedures; before being accepted as guests, travelers must provide full names and passport numbers. Globalfreeloaders.com, with nearly 62,000 members, pushes the idea of hosting as much as freeloading, advising members not to accept a free stay unless they can host within six months. Couchsurfing, in business since 2004 and home to 754,146 members in 229 countries, has the most technically advanced search ability. Travelers can view every possible open couch in a specified radius, rather than only by city or country, which is how the other two work.
For all three clubs, hosts and couch crashers are paired up based on profiles that include languages spoken, location, and interests (from Björk to Frisbee and beyond). Many members clarify what's not acceptable—"no drugs" is a common refrain. Though safety can't be guaranteed, members post messages about how visits went. A recent note on Couchsurfing, from a Californian about an Austrian host: "Joe was my 'host with the most' in Vienna. He likes to cook for guests and even has ketchup for Americans!" —Chelan David
7. Volunteer Farm Workers
Trade a day in the fields for room and board
For a month in 2003, Gungsadawn Kitatikarn, of New York City, harvested kale, lettuce, carrots, strawberries, and fava beans in exchange for food and lodging at a Portuguese farm named Belgais. She worked 9 to 5 most days, with an hour lunch break that usually wound up being a communal buffet for two dozen people, and stayed in a furnished bungalow with hot showers a short walk from the main farmhouse. Someone from the ranch drove her into the nearby town of Castelo Branco when it was time for a break. "The people were lovely and respectful, and the ranch was breathtaking," she recalls. "Since I was out in the middle of nowhere in Portugal it was sometimes too quiet for a city gal. But I became comfortable with the silence, and thoroughly enjoyed it."
Belgais is one of more than 4,500 organic farms around the world that provide free food and lodging for guests willing to weed, plant seeds, plow fields, dig trenches, and harvest crops. Nonprofit organization World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms compiles a country-by-country list of participating farms (wwoof.org). Once you pay an annual membership fee, you receive either Internet access or a mailed booklet with contact information for farms in the regions you've selected (fee varies by country; in the U.S., it's $20 for one person, or $30 for a dual membership). You then get in touch with the farm directly to negotiate how long you'll stay, what kind of work you'll do, where you'll sleep, and how much you'll be required to work. Each farm is different, but the standard for volunteers is six hours of work per day, six days per week. That doesn't leave all that much free time, but for many people, working the land in a beautiful, simple setting makes for a nice, healthy respite from their hectic lives. —Laura MacNeil
8. Rotary Club Trips
Network your way to somewhere exciting
Most people are vaguely aware of the Rotary Club as something local businessmen join so they can trade business cards over lunch. The truth is, the organization is huge and international, with more than 1.2 million members and 33,000 clubs in 200 countries (rotary.org).
Rotary International also sponsors travelers on special trips abroad, and there are a few ways even nonmembers can take advantage of the programs. The Group Study Exchange sends groups of four business or professional people—anyone from architects to police officers—to learn about their respective professions in Mexico, Thailand, and dozens of other destinations. Rotary International pays for transportation, including airfare, and local hosts provide meals and accommodations. Applicants are required to have at least two years of experience in their field and, since the idea is to foster future business leaders, be between 25 and 40 years old.
Another possibility comes in the form of Rotary clubs that pay for visitors to come into their communities as volunteer consultants of sorts. According to Rotary International, host cities look for people with "a proven level of professional or technical skills," and, depending on the situation, restaurant owners, plumbers, computer programmers, teachers, and business managers may fit the bill. An online database allows you to search the options.