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.
Take up residence in someone else's home
Instead of waiting for your rich aunt in the Hamptons to go away and ask you to watch over her place, look into a service that lists house-sitting opportunities. If things work out, you might be chilling out at a Caribbean villa or caring for cats and hens in an adorable French farmhouse.
Since retiring as a university administrator 10 years ago, Grant Thomas of Edmond, Okla., has kept an eye on houses (and pets) in Seattle, Santa Fe, and San Rafael, Calif. "House-sitting has opened up new worlds to me," he says. "I get to know a place much more in-depth, and my experiences have given me a new circle of human, canine, and feline friends across the country."
Before signing on for any assignment, ask questions. Namely, who pays the bills? Many homeowners state upfront that house sitters pay for utilities, at the least. If there are pets, find out how many and what their special needs are. If there's a garden, ask how big it is and how much attention it requires. At some point, the work may make the "free" lodging not worth the trouble. Also, ask the owner for the names and contacts of previous house sitters, and grill them about the experience.
Where do you find these gigs? Caretaker.org posts more than 1,000 house-sitting openings per year, most of which are in the U.S. ($30 per year to see online listings). At last check, housecarers.com listed 298 opportunities, including 117 in Australia ($45). There's also housesitworld.com, where homeowners can search for registered sitters with availability and skills that match their needs ($40). And sabbaticalhomes.com is a site where the houses are all left behind by academics on teaching assignments (free for house sitters, from $35 to post a home online). —Sophie Alexander
2. Hiking Trail Volunteers
Get fresh air without paying for it
Most volunteer vacations charge participants for the chance to do grunt work without pay. A few regional trail associations, however, gladly welcome anyone willing to work on hiking paths and don't ask for a dime. As thanks for volunteers' hours of sweat spent clearing debris, building rock steps, or reconfiguring switchbacks, the associations provide free campsites at a minimum. Cabins, bedding, food, and transportation are sometimes included, too.
The Continental Divide Trail Alliance runs two-to-seven-day trips with catered meals at A-list national parks such as Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and Glacier (303/838-3760, cdtrail.org). The group's goal is to complete the trail it's named for, which is about two thirds of the way done. Some programs run by the Pacific Northwest Trail Association—which focuses on a path leading from Washington's Olympic Mountains into Montana—are free (877/854-9415, pnt.org). From Maine to Georgia, volunteers can join one- or two-week trips organized by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (304/535-6331, appalachiantrail.org). At some locales, workers sleep in cabins with cots and electricity. —Nick Mosquera
3. Sister City Exchanges
Spend time with family you never knew you had
With a primary goal of promoting cultural understanding, Sister Cities International is a nonprofit network that partners hundreds of U.S. cities with international "sister" cities that have similar climates, industries, or populations (sister-cities.org). The local governments of sister cities might exchange ideas about health care, traffic circles, or playgrounds. There are also opportunities for residents to visit sister cities—sometimes totally on your hometown's dime.
Every year, several Tempe, Ariz., high school students are selected to go on five-week trips to sister cities (towns can have more than one) such as Lower Hutt, New Zealand; Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France; and Zhenjiang, China. All expenses are paid, including airfare. "Within a few hours of arriving in Ireland, I felt completely at home," says Sara Bernal, a Tempe high school senior who went to Carlow, another sister city, last year. "I'd give anything to have another experience like it."
Sister city visits aren't just for high school kids. Every year hundreds of groups from U.S. towns head overseas to foster bonds with international "family." Participants are expected to be active in sister city projects and host counterparts when they come to town. Travelers should expect to run fund-raisers for trips—most cities don't foot the bill, at least not entirely—though room and board are usually covered by local hosts. —Laura MacNeil
Use your RV to get from one job to the next
Millions of RV owners are on the move year-round, and an estimated 750,000 of them couple their travels with short-term work. The wages are enough to get by (typically $8-$12 per hour), and gigs sometimes come with free places to park, including free electric hookup and other perks. The folks on the move are called workampers, and may find themselves checking in guests and overseeing ice cream socials at KOA campgrounds, or dressing up as Donald Duck at Walt Disney World. At last check, more than 700 employers posted summer jobs aimed at RVers at workamper.com, the online home of Workamper News, which has been around since 1987. Jobs tend to be at state and national parks, seasonal vacation spots, and big events such as the Indianapolis 500. Most workampers spend fewer than 20 hours per week on the job, so there's plenty of opportunity to relax and explore. —Lisa Rose
Go on a road trip in someone else's car
Don Jankiewicz, a 34-year-old actor in Los Angeles, has hopped behind the wheel of around 50 cars, none of which were his. He's neither a valet nor a thief. Ever since reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road in college, Jankiewicz has volunteered for driveaway duty whenever he could. A driveaway situation arises when a car owner needs his vehicle moved to a new location and either can't or doesn't want to do the driving. Rather than pay to ship the car, the owner signs his ride up for a driveaway program—essentially giving a free car rental to a volunteer. "You encounter places you never knew existed, and meet people with the most interesting stories," says Jankiewicz. "It's cheaper than any other kind of travel. No one believes this even exists anymore."
Drivers usually need only to fill out an application form and present a valid driver's license and references, though some situations require that you be fingerprinted or submit a driving history (available through your DMV). For insurance reasons, drivers probably need to be at least 23. Once approved, you're handed the car keys and given a free first tank of gas. All other expenses, including gas and lodging, are yours.
With 43 U.S. locations, Auto Driveaway is the country's biggest player, listing about 150 opportunities per month (800/346-2277, autodriveaway.com, $350 deposit). Some offices will even take requests for specific routes and call you if there's a car that's a match. Start inquiring a month in advance of when you'd like to hit the road, and continue checking in.
Don't expect to have a completely unrestricted, carefree joyride, however. There are limits on mileage (point-to-point road distance plus 15-25 percent extra), driving time (with Auto Driveaway you're not supposed to be on the road between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.), and trip duration (negotiated, but most people must average at least 400 miles per day). A driver on a typical 3,000-mile cross-country road trip is given seven to ten days to complete the journey, with a maximum of 3,500 miles logged on the odometer. To eliminate headaches and maximize the opportunity for fun, Jankiewicz carefully maps out his routes ahead of time, checking the Internet for construction delays and weather forecasts. —Michele Schwartz
6. Hospitality Exchanges
Crash on couches and make friends along the way
To most people, the idea is crazy: heading to a stranger's house to sleep on the couch or in a spare room. Perhaps even loonier: welcoming someone you've never met into your house. But thousands of people take part in hospitality exchanges, as such visits are known. Konstantinos Chalvatzis, a 25-year-old teaching assistant who lives just outside Athens, Greece, joined hospitality club Couchsurfing.com last March; the online community knows him as "Promitheus." Since then, he has welcomed about 40 strangers into his apartment, and stayed on the couches of more than 60 club members. "When people stay with me, they get a real sense of what living in Athens is like," he says. "If I have time I'll show them the big monuments, as well as residential areas, taverns, and underground art galleries."
Participants come in all ages, colors, and cultures, though they tend to be male, English-speaking, and in their 20s and 30s, and hail from America, Germany, Australia, and Canada. The upside is not only free lodging but the chance to meet people who tend to be open-minded, curious, and generous. But it's not the equivalent of a free hotel, says Bryan McDonald ("Duke"), a 28-year-old musician born in Mexico who now calls Amsterdam home. "The best thing a Couchsurfer can do is spend time with his host," he says. "I've had guests cook their favorite food, or make something special from their country for me. These little things mean a lot to hosts."
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.
Finally, Rotary clubs organize some 8,000 youth exchanges per year, in which students 15 and up are hosted overseas in private homes and camps for stints of few days to several months. Room and board are covered, though airfare is not. Don't expect to jump on any Rotary-sponsored vacation right away, however. Competition for program openings is stiff, and involves a lengthy application process that can take up to a year. —Laura MacNeil
9. Home Swapping
Exchange houses and live like a local
The concept of home swapping is as simple as it sounds. You trade your pad for someone else's, and everyone gets a free place to stay. "If you have a sense of humor and go with the flow, home exchange will work for you," says T.T. Baker, co-author of The Home Exchange Guide, who has swapped homes five times. "If you have a narrow comfort zone, stay in a hotel." Checking references, talking over the phone with your counterpart, and having contracts clearly spelled out—especially when it comes to bills and damages—alleviate the anxiety.
The right situation may require months of planning and a dose of luck. It certainly makes things easier if you live in Miami Beach, or some other spot popular with travelers. Home exchange services charge $35-$110 per year, and by joining more than one club you obviously increase your chances. Reputable companies with listings worldwide include: digsville.com; gti-home-exchange.com; homeexchange.com; intervacus.com; ihen.com; and swapnow.com. —Sophie Alexander
Here's to the kindness of strangers
After joining one of these clubs, you'll stay for a few dollars or free at members' homes. Most clubs also expect members to host travelers. —Lee Uehara
- Educators 800/956-4822, educatorstravel.com, $36 annual fee
- Gays and Lesbians 011-49/30-691-9537, lghei.org, $40 annual fee
- Mensa Members 800/666-3672, us.mensa.org, $52 annual fee (plus $40 for intelligence test)
- Motorcyclists 877/408-0471, motorcycle-travel.net, $30 annual fee
- People Over 50 815/456-3111, evergreenclub.com, $60/single, $75/couple annual fee
- Tandem Bicycliststandemclub.org, $15 annual fee
- Women 011-44/1494-465-441, womenwelcomewomen.org.uk, $67 annual fee