Alternative Travel: See the World for Less

A woman works remotely while on vacation in Thailand.
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American travel surged back in 2022, as pandemic restrictions and fears receded. Surveys show that 87% of us plan to travel at least as much as last year, and almost half of Americans plan to travel even more in 2023.

While everyone else is doing the traditional flight-to-rental-car-to-hotel-or-Airbnb, you can find better, more meaningful (and cheaper!) ways to get out of town by embracing alternative travel.

Alternative Travel: See the World For Less

Alternative travel can fall into several categories: Working, volunteering, trading, birthright travel, networks and sharing. The benefits of alternative travel include saving money, increased cultural exchange, making friends, seeing the world differently and learning new skills.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ consumer price index has noted that airfare costs are starting to decrease, but lodging away from home and transportation costs are increasing. We have several ways for you to create your dream trips without having to max out the credit cards.

Depending on how much time you have, you can stay in Hawaii for free, swap your house for one in the French countryside, or drive a midsize RV through our national parks. There are also a handful of countries that will help pay to have teens or young adults immerse themselves in their culture.

Homestays, home exchange, workaway programs, house sitting and hospitality exchange groups also provide opportunities to connect with communities and locals while traveling.

Read on for definitions and the pros and cons of these alternative ways to travel.

Types of Alternative Travel

Working Travel

There are a couple of ways for you to paid to get out of town. You can become a nomad — digital or not — by earning money or bartering while you travel. There are two main ways of doing this: House sitting and travel jobs.

House Sitting

House sitting is the easiest form of working travel, and it can provide a free place to stay.

When you house sit, you stay in someone’s residence and take care of the property and possibly animals and garden. House-sitting gigs can last a day or two, or expand to several months.

There’s some variation in what house sitters do. The basics are taking care of the residence including cleaning and making sure everything is working properly. It may include pool and garden maintenance; organizing and creating reports of what mail and phone messages were received; and taking complete care of pets. The residence should be clearly occupied, so house sitters are expected to turn on lights, and be there at different times during the day and night.

You can find out lots more about becoming a house sitter here. Most house sitting websites have an annual fee to join.

Websites for house and pet sitters: Nomador, Mind My House, Trusted Housesitters.

Pro Tip

Beware of house sitting scams! They may be phishing for your information — or worse.

Travel by Teaching

A fantastic way to immerse yourself in another culture is by teaching English abroad. Requirements vary by country, but almost all places require a certificate in TESL Teaching English as a Second Language, or CELTA, Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Many programs also require a bachelor’s degree.

There are also a lot of opportunities for experienced teachers to go abroad. The U.S. Department of State has short term and semester length awards for K-12 teachers to go study, learn, and teach. About 400 teachers from 70 countries participate every year.

Websites for teaching abroad include Go Abroad, Go Overseas, Council on International Educational Exchange and Teachsurfing.

Other Travel Jobs

Other travel job options abound. They could include working in national parks or on cruise ships, as a flight attendant or a pilot, as a tour guide or a lifeguard and as a travel nurse or medical professional.

Looking for more inspo? Here’s The Penny Hoarder’s guide to travel jobs.

Volunteering Travel

Probably the best known travel volunteering is through the Peace Corps. This is a big commitment — three months of training and then at least two years of service. But it’s an incredible way to truly immerse yourself in another place. Peace Corps volunteers get a monthly stipend to help pay their expenses.

Not quite ready for that level of commitment? There are lots of shorter term volunteer opportunities. Volunteering to teach English is similar to being paid to teach, but usually in shorter bursts.

One intriguing stay is in a German town for six days for free if you promise to speak only English. Pueblos Ingles boards people for six to eight days in either Spain or Germany for free, where, again, they have to speak only English. They have programs for adults and teens, starting at age 13.

Two of the best known volunteer travel programs are Workaway and WWOOF. Maybe you would like to volunteer on an animal rescue/organic farm in Hawaii for two weeks, or work on a recycling project in Belize. Most programs require four to six hours of volunteer work a day, and provide a meal or two and a room. WWOOF is geared toward organic farms. Workaway has a variety of volunteer jobs. Workaway has an annual fee, and WWOOF has free and premium memberships.

Websites for volunteer travel include HelpX (Europe based), Go Abroad/volunteer, International Volunteer HQ, Staydu.

Pro Tip

Make sure your volunteer travel program is legit. Here’s how.

Trading Places

The popular 2006 movie “The Holiday,” starring Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz, tells the tale of two women swapping houses. Each finds a local man who she falls in love with.

While you may not fall in love with your soulmate trading places, you might fall hard for their house. No money is exchanged between home owners, just the barter of their residences.

The original home exchange organization, Intervac, was started in the 1950s by Swiss teachers who wanted to travel internationally on a budget.

Home exchange, or house swapping, is a simple concept. People trade their living spaces for a determined amount of time. There are several home exchange organizations which facilitate the swaps, making the experience feel safe and predictable in a good way.

Home exchange websites charge a fee which allows you to create a listing for your house, browse listings, and manage the swap. Since it is free to swap homes, the feel might seem like a good investment.

The only other costs are making sure your house is barter-worthy. Make sure your house is in good condition for welcomed strangers. Entertainment systems, heating and cooling, appliances, etc. should all be in good working order.

In addition to Intervac, websites for trading places include HomeExchange, HomeLink and LoveHomeSwap. Prices range from $100-200 a year, and most sites have a free trial offer.

Birthright Travel

Birthright travel programs aim to bring members of the country’s diaspora home to understand their ancestors’ culture and country. It is especially relevant for the 60% of young adults in this Forbes survey who said they want to travel more. Most birthright travel programs are geared toward them.

The most well known one is Birthright Israel, which provides an all expenses paid 10 day trip for young Jewish people, ages 18-26 living outside of Israel.

Israel is not the only country providing these trips. The National Italian American Foundation also has all expense paid trips for young adults to Italy.

Other organizations and countries subsidize part or most of birthright trips. Most of these are geared toward young adults.

Websites for birthright travel include Armenia, the African continent, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia, and the ancient Assyrian lands in Turkey and Iran and Palestine.

Hospitality Exchange Networks

Many of the hospitality exchange networks — when you belong to a group or association and can stay for a few days with other members of that association — started after World War II. They were ways for peace activists and people interested in cultural exchange to connect with each other. Servas was one of the first ones, and it still operates today.

These networks work by people joining them, sometimes for an annual fee or access to listings, ranging from $33 to $125. Once you have paid to join the network, staying with members is free.

Members interested in hosting can list what they can offer (a room, a bed, a yard to camp in, etc.). Travelers contact the host and set up a brief stay. Most of the time, the stays are limited to just a few days. Hosts often act as tour guides of their hometown. These can be very meaningful exchanges.

Since then, other travel networks have developed. Some of them keep the peace and cultural exchange focus, and others may serve niche communities.

Websites for hospitality exchange networks include Couchsurfing, Warmshowers for bicyclists, Hostwriter for journalists, BeWelcome, LGHEI for members of the LGBTQ+ community, Women Welcome Women and The Affordable Travel Club.

Other Alternative Travel

If your bucket list includes “drive around the country in an RV,” but your wallet disagrees, take heart. The sharing economy has come to recreational vehicles. These websites are similar to Airbnb, except with RVs. RV owners can make money by renting theirs out, and travelers can use RVs without the pressures of ownership.

Websites for RV rentals include Outdoorsy and RV Share.

Of course, you can ditch your physical home and be ready to be on the road or live in your vehicle all the time. You can follow a couple as they refit a van to become a live and work space. If you plan on becoming a digital nomad, there is a social network just for you. Whether you have days, weeks, or a life to see the world, there are adventurous ways to create meaningful travel experiences for yourself.

The Penny Hoarder contributor JoEllen Schilke writes on lifestyle and culture topics. She is the former owner of a coffee shop in St.Petersburg, Florida, and has hosted an arts show on WMNF community radio for nearly 30 years.