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4 (Almost) Free Ways to Travel

If the recessionary mindset has taught us anything, it’s that we still have expansive travel desires even when our wallets are slim. Enter the working vacation, where callous-palmed travelers don the sun hat and gloves of the temporary laborer, and pay for their camp grub and modest accommodations by picking heirloom tomatoes or keeping leaf-eating beetles at bay. Or forgo the work and embrace the free. Below are a few ingenious ways to take a vacation for next to nothing.


Harvest 22 varieties of figs in Malibu. Help build an off-the-grid dwelling at 10,000 feet in Colorado Springs. Rake wild blueberries and make wine in Phillips, Maine. What is this strange bourgeois migrant labor, you ask? There are some 1,400 farms associated with WWOOF-USA, the American chapter of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and thousands more across the planet. The exchange: You work for a half day, and the farm owners, whom you’ve hopefully vetted (and they you, crazy eyes), provide food and shelter. No previous experience extolling the virtue of the soil is needed, but you do have to be at least 18 years old to work on your own. (Those younger than 18 must be accompanied by an adult.)

The length of a farmstay is determined by you and your host, and can vary from a few days to a season. Gaining access to WWOOF-USA’s online database of farms costs $30 for a one-year membership.

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If you’re able to get cheap airfare (or some other cheap overseas travel — merchant marine ship, anyone?) you might enjoy exchanging a few hours of work per day for food, accommodations and the opportunity to learn about the people and places you visit. states as one of its goals an aim “to promote cultural understanding between different peoples and lands throughout the world.” Set up to facilitate travel and foreign language immersion, the network of families, individuals and organizations seeks volunteers to paint, build, baby-sit or plant. If it needs doing, you may be asked — in a foreign tongue — to do it.

To become a Workawayer, it will cost a single person 22 euros for two years’ access to hosts. The cost is 29 euros for a couple or two friends for two years.

Couch Surfing

If you’d rather not do any work harder than lifting your backpack and hoofing it to your next destination, you might want to consider couch surfing, which could or could not involve sleeping on a sofa. describes the concept as a network of travelers and hosts “fostering cultural exchange and mutual respect,” but basically it’s a way to find free places to stay while you travel. Travelers share their homes, bikes, car rides, museum passes, fun times and more. It’s free to register.

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Home Exchange

One of the biggest expenses in any trip is lodging, but if you’re willing to stay in someone else’s home — and let him or her stay in yours — you can crash for just about free. Home exchange networks such as Intervac and HomeLink International will coordinate a house swap with travelers around the world who might want to stay in your house while you stay in theirs, and all you’ll pay is an annual membership fee. Cost savings aside, a home exchange is also a great way to live like a local; you’ll be in a residential neighborhood rather than a downtown hotel, with a kitchen where you can cook for yourself rather than dining out every day, and sometimes you can even borrow the owner’s car or bike during your stay.

See Home Exchange: A How-To Guide for more information.

Not interested in sleeping on a stranger’s couch or getting your hands dirty on vacation? Check out these nine creative ways to save on your next trip.

Ever been on a volunteer or working vacation? Tell us about it below.

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By Sarah Schlichter

Deputy Executive Editor Sarah Schlichter's idea of a perfect trip includes spotting exotic animals, hiking through pristine landscapes, exploring new neighborhoods on foot, and soaking up as much art as she can. She often attempts to recreate recipes from her international travels after she gets home (which has twice resulted in accidental kitchen fires—no humans or animals were harmed).

Sarah joined the SmarterTravel team in 2017 after more than a decade at the helm of Sarah's practical travel advice has been featured in dozens of news outlets including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Budget Travel, and Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "A journal. Even years later, reading my notes from a trip can bring back incredibly vivid memories."

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: "Road tripping and hiking through the rugged mountains of Patagonia."

Travel Motto: "'To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.'—Freya Stark"

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Aisle. I get restless on long flights and like to be able to move around without disturbing anyone else."

Email Sarah at

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