Jedd and Michelle - save money on longterm travel

RVE 134: How to Save Money on Longterm Travel (and Still Have Awesome Experiences)

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This is a guest post by Michelle Chang of on four ways to save money on longterm travel. Her new book, An Intentional Travelers Guide to Unconventional Budget Accommodations, shares stories and tactics of creative ways to save money on transformational travel experiences.

When my husband and I first started out traveling long term, we had almost no income. We had just finished our Peace Corps volunteer service and were building our freelance business from scratch. We had to figure out how to stay afloat while exploring the world. So what did we do?

We didn’t pay for rent or hotels for a year.

And no, we didn’t become bums. We traveled to Canada, France, Switzerland, Jamaica, and Ecuador by getting creative with accommodations. And we found that keeping our living expenses low went hand in hand with having more meaningful, local experiences.

We continue to use a hodge-podge of different strategies to save money on travel. They’re not things you’ll find in the budget travel guidebooks. (The “budget” hotel sections in travel books is usually too expensive for us, and we’re not interested in cheap/sketchy dorm-style hostels.)

We have a completely different way to travel. An unconventional way. A way that not only saves money so we can travel more, but also gives a richer experience.

Not a cheap experience. A richer experience. That costs less.

We travel slowly because 1) we work as we travel, running our freelance web services business and 2) we like to spend time getting to know a place, its people, and its culture. Whenever possible, we try to stay active as we travel; and we’re always looking to learn something new.

That’s why we were drawn to work exchanges.

Work Exchange

A work exchange is an opportunity for travelers to stay with a local host and give a few hours of help per day in exchange for free room and board. A strong emphasis is put on cross-cultural exchange and helping travelers get an authentic experience of the place they’re visiting.

In the RV world, work camping is a similar concept.

We tried out work exchanges first through organized, online networks. Then we adapted the concept and created our own unofficial version of work exchange.

The primary online networks for work exchanges include: Help Exchange, Workaway, and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (a.k.a. WWOOFing). These all have online listings of hosts willing to offer accommodations and sometimes meals, in exchange for a few hours of volunteer work.

Terms of the exchange and living arrangements vary by host. WWOOF exclusively lists organic farm stays and you pay a fee for each country listing you want access to. Help Exchange and Work Away include more diverse opportunities – from construction to nannying to receiving guests at a B&B. Both networks have a very reasonable fee that gives you access to all hosts around the world for a couple years.

Unofficial Work Exchanges

We still use the Help Exchange website from time to time. But we’ve also arranged our own exchanges for varying lengths and using different skill sets. For example…

In Denmark, we helped a young family paint their traditional, thatch-roofed home. We stayed in their guest room for 5 days, and they provided delicious farm-to-table meals. We were connected to that family through a college classmate who had moved to Copenhagen.

In Merida, Mexico, we helped an expat B&B owner learn to manage her website in exchange for two weeks of free accommodations. We found that opportunity by posting a proposal on a Facebook group.

Airbnb Hacks

We’ve also used the work exchange concept in different ways through Airbnb.

In Hoi An, Vietnam, we provided new, high-quality images for our homestay hosts to use on their Airbnb page in exchange for a room upgrade. (We fell in love with the Hoi An homestay family and returned 14 months later. They gave us an even better discount the second time because we stayed over a month.)

When we’re not doing some outside-the-box, unconventional exchange for our accommodations, we often rent apartments long-term. We save money with a monthly discount on Airbnb rentals, plus we tend to stay in countries with a lower cost of living to begin with. Not to mention, we’ve uncovered a few other Airbnb hacks along the way (but you’ll have to read the book to find out what they are!).


Another common strategy we use to save money on lodging is pet-sitting and house-sitting.

Every summer, we love to be in Oregon’s beautiful Willamette Valley where the weather is perfect and we’re close to family and friends. Through our personal network, we stay for weeks at a time in nice homes without paying a cent. When there’s a dog involved, we charge a daily fee.

Many of our digital nomad friends do house-sitting internationally. There are a number of online membership networks where you can see house-sit listings around the world. I like because it notifies me when new opportunities post in the destination and timeframe I’m looking for.

House-sits in popular destinations are competitive, so it’s important to create a top-notch profile with strong references. I’ve included detailed instructions on how to win the best house-sit gigs in the bonus materials of the Unconventional Budget Accommodations book.

You don’t have to be a digital nomad, or even travel out of the country, to take advantage of these different accommodation options. They apply to anyone, whether you’re taking a short trip or a round-the-world journey.

I hope more travelers will try these unconventional budget accommodation strategies because they not only make it possible to travel more affordably, they also give you a richer experience than staying in a traditional hotel. That way, you can dig deeper into each place and be transformed by authentic local experiences.

For more details about the strategies mentioned in this post, check out An Intentional Travelers Guide to Unconventional Budget Accommodations.