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Five Ways to Travel The World Rent-free

30 June 2014

How can anyone afford to travel full time? Two years ago, I would have given just about anything for the answer to that one little question.  If you're not a touring musician, a paid travel journalist, a successful executive, or an heiress, it must be impossible. Right? I am living proof that it absolutely isn't and I'm here to explain why not. 


For me, that highly elusive magic formula has boiled down to two main elements: flying for free using air mile accounts and offering services in exchange for accommodation. More later on amassing mad quantities of air miles! For now, let's discuss where to stay. 


Hotels are the most unsustainable expense when it comes to long term travel. Now, I love an all-out luxury hotel room—the more theatrical the atmosphere the better. Visions of Blakes in London's Chelsea and The Saint James in the 16th arrondissement of Paris are dancing like haute hospitality sirens before my waking eyes, along with Riad Anayela in Marrakech, and ... wait, that's a whole different article. 


The truth is that a night in such high dollar establishments can cost the equivalent of an entire month's rent for my one-bedroom apartment in Seattle. Even a $10 hostel bed will set you back three bills a month. So let's skip the small talk and get to the point. Here are six perfectly feasible ways to travel the world rent-free.




Work in exchange for a place to stay and sometimes also food. Agreements range from 8-40 hours per week and may or may not include meals. I have landed gigs teaching English in China, working with an orphanage in Nepal, and helping to manage a lodge in South Africa, on the edge of Addo Elephant National Park (more coming soon about exactly why I DON'T recommend volunteering for orphanages).


Whatever skills you have to offer, I promise you, someone needs them. Here are four resources to help you locate and land your own worktrade agreement. These are worldwide online databases with thousands of listings for hosts seeking all kinds of helpers. They do carry annual membership fees of $20-50, an expense you'll recover in a single night of free accommodation. You can browse the listings before you pay, so have a look at all the opportunities. 


You'll negotiate the length and dates of your stay directly with each individual host. Make sure that you understand each other's expectations before you book your flight. Will you have a private room? Will you share with a roommate? Exactly which meals are included? What kind of work will you be doing and how many hours are expected? These kinds of questions are essential to ask if you want to avoid disappointment. 


There is competition for these worktrade assignments, so you'll need to be persistent, keep your options open, and build an eye-catching profile. It's not at all unusual to send out inquiries and never receive a response. But if you're willing to travel where the winds of fate would take you, something wonderful will work itself out. 





Live in someone's house, or Caribbean condo, or Italian villa, while they're away. Some homeowners ask for lawncare or maintenance skills, many require care for their pets. It's somewhat tricky to get the right gig because folks who advertise for housesitting assignments get absolutely flooded with applications within hours of posting an offer.


Something about you will need to stand out, so be original when you send an inquiry, focus on any and all relevant experience, and let your personality shine. If the listing is funny, then get your comic on; if the homeowner has a diabetic poodle, let them know that you used to have one too, and that you know how to administer insulin (Rest in peace, gentle Tribble! May the poodle gods bless your little soul). 


Most importantly, be open to an array of destinations, and keep cranking out those applications. Housesitting sites will send their members a daily digest of new opportunities, so police them like an inner city cop with a complex, and apply as quickly as you can. I have landed month-long housesitting gigs in Doha and Greater London, and I've only been on the prowl for two months, so it's possible. Don't give up. 


Be willing to take on five ailing bulldogs with five different medical regimens. Be willing to go to the Middle East. Alone. Even if you're a woman. Hey, it's Qatar, not Afghanistan—I'm pretty sure I can handle it! 


Assignments range from long weekends to years and it costs $30-80 annually to sign up as an available sitter. Again, you can troll the listings long before you pay, so browse the sites, find several possibilities you like, and then sign up.


Crew a ship

Work on a boat in exchange for free passage. Now we move into the realm of magic tricks I haven't personally tried but which are nonetheless viable options. Opportunities span the seafaring spectrum from handling odd jobs on a two-berth sailboat to working on a massive cruiseship. Some captains may require sailing experience but some may be willing to train an apprentice in exchange for cooking and cleaning. 


It is not uncommon to be charged a small fee for your share of meals and fuel, while some crew get paid if they offer experience; it's all up to you and the captain. For more about living and working at sea from someone who's done it themselves, read this handy little WiseBread article from the formidable Nora Dunn. And if you're ready to sail, here are four options for finding your trusty vessel. 


Home Exchange

Swap homes for awhile with someone in the South of France, or Shanghai, or Timbuktu. Obviously, you need a home to exchange, so this one doesn't work for full time nomads. You'll negotiate the length of the exchange, car use, pet care, and dates. Options range from studio apartments to mansions and exchanges don't have to be simultaneous. Membership with an online home exchange database costs $20-$160 per year.



Find a free place to crash with a local host in locations across the globe. It's a great way to learn about the places you land while making new friends along the way. But don't expect to stay for more than two or three days with any individual host. As a slow travel addict and a lover of solitude, couchsurfing is not a priority for me, but it can help to fill the gaps between housesitting gigs or worktrade agreements quite well. It can also give you crashpoints along your route if you're traveling by road or by rail. Most couchsurfing websites are free to join and list hosts all over the world.  




So, fellow explorers, possibilities abound! Get out there and choose your own adventure. Still have questions? Need a friendly kick in the pants? For advice, clarification, poetic provocations, or inspirational mojo, feel free to drop me a line anytime. 

Stay tuned for more tips, unpredictable tricks, and in-depth informative articles!

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