Most of us like to travel. But one of the harsh realities of life is that travelling costs money. Or does it? There are actually many ways to travel for free. Transportation, lodging, food, and entertainment: none of these needs cost you any money. In this article I will show you how to travel for free.
Is travelling for free really possible?
Let me start by emphasising that travelling with no money whatsoever is not for the faint-hearted. You can get yourself into a difficult and uncomfortable situation, that may be very tough to escape from. Having some cash on hand, or at least a working ATM card, will come in handy when you’re in a bind. All of the methods discussed in this article assume that you’ve researched your travel destination and know what you’re doing.
Also, while travelling for free is great, don’t be a freeloader! Don’t take advantage of other people’s generosity without giving back. Money is essentially nothing other than a generally accepted I-owe-you for work you did in the past. If you don’t want to spend money, expect to spend something else (knowledge, labor, help). Some things simply cost money (or resources that are worth money) to produce: food, gasoline, cars, houses, etc. Don’t count on others to bear those costs for you.
That being said, there are great ways to share in other people’s lives, help them out with a problem, show them something about your world, and in the process earn your free travel.
Transportation: Walking, Cycling, or Hitchhiking
We evolved to be walking animals, and as such you should consider it your primary mode of transportation. The best things about it are that walking is free, healthy, and can be done almost anywhere. The worst thing is that it limits your distance (from about 15 km/day for novices, up to 35 km/day for experienced hikers). Keep in mind that if you plan to travel primarily on foot, your food consumption will be higher, and the luggage you can take with you smaller.
Biking is a great alternative to hiking, as it drastically increases the efficiency with which you turn energy (food) into mileage. And if you already have a good bike, it’s completely free as well. The disadvantage is that you are more limited in the types of terrain you can cross. The advantages are a bigger luggage allowance and a greater range (from 40 up to 160 km/day).
If you don’t want to rely on just your body’s energy, hitchhiking can be a great way to travel for free. Since you’re riding with someone who’s already going your way, no added cost is created. People who pick up hitchhikers generally don’t expect anything in return. It’s also a great way to meet people. Some hitchhiking tips:
- Before going, check with online hitchhiking forums (like HitchWiki) if the area where you’re going is safe for hitchhikers. Especially single girls should exercise great caution.
- Learn what good pickup spots are. In most countries hitchhiking on the side of the highway is illegal. On-ramps with a good flow of traffic and enough space to pull aside are the best. Cities are bad because of too much short-distance traffic.
- Have a sign with your destination on it rather than just sticking up your thumb. It makes people more likely to stop if they are going that way. If your destination is an unpopular one, try to get to a major nearby city first.
- Accept rides that take you part of the way, but be (a bit) selective. If you have a great pickup spot, don’t settle for a ride to the next small town. Try to get rides to major cities or traffic hubs.
- Be patient. Don’t hitchhike if you have to get somewhere in a rush.
The combination of walking, cycling, and hitchhiking can get you anywhere on your continent completely for free. And some even manage to travel between continents by hitching a ride on a ship or earning passage in exchange for work.
Shelter: Camping, CouchSurfing, or sleeping on the go
Some travel destinations have a comfortable climate for sleeping in a tent, or just out in the open. It’s the perfect way to sleep for free and have all the space you need. Unfortunately, in many countries wild camping is either too dangerous or illegal. If it’s illegal, the authorities may still ignore it if you stay in the same place just for one night in non-urban areas (I’ve experienced this in Israel and Spain). And a great alternative is to just ask a local farmer if you can stay in their field. If you’re not in the way, and don’t damage the property, you have a good chance of getting a free stay.
One of my favorite ways to travel is by couchsurfing. It gives you a free place to stay, the opportunity to connect with someone from a different culture, and usually someone who will show you some local places and activities. Unfortunately the CouchSurfing.org community has mostly been destroyed by greedy venture capitalists, although there are still some real couchsurfers left. Alternatives for the site are emerging in BeWelcome.org, Trampolinn, and Trustroots. Take some time to build a profile and find potential hosts with whom you feel there is a possible connection.
If you’re not travelling completely without money, and book commercial transportation, you can take advantage of that to get a safe night’s sleep without paying extra. For long-distance journeys there are often night buses or night trains in which you can sleep. If you have a layover, sleeping at an airport is not always uncomfortable. (For a list of airports that are comfortable to sleep, see The Guide to Sleeping in Airports) Bus and train stations are generally less safe and comforable, as they are favorite sleeping spots for the homeless.
Food: Foraging or Dumpster Diving
Our prehistoric ancestors got their food by hunting and gathering. Why don’t you? The big problem these days is that a lot of property is private, and that hunting and poaching is forbidden in most places. But if you’re trekking through a truly wild and remote place, your hunting or trapping skills may come in handy. And even in normal forests you can often find berries, nuts, or mushrooms to supplement your diet. Do keep in mind that many are poisonous, so you have to know what you’re doing to avoid becoming the next Cristopher McCandless. And for the truly adventurous of spirit, I’ve heard that insects are an excellent source of protein.
Those travellers who don’t want to risk poisoning themselves Into-the-Wild-style, or who are stuck in a more urban area, have a great alternative: dumpster diving. Every day a lot of perfectly edible food is thrown away, usually because of a mismatch between supply and demand. There are many restaurants that give away unused food or uneaten meals at the end of the night. And grocery stores dump the food that passed its ‘best before’ date. The term dumpster diving may be misplaced here: you’re not rummaging through a trash dumpster, but rather taking advantage of free food that would otherwise go to waste. Hence I like the term freeganism better.
Freeganism also embodies the drive to not waste anything, and to live as sustainably as possible. The key skill for the freegan traveller is to figure out which places dump or give away their unused food at which times. Trashwiki is a good starting point. Additionally, larger cities often have some information that’s easily accessible through Google. There are also freegan Facebook and CouchSurfing groups. A word of caution: in some countries it is illegal to take food from private dumpsters. Also, if something smells bad, that’s a reliable sign it will make you sick. Last but not least: there are the truly desperate who depend on food handouts to survive. Don’t take away their food supply if you can afford to pay for your meals.
Entertainment: People, Nature, and Other Attractions
The best things in life are free. I think that certainly goes for travelling. From all my journeys the most memorable experiences are those involving local people in their own environment. A culture is not made by its buildings, monuments, and traditional dances, but by its people. If you want to learn something about the Basque Country, you don’t get it from visiting the Guggenheim Museum. Try instead to spend some time talking (and eating and drinking!) with the Basque people.
Even if you want to get a sense of what the architecture of a place looks like, you don’t have to visit the most expensive tourist hotspots. Do you really need to climb the Eiffel Tower to enjoy Paris, or enter Wat Phra Kaew to appreciate Bangkok? You can get a great view of Paris for free from the steps of the Sacre Coeur, and a free visit to Wat Traimit shows you some gorgeous Buddhist splendor. Many cities now have free walking tours (like Sandeman’s or Free Tours by Foot), which take you along the best free sights and give you an explanation of the city’s history on top. (Though the tours are free, it is good custom to tip the guide if you liked the tour.)
In many cities the local museums have a free entrance time slot. These usually aren’t when all the tourists would visit. So if you time your visit well, you can see many great museums without paying a dime. World class museums that have a free entrance day include the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (Friday after 16:00), the Prado in Madrid (evenings after 18:00), and the British Museum in London (always free). Similar deals can be found for famous churches: they are often free to enter during mass or prayer times. As long as you respect the religious practice, you can see their ornate interiors for free.
Finally, some of the most splendid sights were not made by man. Nature can offer you views and experiences that no urban area can. I personally love to go hiking in the mountains. There are incredible national parks all over the world (some of which charge a small fee for the maintenance of the area), and some countries look like they are one big national park in and of themselves. The best thing about it is, it’s entirely free. So don’t just stay locked up in the city, and go out into the wild beyond without losing a penny.
Are you ready to travel for free
I hope to have shown you in this article how you can travel for free. Transportation, loding, food, and entertainment, all of these don’t need to cost a thing. If you go with an open mind and are not too picky, you can have amazing trips without making a dent into your bank account.
Do you have additional suggestions how to travel for free? Or do you have a great story to share about your free travel experiences? Please post it in the comments below.
If you’d like to read more about independent travel, free and otherwise, check out the Travel section on this site.