How to get a free holiday: try house swapping, petsitting, couchsurfing and more

A tight budget shouldn't stop you hitting the road: here are some clever ways to bag a free holiday.

Planning holidays can be stressful, especially when you're trying to figure out how to cover costs.

As money gets tight, holidays are often one of the first luxuries to go. But with a little creative thinking, you can get around the extortionate prices of accommodation.

Follow these tips to get yourself a free trip, or at least knock a major chunk off the overall cost.

House swapping

House swapping is becoming more and more popular among holidaymakers who want to save a bit of cash.

The idea is very simple: you switch homes with someone for a set period of time. It could be in the UK or it could be as far away as the US or Australia, allowing you to explore another part of the world without hefty accommodation costs. 

House swapping could save you money (image: Shutterstock)

House swapping is also practical if you’re thinking of emigrating. Unless you know the place really well, living as a local in the area you’ll be moving to is common sense. With a house exchange you can get a solid couple of months to get a taste of what life is like there. In fact, my cousin and his family did a home swap before they decided to relocate to the UK from Australia.

It can take a little while to adjust to opening up your home to strangers, which is pretty understandable. Keep in mind that this is an exchange, so they’ll likely be as respectful to your house as you are to theirs.

Get started by visiting Home Link (which costs £115 a year to join) or Home Exchange ($150 - approx £115 a year). Better yet, find someone you know to swap with and save yourself the cost.

Just one more thing: let your home insurance provider know so that you can discuss any changes you need to make to your policy.

The best time to book a holiday: get your flights, hotels, cruises and more for the lowest price

Housesitting or petsitting

Sweeten the deal by looking after someone’s pet. Housesitting or petsitting gives you the chance to look after a pooch in Peckham or a cat in Cornwall in exchange for free accommodation.

By housesitting you’re doing someone a massive favour, but cooing over a cute animal and getting free holiday accommodation means there's so much in it for you too. Result!

Housesitting websites use character references to prove that the person looking after your pet is trustworthy, which will be a great relief to homeowners.

All you have to do is register online, though there is usually a fee: for TrustedHousesitters it’s £79.20 a year, Housesit Match is £34.80 a year and MindMyHouse is $20 (just under £14) a year.  In some cases, that’s still less than you’d be paying for a night in a hotel!

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Couchsurfing

Couchsurfing allows you to see the place you’re visiting as a local, without doing any of the work!

On couchsurfing.com you can see all of the people offering a place to stay, complete with reviews from other surfers and a personality profile to give you an idea of who’ll you be staying with. It's completely free to be a member too.

Ask them to recommend places to visit – they might even be able to take you to some low-cost, little-known hotspots.

As for the accommodation itself, it could be a couch or a room, and sometimes even more. A loveMONEY writer and a friend couchsurfed around Finland about three years ago and in Finnish Lapland they got the host's whole flat to themselves! It was almost better than seeing Santa. Almost.

Reindeer in Finland (image: Shutterstock)

Wwoofing

Wwoofing, otherwise known as World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, allows you to stay in various locations throughout the UK as a Wwoofer.

It’s an ideal way to learn about organic farming and where your food comes from by gaining first-hand farming experience. You volunteer in exchange for food, accommodation and a bit of an education. Expect to work between 20 and 35 hours a week, but the rest of the time is yours.

You must be a member and you can sign up online, with memberships lasting around a year. For more information, head over to WWOOF UK’s website.

How to get cheap and free flights

Wild camping

Grab your tent, your rucksack and a spare pair of socks and head into the wild (but maybe you should wait until the summer).

Wild camping is exactly as it sounds, pitching your tent in a barely-touched spot away from the mad rush of modern life. In Scotland and mainland Europe you’re free to camp wherever you please but in England and Wales you might be asked moved along, so be prepared for that. 

Of course, you should be considerate to the land, stay away from residential areas and keep the noise level to a minimum. Wild camping doesn’t have the same comforts of a normal campsite so look don't leave rubbish behind and never light an open fire. You don't want to destroy a whole forest!

Pin down some top pitching spots across the globe over at the Wild Camping forum.

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Bothies and huts

Go one step up from a tent and spend a night in a tiny cabin.

There are 100 ‘bothies’ in various nooks around Scotland that you can stay in free of charge. It’s not all that different to camping in a tent: there’s no lighting, no firewood, no electricity, just some time to spend in the quiet of nature. That said, you can light candles and hang up a washing line out of the rain so that’s a plus.

The open wilderness huts in northern and eastern Finland are fairly similar, located in backwoods away from the road. You can choose to use them for a day if you prefer. They’re not open to reservation so it’s a case of turning up and hoping for a hut.

A mountain hut (image: Shutterstock)

Holistic retreats

Here’s one for the spiritualists. Buddhist temples offer one-day and residential retreats where guests can participate in yoga and meditation for free, though they do encourage donations to help with the running of the temples.

A Buddhist retreat will adhere to Buddhist values, with vegetarian meals and no alcohol and cigarettes allowed. Again, retreats are ideal for getting away from the chaos and an ideal opportunity for reflection so if you need a bit of zen, these are the way to go. 

The Global Retreat Centre near Oxford offers retreats for people who have never been on one before. You'll find more information on the retreats and talks they offer.

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Artistic hideaways

Speaking of retreats, there are a few little-known places around the world where writers and artists can escape to work on their masterpieces, exchanging accommodation for work.

For example, at La Muse Inn in the south of France can do full or partial barter stays which have part payment and part labour. You could pay them by offering your professional skills like marketing and advertising for the retreat or by cleaning and doing basic home renovations.

Others will need you to register for a residence, but you're not guaranteed to get a free stay.

An artist in Paris (image: liberowolf / Shutterstock.com)

Cheap and free travel

The trick with getting cheap travel on any mode of transport is knowing when to book it. See When to get the lowest price on every type of holiday for more.

Some credit cards also offer Avios and other air mile rewards for everyday spending. See The best air mile credit cards to see which deal you should go for.

If you're considering any kind of travel, make sure you're covered by travel insurance. You can compare loads of single and multi-trip policies from some of the UK's top insurers with the loveMONEY travel insurance centre. Get sorted today.

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