Update: Check the comments for more resources I missed or have added since this post was published.
A couple years ago, I hitchhiked over 14,000 miles around the USA in a year and I slept for free 99.5% of the time.
I saved over 18,000$ in cheap hotel room bills (estimated at 50$ a night) using the methods below and you can too.
More importantly though, sleeping with locals on beds, couches, floors, boats, roofs, in yards, mansions, forests, prairies, and even on a pool table was the best education I ever received.
One thing I learned…
Anyone can travel the world, regardless of how much money is in your bank account.
Another thing I learned…
Travel will help you understand different perspectives and see our current world situation clearer. As our world gets flatter, these skills are essential to your survival.
One more thing I learned…
The only way to really learn about the world is to go see it for yourself.
I dissected what I learned in my year on the road and I continue to learn as I travel around the world now (I’m writing this from the sunny Baja Peninsula in Mexico… watch the short video). I also analyzed the most innovative travelers today to show you the best ways to sleep for free as you travel.
Ultimately though this post is about showing you how to be free.
I’m writing this post to call you out. To challenge you to start traveling today, no matter what your financial situation looks like. The common excuse that you don’t have the dough, won’t fly anymore.
If you are planning to go tomorrow… tomorrow will probably never come (just ask a Nomadic Matt).
Now, maybe you could care less about traveling and are neck deep in dirty diapers. Or if you do want to travel, then you love nothing more than drinking jugs of margaritas, while turning toasty brown under the sun. No sweat, I’d love if you skipped this post. Go do something you that gets your blood bubbling.
I’m really only writing this for: the people out there who can’t wait to see the world with their own eyes; the curious souls who aren’t swimming in pools of cash and won’t settle for the dead American dream; and those sneaky folks that are reading this from their cubicle and counting the seconds until quitting time.
Sleeping for free can be spectacular, but it is not for everyone.
In fact, it can be a pain in the ass sometimes and even dangerous other times (although not as dangerous as watching sitcoms or driving your car everywhere).
Some mornings I have woken up in a clean double bed, went for a dip in the infinity pool, and then hit a few golf balls at the driving range 20 feet away. All before I shared a healthy breakfast with a friend I had met only hours before. Other days weren’t as cushy, as I woke up in a patch of forest surrounded by broken bottles feeling like a homeless bum.
The more experience I have with this lifestyle though, the better I get at finding amazing spots to sleep. This post will help you avoid broken bottle days and have more infinity pool days. But it takes courage and a willingness to push your own boundaries to make this work for you.
Are you up for the challenge?
5 Ways I Sleep For Free:
1. Stay With Friends
This is a simple one. You do this already. However, for this to work during long-term travel, you are going to need more than 20 or 30 good friends to stay with.
Facebook and Twitter can be used to maintain hundreds of friendships across the world. If you have an interesting blog, like Chris Brogan, you might have thousands of friends. These people would drop everything to hang out with you, if you landed in their city.
Sure, these won’t be your best friends. They won’t invite you to their wedding or smoke a cigar with you, when you become a proud papa. Maybe we should even call them online buddies to be clear.
It isn’t important though that you become lifelong chums (although now and again this will happen). It is important that you get a place to crash for a few days, while you explore a new city. Plus, your online buddy gets to hear about the interesting life of an adventurer. Everyone wins.
If this is new to you, it can be challenging to grow your current network of online buddies. Unfortunately, it is even tougher to maintain them, once you have them. This process can take some time, but keep trying and check out these tips for help:
A. Reach out to people with similar interests online. Comment on someone’s sick viral stop motion video, @message someone on Twitter who wrote an article that rocks, and don’t be scared to add someone as your friend.
B. Maintain contact with old friends by sending them messages now and again. Don’t spend hours doing this; one message every six months or even a year will suffice. Catch the important events, like birthdays, babies, weddings, graduations, or when your buddy hits the lottery.
C. Be a positive online buddy. People who post about their boring and depressing lives have no places to crash. People who incite political or philosophical debates will be getting unfriended (save that until you are having a few beers).
D. Share the interesting details of your life and travels. Post an itinerary of where you are traveling to and ask others if they want to hang out.
E. Send a casual message to friends on your travel path. Remember: people are busy as heck with their own lives, so you might have to remind them with a short friendly message.
Warning: The catch to staying with your friends is that you have to be a genuine and sincere friend. You can’t do this just for the place to crash. You have to do it for the friendship. Lazy, fake, and selfish mooches don’t deserve free places to sleep.
2. Learn To Couchsurf Like A Pro
Until the teleporter is invented, Couchsurfing will be the most powerful tool for travelers ever. This website has changed my life. Thanks to Couchsurfing founders, Casey, Dan, Sebastian, and Leonardo! I have a huge man crush on these guys.
You are on Couchsurfing, right? If not, do it now. Stop reading this post. Open Couchsurfing.org in another window right next to this article and sign up. Then come back to finish reading this. Seriously (and add me as a friend, if you need it)…
Extra Sauce: For you overachievers, bookmark Lea Woodward’s Guide to Couchsurfing and download Karol Gadja’s short, free e-book about How To Use Couchsurfing too. Both are a great place to start from brilliant travelers.
Couchsurfing is a website that connects travelers with hosts in a safe, simple, and free fashion.
I’ve stayed on about 30 couches and have met over a hundred friends around the USA through the meet-up groups. All my experiences have been positive, besides a few dirty places to stay.
3. Sleep With Locals
Get your mind out of the gutter (although that can be fun too)… I mean, sleep on the local’s spare bed, couch, floor, or even camp in their yard.
You could call this spontaneous couchsurfing and this is for true adventurers only.
In the USA, this is pretty tough. Most Americans are taught to put big fences around their house. Don’t talk to strangers is told to every toddler, before they head out the door to play.
Consequently, only about 5% of my nights were spent sleeping like this. But if you head to a country with a more nomadic lifestyle (try Mongolia… Tim Cope had a lot of luck there) or a more hospitable culture, you will have better luck.
Despite the challenges and sometimes the dangers, this is the most rewarding way of sleeping. You will feel like an angel of god swooped down to give you a hand.
Maybe you’ll wake up in New York on a rock band’s pool table with a whiskey headache the size of Antarctica. Or you maybe you’ll learn about Tantric healing over tea from a Buddhist priest in the desert of Arizona.
You just never know what could happen.
Tips For Sleeping With Locals:
A. Your hiking backpack is the key.
The backpack is a symbol of an adventurer. Any self-respecting adventurer will recognize you immediately and probably ask you,
“Where are you coming from?”
Display your symbol proudly, despite the looks of fear from the sedentary folks.
B. Talk To Strangers
Sorry Mom, but I talk to as many strangers as possible. I am a bit shy at heart though, so to get the conversation started, I simply ask for help with directions.
If someone starts a conversation with you, be open and friendly. Putting away your computer, phone, or book, will increase the odds of someone approaching you.
Warning: If you are a woman, you will get more invitations, but you will want to be selective. I’m traveling with an adventuresome German girl now, who likes to say, “Be careful, but don’t be scared.”
If you aren’t comfortable sleeping in someone’s home, then say no. If you are comfortable, then go for it.
4. Guerilla Camping
The USA has free camping in national parks, known as dispersed camping. There are also many forests, fields, prairies, and hills that are ripe for an avid guerilla camper like myself.
Guerilla camping is the art (yes, I said art) of finding a place to camp anywhere. Usually this means on some state land or on private property somewhere. Some people call it stealth camping and others call it acting like a homeless bum.
I could care less what the naysayers think, I love it. Every night is an adventure. What you sacrifice in hours of sleep, you make up for in feeling a pure injection of freedom.
Author James Michener and I are on the same page. The world is our home.
Jack and I are on the same page too… except I always shoot for a comfortable AND free bed, even if I’m sleeping under the stars. Buy a decent tent, a sleeping bag, and a mat for the most comfortable snooze.
You will also have to be attentive to your surroundings, because this can be dangerous. But I camped guerilla style for about 30% of my nights traveling the USA and I was never hassled by anyone.
Guerrilla Camping Etiquette:
A. Be respectful. If someone went to the trouble of putting up a huge fence with flashing KEEP OUT signs, then they really don’t want you sleeping on their land. Find someplace else that is easy to get into.
B. Ask locals for good spots to camp. Most will be happy to help a traveler. Remember to be proud. You are an adventurer on a quest. In Spain, you would be revered as a perigrin (or pilgrim).
C. Practice Leave No Trace Wilderness Ethics. Even go one step further and leave the place better than you found it.
My Guerilla Camping Checklist:
A. I avoid towns and cities. State parks, national parks, and forests are the best spots.
Typically this means you have to walk 2-3 miles out of town. Walking is great exercise though, so no complaining. Then head into the forest, where no one will bother you.
B. If I can’t get out of the city, I’ll look for a big park. Any place that has a forest or enough bushes to hide my tent will work.
C. If I can’t find a suitable park, I’ll check the schools. Athletic fields work well. There is a lot of grass, they are usually safe, and no one is there at night. Baseball dugouts have worked for me on a few occasions.
D. If I can’t find a school, I will look near churches. No preacher with a god-loving heart is going to turn an adventurer away. If you ask, they are usually happy to offer you some help too.
E. If no church is nearby, I’ll look for large private properties. You won’t see me camping in your front lawn, but if you have a huge backyard with some trees. You might find me nestled in there early in the morning. But you would have to be really quiet and up early to find me… I’m like a ghost.
F. If none of these are available, sleep in the parking lot of Home Depot. Those sheds in the parking lot aren’t locked and no one checks them at night. If you arrive after the store closes and are off before it opens, you will be golden.
E. In an emergency, you might try sleeping on a roof. You can get to the roof of some downtown buildings if you do a little scouting for a fire escape. No one thinks to check these at night and you will have a great view of the stars.
Extra Sauce: In cities, be prepared to set up camp in the dark and leave before the sun rises to avoid getting caught.
5. Volunteer On A Farm
If you like nursing our green leafy friends to life, then WWOOFing is the perfect fit for you. WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms and is a website designed to connect you with farmers around the world. You get your hands dirty in their fields and they provide room and board.
I worked the fields at a dahlia farm in Southern California for a couple weeks and met some really earthy travelers.
You can find these gigs all over the world. They vary greatly in what they offer though, so make sure to call each farm before you commit. Some will have you working 40 hours and others are only a few hours a week.
5 More Ways To Sleep For Free:
1. Become A Travel Hacker
If you can figure out the complex world of credit card miles, you will be rewarded with free hotel rooms (or at least cheaper rooms or upgrades).
Chris Guillebeau has a beginner’s guide to travel hacking to get your started. Also, my girlfriend recently used his monthly forum to get a free plane ticket.
2. Sleep in Airports/Train Stations/Bus Stations
These stations can offer a place to slump over in a chair for a few hours of shuteye. I only use them if I am desperate or in transit somewhere.
Sleeping in airports is an informative site to check for sleeping spots in popular airports and airport reviews.
3. Sleep in your RV/Van/Car
It’s called boondocking and a lot of people do it. Picture your house on wheels, except smaller. Boondocking seems pretty luxurious compared to what I’m used to. One day though I will settle down and get myself some wheels.
Until then, check out my blogging buddies, The Wynn’s, who have a fun video about boondocking at Wal-mart. Or you can read about how Tynan lives in his RV with tips for others (when he isn’t dating the most beautiful women in the world, that is).
4. House Sitting
Just like Couchsurfing, there are now a handful of websites that connect travelers with homeowners.
6. Hostels or Campgrounds
I know, I know… these aren’t free. But they are if you work in exchange for your rent. Many hostels and some campgrounds will cover your rent, as long as you are willing to scrub some toilets and wash some hostel sheets.
Am I missing a way to sleep for free? I invite all adventurers to add to the information on this post by writing on your own blog, posting on Twitter, or commenting below. A whole generation of young folks need this information.
If this post got you all hot and bothered to go taste the sweet flavor of freedom, then take a minute to share this article with your friends. My survival depends on it.