Standing naked, dripping onto a grungy tile floor, I realized too late there was no towel to be had. I was just out of a shower in a classic Amsterdam youth hostel and, at 27, too long out of backpacking-Europe mode. I’d forgotten that these shared room setups are often also a BYO-towel-and-flip-flops deal.
My younger sis had loaned me some rubber sandals for showering, but I hadn’t thought through how to dry off afterward. There was nothing to do but holler again for her. This time she had only her own still-kinda-damp “microfiber camp towel” to offer. It was approximately the size and thickness of a facial tissue. Grabbing it anyway, I wondered if my low-budget-travel days should really be in the past.
But there are ways to see the world on the cheap that don’t require leaving your dignity at home. Limited funds don’t have to keep you from experiencing new places while you’re young. Here are a few key strategies.
Seek out free educational or service trips
You heard right on the free. With all the emphasis on “global learning,” lots of colleges and grad schools offer learning opportunities for little more than regular tuition and perhaps the cost of airfare. Service trips, whether in the summer or over a semester break, often include group fundraising efforts so your out-of-pocket costs are nil. Scout for posters and ask professors, clergy members and nonprofit leaders about opportunities.
Think like a dog: WWOOF
WWOOFing is the verb for snagging World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms. The concept is simple: You provide help on a local farm in exchange for free lodging and food. My sister (yup, the one who thought to bring her own towel) has done it many times with great success. It just takes a little research and often joining the national WWOOFing organization of each country you’ll be visiting. Here’s one account of the ins and outs.
Consider a microhotel
As hotels try to compete with Airbnb on price, the micro or “pod” hotel is gaining traction. At chains like CitizenM, Pod and Yotel, you get a tiny individual room for less, often with big communal lounges and technology to compensate for the small space. Unless you’re claustrophobic, it may be worth a shot!
There’s still no cheaper place to crash than in a tent. Campgrounds can vary in quality, of course. The KOA, or Kampgrounds of America, chain maintains good standards, while the ones at state and national parks are generally basic but taken care of pretty well. The all-natural settings make for great memories and bonding with friends and fam for as low as $10 per night.
Split the costs with friends
With its options to rent entire apartments and houses, Airbnb is especially nice for groups who’ll divide up the cost. Consider splitting other costs for even greater savings. A long weekend I took with friends in West Texas’ spectacularly underrated Big Bend National Park was a 16-hour round trip from Austin — but we gathered more than a dozen people, brought a bundle of tents, pre-shopped in bulk for cookout food and divvied up the gas. The four-day tab came to $88 per person.
Stay at a religious retreat center
When she was 21, now-author Trish Clark found herself staying at a convent to save money. To her surprise, she liked it, finding the welcome warm and the accommodations comfortable and safe. Today she compiles recommendations for religious centers into a guidebook. Her website, Good Night and God Bless, includes listings from Africa to Australia, Thailand to Italy.
Give hostels a fresh look
These days, many youth hostels are dropping the grungy, dated-college-dorm feel. They’re adding sleek design, trendy bars and quality restaurants while staying affordable. Chains like the Freehand, with current locations in Miami and Chicago and another coming to L.A., are part of the growing “designer hostel” segment. It’s enough to make me try one again — and maybe I won’t need a camp towel this time.