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Summer for the seriously skint

by Gemma Bowes

The Guardian’s Gemma Bowes has come up with 10 ways for you to have a travel adventure on a tiny budget. While the lead-in to this article suggests that you can travel with no money at all, we think this kind of travel may be just a little too precarious for our members! We do think that the phenomenon of house sitting worldwide is so fabulous that it deserves more than 48 words out of a total of 1993 but we are grateful to the journalist that we were the only website mentioned under this subject. Yay for us!

Read on for lots of links to more information on free camping in Scotland, staying in ‘bothies’ (mountain huts) in the UK, ride-sharing, couchsurfing (of course), hostelling, home exchanging (we love this idea!), volunteering abroad, working on cruise ships, staying at retreats and Wwoofing etc. With so many opportunities for adventure, it’s a wonder you are still seated at your computer reading this!

Sunday July 22 2007

How to holiday for free

Being broke needn’t mean going without a break this summer. From sleeping on strangers’ sofas to working your passage across the Atlantic, Gemma Bowes offers 10 ways to get away on a tiny, or even non-existent, budget.

Couch surfing

Now something of a global phenomenon, couch surfing is the easy way to find a free place to stay almost anywhere in the world with friendly folk who’ll also show you the sights, take you to parties and give you an insiders’ view of your destination. You simply register at (that’s free too), then contact other members to ask to stay. You don’t even have to offer your own sofa in return, although many enthusiasts say this is all part of the fun. Every member that offers a place to stay – whether it’s space on their sofa (most likely) or the spare room in their luxury pool house (dream on) – has their own page with pictures and personal info, and most importantly, comments from couch surfers who’ve already stayed with them, so you can figure out what kind of host they’ll be.For example it might be helpful to know in advance that Fats Silver, aged 25 from Canberra, practises the drums at home or that artist Michelle Laing is a goth, a life-drawing model and a horror fan. Similar websites that create a network of people sharing free accommodation include, and

Wild camping

If you’re too skint to pay for a campsite or prefer not to have your back-to-nature experience ruined by the groans and grunts of surrounding tents, you could try wild camping – as in, not in a campsite. Be warned, in England and Wales there is no legal right to wild camp, and landowners are in their rights to demand you leave, but there are plenty of spots beyond your own back garden where you can get away with it.Permission should always be sought if possible, but in remote areas, particularly high mountain and hill land, wild camping is generally accepted, as long as you avoid farmers’ fields, keep out of sight of houses and farms and don’t stay long. Endeavour to protect wildlife and vegetation and keep the group small and you should be OK. See for advice.Wild camping in an isolated spot by a Scottish loch is an amazing experience, and in 2005 Scotland’s land reform act established the right to wild camp without permission (quote this if you are challenged), so long as you are at least 100 metres from the nearest road. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code ( recommends steering clear of enclosed fields or livestock to avoid problems (pitchfork-wielding farmers). The Mountaineering Council of Scotland (01738 493 942; provides guidelines: for example you should find a new spot rather than pitching in overused sites, remove every scrap of food and rubbish and stay no longer than three days. You can get away with free camping in much of Europe; it’s legal and popular in Sweden, for example. For an excellent source of normal, paying campsites across the UK see, which also lists those attached to pubs, that allow fires or are adult-only. For independent campsites in Europe check out


Around the wilder and more mountainous corners of Britain are more than 100 mountain bothies – small huts left open for anyone to use. Facilities are minimal, usually a few chairs and a fireplace. You have to bring or find firewood, take water from a nearby spring or stream, and use a spade to dig a toilet somewhere not too close to the building.The Mountain Bothy Association ( is a group of volunteers who maintain the bothies, although the buildings belong to local landowners. Finding bothies can be tricky – the MBA does not publish their location for fear of vandals rocking up for all-night summer parties – but hiking guidebooks and websites will lead you to them.

Home exchange

Temporarily trade your house for one on the other side of the globe via a home-swap programme and you’ll live like a local. There’s no cost involved: people just borrow each other’s houses for a couple of weeks. On websites such as, people post a brief description of where they live, with a photograph and a line about what they’re looking for, which is sometimes a specific destination, sometimes simply ‘somewhere hot’ or ‘anywhere’. There’s a rural three-bedroom villa in Chianti whose owners are looking to swap for a house anywhere, at any time, or a waterfront mansion in Austin, Texas, with jet skis and powerboat, whose owners, a retired couple, are simply looking for a house ‘anywhere’. You pay £30 for 18 months for the service. There are dozens of home-exchange services: Home Exchange ( costs £50 for a year, International Home Exchange Network ( £20 a year, Singles Home Exchange, which specialises in houses for single people or small groups, costs £15 for 18 months, and Senior Home Exchange ( exclusively for over-50s, £40 for three years.


Donation-only retreats

Instead of spending a fortune on a spa, take advantage of a free spirituality or wellbeing retreat. The Global Retreat Centre ( in Nuneham Park, Oxfordshire offers free one-day and weekend retreats on meditation, relationships, success and inner contentment.Alternatively, lots of monasteries, nunneries and Buddist centres offer ‘free’ retreats, though be aware that they may expect donations, unless you really don’t have a penny. They’re not necessarily heavy on religion; some focus on meditation or yoga and providing a quiet place to escape from the world.Dhanakosa (01877 384213; is a Buddhist and Meditation retreat near Loch Voil in Scotland. They ask for donations depending on what you can afford – £65 for a weekend if you’re out of work. Monastere Cantauque (00 33 468 316961; in a forest near Carcassonne suggests a contribution of €6 a night. If you walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, you can stay for free or less than €10 in mountain refuges, as long as you get your pilgrim’s passport stamped at each place you stop. Plan how far you’ll walk each day so you don’t get stranded, though, some of them are a long way apart.

Work your passage

It won’t exactly be a 24-hour party, but if you work while travelling you’ll see the world for free, gain experience and have some spare time to explore destinations at leisure. Becoming a crew member on the delivery of a yacht from one country to another is a thrilling way to reach distant shores. Even if you’re not a qualified sailor you may be able to work as a host, chef or waitress (see for links to crewing opportunities). A job on a cruise ship is hard work but how else will you get to tour the Caribbean for free? See

Or try Wwoofing – volunteering on an organic farm through World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms ( well as Leslie Woit’s milkmaid experience in Austria (see page 7), there are openings from the Bahamas to Zambia. For summer jobs in bars, hotels and hostels, try Or if you fancy seeing one of the top summer sporting events, how about getting a catering job there – the Wimbledon Championships, the Oval, Chelsea FC and Harlequins all hire temporary staff through FMC Catering (020 8247 3000; Compass Group ( also has openings for bar and waiting work at sports events.For litter-picking jobs at summer festivals including Womad, Shambala and Greenman, try; Oxfam ( needs stewarding volunteers for Womad and Summer Sundae.


Paying through the nose to work hard and help others always jars slightly, but although some volunteer projects abroad charge thousands, many don’t charge anything and provide free board, and sometimes transport in exchange for labour.Worldwide Volunteering (01935 825 588; is a charity with more than a million volunteering opportunities, many at minimal cost. Those with availability over the summer include Barretstown in County Kildare, Ireland, a centre set up by actor Paul Newman to help seriously ill kids have fun. Food and lodging are provided.At Pueblo Ingles schools, ( volunteers spend nine days helping professionals learn English in beautiful sunny locations in Soria, Spain, or the Tevere valley in Umbria; food and lodging are free.Country Holidays for Inner City Kids (01822 811 020; provides holidays for children aged eight-15 across the UK and needs four volunteers a week from March-December to help kids enjoy kayaking, abseiling and cycling.Original Volunteers (0800 345 7582 has projects from as little as £12 a week; and the National Trust (01793 817 400; ; runs 450 working holidays each year in the UK, providing free accommodation in base camps (barns, farms and bothies) in return for practical conservation work. There’s availability for September on at least four projects.

Free transport

Travelling to any of these freebies is going to cost you – unless, that is, you use a ride-sharing website. Find someone planning to drive where you want to go on websites such as,,, and For France see; for the US and Canada see These are good for airport transfers, too.The traditional method, hitch-hiking, still works of course, although some regions are more hitcher-friendly than others. For tips see and Paris has just launched a bargain bike scheme, Velib, which is great for short journeys. You collect one of more than 10,000 bikes from 750 racks around the city, just by swiping a Navigo travel card, which is also used for public transport, at the rack. You have to pay a subscription to the service (€1 for one day, €5 for seven days). The first 30 minutes of your journey are free, then you pay €1 for the first additional half hour, €2 for the second, and €4 for the third. Lyon also operates a Velib scheme (


OK, it’s not free, but we couldn’t leave out one of the best bargains around. Forget images of prison-style beds, scratchy blankets and funny smells; the modern youth hostel has come a long way, and many properties look and feel like a cottage you’d be happy to rent.Stunning St Briavel’s Castle, near the Wye Valley, built as a hunting lodge in 1205 by King John, now contains a youth hostel, probably the only one with a moat. Beds are £17.50 a night and there are medieval banquets on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays in August. London St Paul’s YHA is in a former choir boys’ school, or try the elegant Jacobean mansion YHA in Holland Park, B&B £22 a night: Lord Byron, William Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott all visited. See for hostels, guesthouses, camping barns, bunkhouses and tipis, including hostels with private rooms (from £24-42 per night for a double or family room). For hostels around the globe rated by guests, see

Do you have any free travel tips? Post them on our Escape blog – go to

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Gemma Bowes

About the author: Gemma Bowes

Gemma Bowes is a UK-based journalist who writes for The Guardian newspaper.