These days, when I travel to Europe, I usually sleep in hotel rooms or bed-and-breakfasts. But in my early travel days, I routinely found places where I could sleep for free or very cheap. In Austria, I had "dear parents" who were actually the parents of my sister’s ski instructor. In London, my hosts were friends of my uncle. Neither relationship was terribly close — until I visited. Now we are friends for life.
I love the idea of creatively finding a free or cheap bed in Europe. One of the best ways to do that is to stay in someone's home, whether you're renting a spare room or apartment, or crashing on your neighbor's cousin’s couch. Sleeping where the locals do can provide some of the richest and most memorable travel experiences — often for less than a hotel.
You don't actually need to know someone in Europe to stay at their home. Room-finding services like Airbnb.com can help travelers hook up with locals. Beds range from air-mattress-in-living-room basic to plush-B&B-suite posh. Most listings offer you at least a spare room, and many are for entire apartments. Some places offer separate entrances for travelers who want more privacy and limited interaction with their hosts.
If you prefer having the comforts of home without the pressure of feeling like a houseguest, renting an apartment, house, or villa can be both convenient and cost-effective. Options run the gamut, from French gîtes to Tuscan villas to big-city apartments in the heart of town.
A short-term rental is often cheaper than or comparable to a hotel, especially if you plan to settle in one location for several nights. Most are equipped with kitchens, laundry, and living rooms, making them especially good for groups and families.
Travelers who are willing to invest time in research can go to sites like HomeAway.com and its sister site VRBO.com, search through a database of listings, then correspond directly with European property owners or managers to negotiate a deal.
Those who want to do less legwork can seek help from a rental agency, which charges a fee but provides pre-screened listings and a staff who will work with you to find an appropriate accommodation. Rental agencies such as Interhome.us and the more upscale Rentavilla.com list places all over Europe, and there are many rental agencies that focus on a specific city or region.
The rental route isn't for everyone. First off, you're generally on your own. While the apartment owner or manager might offer some basic assistance, they don't provide all the services of a hotel reception desk. Unlike hotels, apartments don't include daily towel and sheet changes or regular cleanings.
CouchSurfing.org is a vagabond's alternative to Airbnb. It lists millions of members who host fellow "surfers" in their homes for free. Most do this out of a sincere desire to meet interesting people, and many are in it for the good karma, having couch-surfed themselves. This service is a boon for laid-back, budget-minded extroverts who aren't too picky about where they rest their head.
Safety is a concern for any smart couch surfer. My best tip for crashing with strangers: Always arrive with a backup in mind (such as the name of a hostel). If you don't feel comfortable with your host, just leave. Don't worry about hurting their feelings. Never let budget concerns take you outside your comfort zone.
House swapping is another free option. This works best for people with an appealing place to offer, and who can live with the idea of having strangers in their home. Unsurprisingly, those living in swanky Manhattan apartments and beachside villas have the best pick of options in Europe, but you don't need to live in an amazing home to find a workable exchange. Good places to start are HomeLink, HomeExchange, or Intervac Home Exchange.
Of course, there's nothing more culturally intimate (or inexpensive) as staying with a friend, relative, or someone you have a connection with. They don't need to be next-of-kin. If it's the son of your aunt's friend, that’s probably close enough. Email your potential hosts, tell them when you'll arrive, and ask if they're free to meet for dinner. It should be obvious from their response (or lack of one) if you're invited to stop by and stay awhile.
If you're afraid of being perceived as a freeloader, remember that both parties benefit. A Greek family is just as curious about me as I am in them. Armed with pictures from home and a bag of goodies for the children, I make a point of giving as much from my culture as I am taking from theirs. In the end, whether you’re paying or staying for free, you'll likely be greeted with genuine enthusiasm and a warm welcome.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.