Seven secrets of free travel

You get what you pay for. Well, that’s what they say – but who says you can’t get something for nothing? Alison Westwood went looking for ways to nab travel freebies. They might not all take your fancy, but the price is unbeatable.

1. Buy one holiday, get three free

Sometimes tour companies – especially those specialising in overland adventures – offer free add-ons to longer tours. ‘It’s a booking incentive to differentiate themselves,’ says Terry Murphy of African Budget Safaris. Many of the safaris featured on his site come with a free tour and some qualify for up to three free packages. Although you still need to pay for the primary tour and local payments (expenses in local currency), you can save over R5,000 and extend your holiday by up to eight days.

2. Become a house sitter

Fancy three months in a luxury villa in Costa Rica or a month in a French farmhouse? If you don’t mind spending your holiday in someone else’s home, you can find lists of people requesting house sitters for a few days to a few months anywhere in the world. House sitters supply their services in exchange for accommodation, although many homeowners require sitters to pay for water, electricity, phones, etc. If there are pets, find out how many and what their needs are as you’ll have to look after them. If there’s a garden, find out how big it is and how much maintenance you’re expected to do. Try housecarers.com, caretaker.org  or mindmyhouse.com.

3. Go couchsurfing

The couchsurfing community are people around the world who open their homes to travellers free of charge. Servas International was founded in 1949 in the belief that friendships formed this way could contribute to world peace, but the word ‘couchsurfing’ was coined in 2004 by an American web consultant who decided he’d had enough of ‘rotting in a hotel playing Mr Tourist’. He created one of the world’s most popular travel websites, with more than a million members in 231 countries and around 10,000 signups a week. There are verification and referral systems to ensure safety for travellers and hosts, but you’re advised to book a hotel as backup, which you can cancel if the couch turns out okay.

4. Volunteer to be bumped off a flight

Most airlines overbook flights to make up for no-shows. If more passengers turn up than they have seats for, the airline will look for people to ‘bump’. Airlines prefer to bump people who don’t have checked baggage, so stick to carry-on bags (and if you’d rather not be bumped, make sure you check in luggage). When you fly overseas, find out what compensation airlines are legally required to provide, your airline’s policies and how you may be able to negotiate for more. The EU and US have minimum requirements, usually offered as vouchers or free flights, but South Africa has no regulations­­ (although SAA says it may revise its no-compensation policy soon). British Airways offers either a £400 travel voucher or £250 cash voucher for volunteers on international flights.

5. Sleep in an airport

Why spend money on an airport hotel when an inflatable mattress on the airport floor is free? It may sound crazy, but there’s a well-established on-line community that shares airport reviews and tips for airport sleepers.  Your friends may think you’re nuts when you return with your stories, but apparently that’s part of the fun. Find out which are the best airports to sleep in, which you should avoid and how to prepare for an airport sleepover here.

6 Pick your attractions

It may come as a surprise that some of the top tourist attractions in major cities are free. For example, London’s Science, British and Natural History Museums all have free entry, as do the National Gallery and the Tate. In Paris, you don’t pay to get into Notre Dame or the Fragonard Perfume Museum, while the Louvre has free entry on the first Sunday of every month and its gardens are free year round. New York’s Staten Island Ferry offers a free ride across the harbour, past the Statue of Liberty. In Cape Town, there’s no charge to walk up Table Mountain or watch the Noon Gun being fired and most wineries offer free tastings.

7.  Find a job that involves travel

It’s not only travel photojournalists who get paid to globetrot. There are hundreds of other jobs that demand travel. Try crewing on yachts, teaching English as a second language, becoming a bush pilot, working on a farm or even joining the navy for starters. If income isn’t a concern, you could also consider volunteering. While some volunteer programmes actually require you to pay for them, there are also programmes that are either free or offer nominal salaries.

Originally published in the July 2009 issue of Getaway Magazine.

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