The ultimate guide to free travel
Pacific Northwest Trail Association volunteers focus on a path leading from Washington's Olympic Mountains into Montana.
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(Budget Travel Online) -- These ways to score a free trip are not for everybody. Research, patience, good timing -- and often a bit of luck and sweat -- are required. But there's just no beating the price.
House-sitting: Take up residence
Instead of waiting for your rich aunt in the Hamptons to go away and ask you to watch over her place, look into a service that lists house-sitting opportunities. If things work out, you might be chilling out at a Caribbean villa or caring for cats and hens in an adorable French farmhouse.
Since retiring as a university administrator 10 years ago, Grant Thomas of Edmond, Oklahoma, has kept an eye on houses (and pets) in Seattle, Washington; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and San Rafael, California. "House-sitting has opened up new worlds to me," he says. "I get to know a place much more in-depth, and my experiences have given me a new circle of human, canine and feline friends across the country."
Before signing on for any assignment, ask questions. Namely, who pays the bills? Many homeowners state upfront that house sitters pay for utilities, at the least. If there are pets, find out how many and what their special needs are. If there's a garden, ask how big it is and how much attention it requires. At some point, the work may make the "free" lodging not worth the trouble. Also, ask the owner for the names and contacts of previous house sitters, and grill them about the experience.
Where do you find these gigs? Caretaker.org posts more than 1,000 house-sitting openings per year, most of which are in the U.S. ($30 per year to see listings). At last check, housecarers.com listed 226 opportunities, including 82 in Australia ($32). There's also housesitworld.com, where homeowners can search for registered sitters with availability and skills that match their needs ($40). And sabbaticalhomes.com is a site where the houses are all left behind by academics on teaching assignments (free for house sitters, from $25 to post a home). -- By Sophie Alexander
Hiking trail volunteers: Fresh air for free
Most volunteer vacations charge participants for the chance to do grunt work without pay. A few regional trail associations, however, gladly welcome anyone willing to work on hiking paths and don't ask for a dime. As thanks for volunteers' hours of sweat spent clearing debris, building rock steps or reconfiguring switchbacks, the associations provide free campsites at a minimum. Cabins, bedding, food and transportation are sometimes included, too.
The Continental Divide Trail Alliance runs two-to-seven-day trips with catered meals at A-list national parks such as Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone and Glacier (303/838-3760, cdtrail.org). The group's goal is to complete the trail it's named for, which is a little over halfway done.
Some programs run by the Pacific Northwest Trail Association -- which focuses on a path leading from Washington's Olympic Mountains into Montana -- are free, while others are $35. They all include campsites, food and sometimes airport pickups in Seattle (877/854-9415, pnt.org). From Maine to Georgia, volunteers can join one- or two-week trips organized by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (304/535-6331, appalachiantrail.org). At some locales, workers sleep in cabins with cots and electricity. -- By Nick Mosquera
Driveaways: Hit the road in someone else's car
Don Jankiewicz, a 34-year-old actor in Los Angeles, California, has hopped behind the wheel of around 50 cars, none of which were his. He's neither a valet nor a thief. Ever since reading Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" in college, Jankiewicz has volunteered for driveaway duty whenever he could.
A driveaway situation arises when a car owner needs his vehicle moved to a new location and either can't or doesn't want to do the driving. Rather than pay to ship the car, the owner signs his ride up for a driveaway program -- essentially giving a free car rental to a volunteer. "You encounter places you never knew existed, and meet people with the most interesting stories," says Jankiewicz. "It's cheaper than any other kind of travel. No one believes this even exists anymore."
Drivers usually need only to fill out an application form and present a valid driver's license and references, though some situations require that you be fingerprinted or submit a driving history (available through your DMV). For insurance reasons, drivers probably need to be at least 21. Once approved, you're handed the car keys and given a free first tank of gas. All other expenses, including gas and lodging, are yours.
With 45 U.S. locations, Auto Driveaway is the country's biggest player, listing about 150 opportunities per month (800/346-2277, autodriveaway.com, $350 deposit). Some offices will even take requests for specific routes and call you if there's a car that's a match. A smaller company, Schultz-International, has offices in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and Seattle (800/677-6686, schultz-international.com, $35 insurance fee). Start inquiring a month in advance of when you'd like to hit the road and continue checking in.
Don't expect to have a completely unrestricted, carefree joyride, however. There are limits on mileage (point-to-point road distance plus 15--25 percent extra), driving time (with Auto Driveaway you're not supposed to be on the road between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.), and trip duration (negotiated, but most people must average at least 350 miles per day). A driver on a typical 3,000-mile cross-country road trip is given seven to ten days to complete the journey, with a maximum of 3,500 miles logged on the odometer. To eliminate headaches and maximize the opportunity for fun, Jankiewicz carefully maps out his routes ahead of time, checking the Internet for construction delays and weather forecasts. -- By Michele Schwartz
Sister city exchanges
With a primary goal of promoting cultural understanding, Sister Cities International is a nonprofit network that partners hundreds of U.S. cities with international "sister" cities that have similar climates, industries or populations (sister-cities.org). The local governments of sister cities might exchange ideas about health care, traffic circles or playgrounds. There are also opportunities for residents to visit sister cities -- sometimes totally on your hometown's dime.
This group from Tempe, Arizona, participated in a Sister City trip to Ireland.
Every year, several Tempe, Arizona, high school students are selected to go on five-week trips to sister cities (towns can have more than one) such as Lower Hutt, New Zealand; Beaulieu-sur-Mer, France; and Zhenjiang, China. All expenses are paid, including airfare. "Within a few hours of arriving in Ireland, I felt completely at home," says Sara Bernal, a Tempe high school senior who went to Carlow, another sister city, last year. "I'd give anything to have another experience like it."
Sister city visits aren't just for high school kids. Every year hundreds of groups from U.S. towns head overseas to foster bonds with international "family." Participants are expected to be active in sister city projects and host counterparts when they come to town. Travelers should expect to run fund-raisers for trips -- most cities don't foot the bill, at least not entirely -- though room and board are usually covered by local hosts. -- By Laura MacNeil
Home swapping: Live like a local
The concept of home swapping is as simple as it sounds. You trade your pad for someone else's, and everyone gets a free place to stay. "If you have a sense of humor and go with the flow, home exchange will work for you," says T.T. Baker, co-author of "The Home Exchange Guide," who has swapped homes five times. "If you have a narrow comfort zone, stay in a hotel." Checking references, talking over the phone with your counterpart, and having contracts clearly spelled out -- especially when it comes to bills and damages -- alleviate the anxiety.
The right situation may require months of planning and a dose of luck. It certainly makes things easier if you live in Miami Beach, or some other spot popular with travelers. Home exchange services charge $35--$80 per year, and by joining more than one club you obviously increase your chances. Reputable companies with listings worldwide include: digsville.com; gti-home-exchange.com; homeexchange.com; intervacus.com; ihen.com; and swapnow.com. -- By Sophie Alexander
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