The Ultimate Guide to Free Travel
Nine ways to score a free trip. They're 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.
Use your RV to get from one job to the next
Millions of RV owners are on the move year-round, and an estimated 750,000 of them couple their travels with short-term work. The wages are enough to get by (typically $8-$12 per hour), and gigs sometimes come with free places to park, including free electric hookup and other perks. The folks on the move are called workampers, and may find themselves checking in guests and overseeing ice cream socials at KOA campgrounds, or dressing up as Donald Duck at Walt Disney World. At last check, more than 700 employers posted summer jobs aimed at RVers at workamper.com, the online home of Workamper News, which has been around since 1987. Jobs tend to be at state and national parks, seasonal vacation spots, and big events such as the Indianapolis 500. Most workampers spend fewer than 20 hours per week on the job, so there's plenty of opportunity to relax and explore. —Lisa Rose
Go on a road trip in someone else's car
Don Jankiewicz, a 34-year-old actor in Los Angeles, 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 23. 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 43 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. 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 5 a.m.), and trip duration (negotiated, but most people must average at least 400 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. —Michele Schwartz
6. Hospitality Exchanges
Crash on couches and make friends along the way
To most people, the idea is crazy: heading to a stranger's house to sleep on the couch or in a spare room. Perhaps even loonier: welcoming someone you've never met into your house. But thousands of people take part in hospitality exchanges, as such visits are known. Konstantinos Chalvatzis, a 25-year-old teaching assistant who lives just outside Athens, Greece, joined hospitality club Couchsurfing.com last March; the online community knows him as "Promitheus." Since then, he has welcomed about 40 strangers into his apartment, and stayed on the couches of more than 60 club members. "When people stay with me, they get a real sense of what living in Athens is like," he says. "If I have time I'll show them the big monuments, as well as residential areas, taverns, and underground art galleries."
Participants come in all ages, colors, and cultures, though they tend to be male, English-speaking, and in their 20s and 30s, and hail from America, Germany, Australia, and Canada. The upside is not only free lodging but the chance to meet people who tend to be open-minded, curious, and generous. But it's not the equivalent of a free hotel, says Bryan McDonald ("Duke"), a 28-year-old musician born in Mexico who now calls Amsterdam home. "The best thing a Couchsurfer can do is spend time with his host," he says. "I've had guests cook their favorite food, or make something special from their country for me. These little things mean a lot to hosts."