Can you imagine a trip where your transportation, hotel, meals, and activities are free?
Good, because your imagination is the only place where that vacation package is currently available.
There has perhaps never been such a thing as a completely free trip, but if you’re willing to do some work while you’re vacationing, you can get parts of your trip for free, almost free, or for less.
Become a paper boy.
You may recall those back-of-magazine ads where a courier company promised you a free or greatly-reduced airfare in exchange for your transporting one of their parcels overseas. These gigs are real and they still exist.
Courier companies like this arrangement because in many cases it’s cheaper for them to have you check a parcel as baggage than it is for them to ship it as cargo, and the package generally clears customs faster. In almost all cases you never see or touch the actual item, which is packed away before you take possession. You only handle the shipping documents that you receive from a courier company agent when you depart and hand off to another agent at your arriving airport.
The downside is that since the courier company’s parcel takes the place of your checked bag allowance, you’ll be limited to a carry-on. Further, the airfare offered by courier companies is seldom if ever entirely free.
That said, as a courier you may end up paying far less than what the international airfare would normally cost, and judging by the feedback from courier travelers, the experience may provide just enough intrigue to give you good stories to tell when you get home.
Just remember, when the ticket agent asks if you packed your own bag, the answer is “no”.
Call courier companies directly for information about flights or subscribe to the International Association of Air Travel Couriers, which provides flight information on a members-only Web site.
Baby, you can drive someone else's car.
Controversy still swirls about when the first car was invented, but whenever it was you can be sure someone immediately offered to drive it from one place to another. In recent years the practice has been formalized. Gary McKechnie, author of Great American Motorcycle Tours and USA 101: A Guide to America's Iconic Places, Events, and Festivals, recalls that in college he’d “call and find out where a driveaway service needed cars delivered, and whether I [originally] planned to go to one of their destinations or not, I'd sign up for a car and then take off for California or Michigan or Colorado or wherever I was asked to go.”
Perhaps the best-known such service today, www.autodriveaway.com, permits a casual driver (that’s you) to drive someone else’s car, typically from one state to another. The Web site provides information about where cars are available and where they need to end up, but your first step is calling the Auto Driveaway office closest to where you are. After validating that you are a licensed driver and at least 23 years old, the company will send you on your way with a complimentary tank of gas.
You’ll have to provide a $350 cash security deposit, refundable upon the successful delivery of the car. Success may be defined in part by getting the vehicle to its final destination within a predetermined number of miles and/or days, so ask your local branch what the penalty might be for missing that deadline and ensure it’s written into your contract. Another point to clarify is whether you can use the trunk for luggage, as the car’s owner reserves the right to stow his or her own junk in there.
Do a house swap-and-sit.
House swapping is another age-old money saver enabling you and a fellow traveler to see each other’s cities and enjoy free lodging, but the deal can get even sweeter if you’re able to provide a service while you’re sitting.
Washington, D.C.-based journalist, and president of www.bonjourparis.com, Karen Fawcett wanted to escape to Paris for a while and have someone watch her cat. After sifting through 45 responses to an ad she placed, she found a Parisian who’ll come to D.C. to care for her cat, take in her mail, and also have use of her car while Fawcett’s off to Paris for more than a month. Meanwhile, Fawcett notes, the Parisian will be getting “a chic apartment while I'll be getting peace of mind. And we're splitting the cost of her [plane] ticket.”
Volunteer + Tourist = Voluntourist.
Volunteering for a cause in order to travel, also known as voluntourism, can be exotic and life changing. And for those on a budget, it can also be unaffordable since altruistic volunteers are often expected to pay their own way. But that’s not always the case.
While “it” voluntourism experiences include preserving nature in Costa Rica or building houses in Vietnam, homes also need to be built and rebuilt in places like the Gulf Coast, notes Robert Rosenthal, communications director for VolunteerMatch. And it follows that volunteering domestically, especially if you have family members in tow, is usually far more affordable than going overseas. Further, Rosenthal says, you won’t be incurring a lot of other typical tourism-related expenses.
Depending on where you volunteer, free housing may be provided for part of your stay; check with local agencies where you’re going, Rosenthal says. He also points to an arrangement VolunteerMatch is coordinating with D.C.-based Savoy Suites and Carlyle Suites where, for every five hours of community service you work, the hotels will cut your rate for one night’s stay in half. There’s a two-night minimum and you can’t trade 10 hours for a totally free night; so 15 hours of community service, for instance, would yield 50% off each of the three nights.
Free training is another potential benefit of voluntouring, says Rosenthal. You could, for instance, pay your way to California, get certified in a program to help fight wildfires, and bring that knowledge back to your hometown. In such cases there may be nominal fees for equipment.
Rosenthal also observes that the not-for-profits and non-governmental organizations helping to coordinate volunteer programs today realize that people may be more willing to volunteer if they get something in return.
“There’s a shift toward volunteer projects with quantifiable success stories and definable outcomes,” he says, packing appeal for those who are unemployed, underemployed, or are “concerned about where their career is headed and want to sharpen their leadership skills.” It's a shift that bodes well for a place almost as important as your imagination: your résumé.