Looking for a Cheap Vacation? Try Self-Catering

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There has probably never been a better, or cheaper, time to take a vacation than today. A proliferation of self-catering vacation tools lets you build a dream vacation while minimizing the expense. Options such as car shares mean traveling without worry about the cost or hassle of public transport. Other tools, such as home exchanges and Airbnb, let you find lodging at rates significantly below traditional hotels.

Here are some tips and tools for devising a cheap self-catered vacation. There are few hard and fast rules in these situations, leaving lots of room for negotiation. Partaking in a vacation encompassing non-standard arrangements requires an adventurous spirit. If you take the plunge, the rewards -- pecuniary and otherwise -- can be substantial.

Car Share Program.

Transportation costs can eat up a large portion of a holiday budget, especially if there are no direct public transport connections to your destination. This is doubly true if you don't own a car and instead must consider renting from a company like Hertz.

There are cheaper alternatives. Car-share programs have expanded rapidly during the past few years, raising the competitive ante and upping the chances of finding a good deal. Relay Rides, which connects car owners with people seeking short-term rentals, is one useful resource. Another, Auto Driveway, is a vehicle relocation tool that finds drivers willing to move a vehicle from an assigned starting point to a designated endpoint. Although this one-way deal is less convenient and far less flexible than traditional transportation options, it is often completely free. (A full tank of gas plus a gas allowance usually come with the car.) If the posted locations match up with your vacation plans, you'll save half of your transportation costs.

Airbnb.

Despite the occasional bad press surrounding Airbnb, the concept is compelling. The basic principle is that people rent out extra space in their house or apartment (be sure to check your lease and relevant local ordinances). Depending upon timing and location, the rooms -- sometimes even full apartments -- available to rent are typically cheaper than local hotels. Airbnb also offers the opportunity to lodge in neighborhoods you might otherwise miss if booking only at hotels.

One key benefit of Airbnb is the opportunity to make money to pay for your own vacation. Airbnb encourages users (i.e., renters) to rent out their own spaces as well. Indeed, it may be possible to rent your living quarters while vacationing and collect enough money to cover a significant share of your time away from home.

Home Exchanges.

Home Exchange is an increasingly popular way to self-cater a vacation and travel like a local while saving money. The community currently embraces more than 50,000 people in more than 150 countries. List your home, the dates you plan to travel, and the location you would like to visit. If anyone in that spot is planning to land in your town during the same period, you switch homes for free. Home Exchange is not for everyone, though, as it does require letting strangers live in your quarters. But there's no arguing that it makes for a cheap vacation.

Couch Surfing.

Couch surfing is another foray into free vacation lodging but less luxurious than the other self-catering options. Expect to land on a couch or spare bed while passing through; the hosts don't expect anything in return. The couch-surfing community has spread into more than 100,000 cities around the world and relies on a rating system to provide a modicum of safety; both hosts and guests are reviewed, and quality matters. The focus on reviews, though, may make it difficult for first-time couch surfers to find people willing to host. On the flip side, you may be uncomfortable with the idea of staying in someone's home while the host is going about their normal day.