Budget alternatives to expensive hotels don’t have to be boring. Here are a few unusual and inexpensive places we’ve parked ourselves for the night.
Train to Nowhere
Taking an overnight train is the backpackers’ tried and true money saver — you get transport and a place to sleep for the price of a train ticket. Retired cabooses also provide price breaks. At Karrels’ Double K Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, $100 will get you sleeping quarters in cabooses parked in the garden (and permission to play with the owner’s outdoor miniature railway). In Two Harbors, Minnesota, the Northern Rail Train Car Hotel offers lodgings in converted sleeper cars set on 160 forested acres (rates start at $69).
Suggesting that you crawl into a hole to sleep may seem like we’re taking budget accommodations too far, but cozy caves do exist. You can see for yourself when you check in for the night at The Prince Noir bed and breakfast, an artist’s home carved out of rock in lovely Les Baux de Provence, France. Expect to pay about $100 per night. The B&B’s original owners are supposedly descendents of Balthazar, one of the Biblical Three Kings. Elkep Evi, in Gorme National Park, Turkey, was once an ancient apartment complex. Rock rooms with a view now start at $60 a night. In the U.S., caves tend to be a bit pricey. Kokopelli’s Cave in Farmington, New Mexico, charges $220 a night to stay 70 feet below ground.
Get in the Spirit
Spiritual retreat centers provide peace and quiet at an affordable price. Take the House of the Redeemer on New York’s Upper East Side. Built for Cornelius Vanderbilt’s great-granddaughter in the early 1900s, this elegant Episcopal center provides rooms for reflective guests of all faiths starting at $75 a night. A visit to the Ben Lomond Quaker Center, two hours south of San Francisco, is also guaranteed to lift your spirits. It’s situated on 80 acres of redwood forest and has private cottages or lodge rooms (photo, right) priced from $18-$45 per person. At most retreats, lodgings are modest. But if you value rest and renewal over resort-style amenities, the experience can be divine. To seek out your own piece of paradise, click on findthedivine.com or retreatsonline.
Combining down-home accommodations in sometimes beautiful settings, farms are becoming increasingly popular with city slickers. For starters, try living out your Green Acres fantasy at Missouri’s Meramec Farm, a 470-acre spread that has been in the same family since 1811. By day, outdoorsy types hike the Ozarks, fish in stocked ponds or (for a fee) go trail riding. At night, bed down in a classic log cabin with an air-conditioned interior and a porch. The price? Just $80 for two people; $100 for four. For more easterly farm alternatives, see Maine Farm Vacations, PA Farm Stay, or Vermont Farms.
Home Sweet Home
Ever consider house swapping? The idea is very simple. For an annual fee of $50-$100, you join an Exchange Club, then trade places with someone in the locale you want to visit. Big names like Intervac and Home Link have been around for 50-plus years and list thousands of homes. Hospitality Clubs, a variation on the theme, lets you enjoy your hosts’ company along with their house. One of the best is Hospitality Exchange. Anyone who wishes to be treated as a guest in another person’s home — and is willing to return the favor — may apply. Once accepted, you pay a $20 annual fee and gain access to a directory of members who’ll happily put out the welcome mat. Home exchange is a great way to go for families. Why? Because you’ll have more room to spread out than you would in a hotel, and many if not most homes have important-for-family amenities like big kitchens, dishwashers, washing machines and dryers.
Run-of-the-Mill vs. Windmill
A memorable way to experience the European countryside is to stay in a windmill. Many of these centuries-old relics have been spruced up into comfortable bed-and-breakfast lodgings. Quarters can be cramped but there’s plenty of ambience. Don’t expect proximity to glamorous nightlife or luxury spas — windmills are for people who like to get away from the big city, and big-city pleasures. Most windmills are a bargain, but some are attached to roomier properties or castles, and the price jumps accordingly with the square footage. At the Windmill Hotel, in Yorkshire, England, however, 40 pounds per person (per night) will get you a premier four-poster room (and the price includes breakfast). For other windmill accommodations, check out Travel-Quest.
Hostels aren’t just for hitchhikers anymore. Many now offer private rooms and extras such as saunas and self-serve kitchens. Settings are often distinctive, too. You can find hostels in lighthouses, treehouses, and assorted historic buildings (among them an Art Deco gem in Miami that was once a hangout for Al Capone). Luckily, costs remain low, and you don’t have to join Hostelling International to take advantage of them. For example, a night in a teepee or covered wagon at the Vashon Island Hostel (photo, right), in Washington’s Puget Sound, is only $16 per person for adult members ($19 for non-members). Want to splurge? Four can stay in a private lodge room for $75. Hostelling International USA lists operations nationwide. Before booking, do ask about gender restrictions (some are single sex), and make sure to clarify rules.
During school breaks, campus residences get full marks for frugality. Yes, accommodations are modest, but most are centrally located and come with budget-friendly amenities like cafeterias and laundromats. Some even have pools, gyms, and libraries open to guests, and the rates are unbeatable. For instance, at the University of Alaska Anchorage, private digs complete with en-suite bathrooms, coffee-makers and internet access start at $50 a night. Prefer to chill in a warmer climate? Two can share a dorm room at Honolulu’s Hawaiian Mission Academy for $40. The only caveat is that you’ll have to do some homework if you hope to snag such deals. Start by looking under “Conference Services” at individual school websites or Google “campus summer guest housing” for options.
— Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb