Hackpacking: 7 New Ways to Make Your Vacation Pay for Itself

The worst part of vacation is paying for it - until now! (Photo: Thinkstock)

For the most part, planning an upcoming trip is insanely fun. There’s the initial thrill of choosing the destination, followed by a series of Google Image binges during which you drool over the scenery that’s about to be part of your future for five days, and, yes, the *completely necessary* online shopping wish list you create in prep for your getaway. But then reality kicks in — and by reality I mean the whole paying for the vacation thing — and a tiny little part of you dies inside. Of course, there are already tons of tried-and-true ways to score cheap deals and travel on a budget, but they still involve you forking over your hard-earned cash to someone else—until now.

No, I’m not talking about robbing your hostel or dining and dashing. I’m talking about hackpacking—i.e. (safely) working the system so you make your vacation pay for itself. Here’s how to do it.

1. Keep Calm and Barter On


Want to go surfing in Costa Rica? Try bartering for it. (Photo: Bodhi Surf/Flickr)

Back in April, I went to Costa Rica with my friend who’s also a freelance writer. We became friends with a local hostel owner, and one afternoon, he told us over Imperial Light cervezas that he wanted us to help him with all of his social media stuff — his website, his Instagram, everything. “As writers,” he said, “You ladies could surely give me a hand. Are you up for it?” We told him yes — but with one condition: He had to hook us up with on-the-house surf lessons from Miguel, the hostel’s super cute instructor. Sold!

My friend and I had just officially discovered the barter system, an amazing way to get what you want without exchanging physical dollars. To try out the tip yourself, just pinpoint your most marketable skill when you’re traveling, and keep your eyes peeled for places you can use it to get what you want. If you’re a photographer, for instance, see if your host family wants their portrait taken, or maybe your hotel needs updated pictures for its website. If you’re good at makeup or hair, ask the front-desk people if you can give the guests makeovers in exchange for free meals (or whatever). The point is, don’t be so quick to pay up when you’re out and about. Look around, see if there are any holes you can fill, and fill them — you just may get filled up with a free meal in return.

2. Put Your Apartment On Air BnB — But Charge More Than Your Rent


A cool apartment like this in Williamsburg, Brooklyn may be worth more per week on AirBnB than what it costs in rent in an annual lease. (Photo: Chris Ford/Flickr)

Let’s say you pay $1200 per month in rent. Now, let’s say you put your place on Air BnB for $1500 a month, and someone agrees to pay that amount. Do the math: You not only earned back all of your rent money, which you can put toward your vacation, you also earned more (margarita) money than you would have if you stayed put.

To be clear, this does not make you a thief, a swindler, or, worst of all, a Bad Person. It makes you normal, because listen: People do it. It’s the unspoken status quo. And while this is usually not a reason to follow suit (bridge, jump, etc.), it is in this scenario for two reasons. First of all, Air BnB charges a 3 percent host service fee every time a guest pays you, meaning you need to charge a little more anyway or else you’ll end up in the red. But second, Air BnB is practically built on the ability to crowdsource your way to a sweet deal. You’ll know if your apartment is reasonably priced simply because guests will not rent it otherwise. As a result, your task is this: Start by listing your apartment for a couple hundred dollars more than your monthly rent, and work your way back. If someone sends you a request to book your apartment at that price, go with it. And if you throw out a big number and no one’s biting? Take it down a notch until you find your sweet spot.

If you’re still racked with Air BnB guilt, think of it this way: Right now, Air BnB has over 500,000 unique listings available in more than 33,000 cities and 192 countries — and of alllll of those possibilities, your guest chose you. He or she wants your place. Not someone else’s; yours. For the price you listed. He wouldn’t have contacted you if he didn’t think your place was worth it. Soooo…it is. End of discussion.

3. And Then Find a Free Place to Stay


You could have the run of this Brittany manor through the end of December in exchange for taking care of the dog, two cats, and of course a miniature horse and miniature sheep. (Photo: Housecarers.com)

You can start with house or cat sitting. In today’s “this actually exists” news, there are a couple of websites — mindmyhouse.com and housecarers.com — that match up house sitters with homeowners around the globe for free. You sign up to be a sitter for a homeowner who is traveling for some time, and all you usually have to do is take care of their pets, water their plants, and do any other random maintenance tasks.

Along those same lines, I went to Costa Rica back in April and met an Argentinian traveler there who was staying at his hostel for zero charge. He was working at the hostel during the day, cleaning and doing various maintenance jobs and whatnot, in exchange for a room at night. So basically, he got to refresh his travel fund and chill out in Costa Rica in the process. Legit (and stealable) set-up!


Get your hands dirty to see a new part of the countryside. (Photo: Thinkstock)

It’s pretty safe to say that you’ve heard of “voluntourism,” or volunteer tourism, in which you forgo traditional vacation activities like beachside lounging and museum hopping and volunteer your time and services abroad and stateside, instead. Right now, there are countless ways to do it — and groups to do it through. You can teach English as a second language through organizations like International Volunteer HQ, build houses and schools in developing communities through groups like Madventurer, or even teach local youth how to surf through groups like Waves for Development, to name a few.

Our latest favorite, though, is through WWOOFing; the acronym stands for “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.” It’s a large network of various non-profit organizations around the world that connect you with local organic farms and growers. The idea is that you can sign up to stay as a volunteer with a host farm, and you usually do about four to six hours per day of manual labor — sowing seeds, making compost, gardening, etc. — in exchange for that day’s room and board. While the length of your stay is to be negotiated between you and your host farm, most volunteers end up staying for about one to two weeks.

If you want to try WWOOFing, your first task is to choose where you want to go, and then join the corresponding WWOOF organization (each country has a separate group, as opposed to one giant umbrella WWOOF group). Right now, there are over 50 countries that have their own WWOOF organizations — from Malawi to Nepal to Tanzania — so you definitely have options! Each organization has its own membership fee, but most are around $20 to $40 per year. And there are 45 countries that don’t have official organizations, though they do have hosts; these countries are called “WWOOF Independents. To get involved with them, just sign up to be a member of WWOOF Independents (it’s about $25 per year), and then you’ll have access to all of their info.

5. Hit Up Tinder


You could earn money waiting on line outside the Apple store buying the newest release for someone. (Photo: Getty Images)

When you’re traveling in a new place, it’s tempting to sign up for one of those guided tours in your area so you can get in on that local knowledge. But there’s a way to sidestep those pricey tour fees and get the info for free: Use Tinder. While you probably think the popular Facebook and GPS-based dating app is just a hookup app, it can help you save money, too, if you use it the right way.

Of course, before going any further, it’s important to note that if you choose to use Tinder while traveling, you have to think about your safety first. After all, you’re meeting up with people you don’t know, which can be potentially unsafe wherever you are — but even more so if you’re not familiar with the area. To be sure you’re Tindering wisely, always meet in a public place first. You should not, under any circumstances, meet at someone’s apartment without having already met him or her. Also, don’t engage with people who ask for your personal info (like your credit card number or your home address) before they’ve even met you. Finally, if you want to be extra cautious, you can set up a separate Facebook account specifically for your Tinder, and even create a new e-mail address for the account. Put as little info on there as you can, so people won’t be able to do any sort of pre-sight-seeing-date stalking. You can even do a double date with your travel pal.

Once you’ve taken proper Tinder precaution, though, start swiping. When I was in Costa Rica, on that same freelance trip where I bartered my way into surf lessons, I went on Tinder and started chatting with a lot of local guys. I quickly realized that, surprisingly, most of them actually weren’t in it for the hookup: They were just eager to play tour guide. When we met up, we got to know each other first, and then they brought me to all of the local insider-y spots — the bars with the cheapest drinks, the beaches that don’t overcharge you for coconut water — and also told me which tourist activities were actually worth the price, and which were a total scam. And get this: I didn’t hook up with any of them. When you use Tinder abroad, it’s just as much a friendship app as a dating app. So in the end, I not only got a free tour, but I also discovered the non-tourist-y places to go. And, of course, I made a bunch of new travel friends. Win.

Related: The Reason You Absolutely Must Tinder While Traveleing

6. Find Random Jobs on Craig’s List

Online classifieds are full of odd jobs around the world. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Sadly, Task Rabbit, the online marketplace that allows users to outsource random tasks to other people, doesn’t exist around the country (though they say they’re currently working on making that happen). If it did, you could just be a task rabbit for people in your area to score some extra cash. The next best thing? Use Craig’s List, instead. Just find your country — it’s available around the globe — and then click on it and go to the “services” section. There, you’ll find all sorts of random jobs you can do in your area that will not only help you earn money, but will also be a cool and different way to explore the city you’re in.

Case in point: I signed on to the Manchester, England Craig’s List page (just because I know I speak the language!). Under “Services,” there was a headline, “Anyone in Manchester looking to make up to 100 pounds today?” Clearly, this poster read my mind, so I clicked on his ad, and it turns out that he wanted to pay someone to stand in line for the new iPhone 6. That is all. “Looking for people to queue for the new iPhone 6 — would pay up to 50 pounds (about $81) per phone. You do not have to pay for anything, all you have to do is queue,” he wrote. So simple! And although I didn’t stand in that line myself, the person who did probably also ended up meeting some really cool, interesting locals while standing in that line — locals who quite possibly clued him or her into the coolest drum & bass club to hit up later that night. Just saying.

Of course, with Craig’s List you also have to be careful. So follow the Tinder precautions mentioned earlier before dealing with strangers.

7. Make Your Credit Card Pay for Your Plane Ticket

Make the most of your credit card miles. (Photo: Thinkstock)

It’s a destination duh: The more money you put on your credit card, the more mileage points you’ll earn. But what you may not know is that there are a couple easy ways to hack the system so that as long as you pay your bill in full and on time, you don’t necessarily have to buy more to score more miles. Consider this: When possible, always use your credit card to pay for things, rather than your debit card or cash, so you earn points on as much as you can. What’s more, at group dinners, tell your friends that you’ll put the entire meal on your credit card, and then collect cash from each of them. That way, you’re indirectly using their sushi dinner to pay for your flight to Japan.

Another option is to buy a whole bunch of stuff online, and then sell it quickly on Amazon. You’ll get the money right back — but you’ll still have scored a bunch of points in the meantime. And, finally, you can sign up for multiple travel rewards cards, specifically ones with great sign-up bonuses (some of them offer up to 50,000 mileage points simply for signing up). You can even sign up for the same credit card more than once, and then cancel it when the annual fee comes along. Not only will you get a sweet sign-up bonus each time, you may even raise your score if you pay your bills on time, because you’ll boost your credit history.

Related: A Million Frequent Flier Miles for $1,000? Here’s How

So now you know. It’s not only totally doable to make your vacation pay for itself, you can also have a good time in the process. Get on it.

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