How to use the sharing economy to travel on a budget

By Natasha Culzac

What is the sharing economy and how can it benefit you as a tourist? See the world on the cheap with this guide

Why does it feel like every other week there’s someone claiming it’s possible to travel the world on a tenner? “Just pack your job in - it’s easy,” they proclaim. Well, if they managed it on a super-tight budget then it probably has something to do with the sharing economy.

What’s that?

The sharing economy is not actually a new concept. It’s as old as human life itself: literally the sharing of goods and services. However, the difference now is that technology, in particular, has enabled peer-to-peer sharing to explode across the globe at an exponential rate. In fact, the UK’s sharing economy has seen the fastest growth out of all of Europe: there were £7.4billion-worth of transactions in 2015, up from £3.9billion in 2014, according to PwC. It expects annual transactions to rise to a massive £140billion by 2025.

And it massively benefits travellers.


From borrowing someone’s bike to kipping on a stranger’s sofa, there are so many ways that the internet has been a boon for intrepid tourists. Often, travellers want a taste of the “real” country they’re visiting, to interact with locals and to do it as cheaply as possible.

Thankfully, the human race isn’t actually as selfish and greedy as we make it out to be. There are millions of people across the globe who’ll open their home to or do a favour for a temporary nomad from a foreign land, either for a minimal fee or for nothing in return at all.

There’s a slight ethical backbone to the sharing economy. For critics of rampant consumerism and capitalism, it provides a way to ‘stick it to the man’, to have as low a carbon footprint as possible and to share surplus resources rather than using more than we need to.

What kinds of things are available in the sharing economy?

In this internet age, one of the granddaddies of the sharing economy was the website Couchsurfing. Founded in 2004, it’s a social network that considers itself a community of people willing to go on or offer cultural and hospitality exchanges for free, as well as friendship and advice. It links people looking for a free place to crash, with those that have the space. There’s even a full-length documentary made about the phenomenon called One Couch at a Time.

Here are some other great ones for travellers:


Bla Bla Car: Drivers with empty seats in the car take on extra passengers for the journey. Meet friendly locals and get potentially a much more comfortable ride than a coach, and a much cheaper one compared to the train.

Spinlister: Hire a currently-unused bike, surfboard, snowboard or skis from other members of the public. As the website’s tagline states: “Save money, meet awesome people, and consume less”.



Warm Showers: A hospitality exchange for touring cyclists, much like Couchsurfing. Hosts - most of whom are based in the Americas and Europe - can offer anything from the use of their washing machine, to dinner and a bed.

BeWelcome: Again, this is a free, nonprofit hospitality exchange network aiming to promote “friendship and better understanding across boundaries” by linking up hosts and guides with travellers.

Camp in my Garden: Short-term micro-camping facilities in private homes. Garden owners advertise their space for a minimal fee. It was launched in 2010 as a quiet, affordable and private alternative to large-scale campsites. I just clicked on one listing in the Loire Valley in France which was a huge family home offering its garden to campers from £3 per person per night.

AirBnB: This is one of the most famous examples, due to its huge popularity across the world. It’s often homeowners or renters subletting their temporarily empty rooms or properties out to travellers for a short time, often at a rate that is a hell of a lot cheaper than a hotel. However, some disagree with the inclusion of AirBnB, and other new companies such as Uber, under the ‘sharing economy’ descriptor. This is partly because there isn’t much ‘sharing’ going on, simply a reshaping of traditional enterprise. AirBnB has also come in for some flack as it’s blamed for an unregulated rise of tourism in towns that cannot handle the increased numbers, as well as putting pressure on the local housing market.


Perhaps Uber Pool, at a push, could be described as being part of the sharing economy. Something like Freecycle most definitely is.

Is it safe?

One of the main concerns of people new to the sharing economy, is whether a particular website is safe to use given it has real-world implications.

You sometimes hear of horror stories, but these are very much the exception and not the rule. Most experiences of the users of sites like Couchsurfing or Bla Bla Car are positive and safe.


How it works

ID verification is pretty common on these sites, too, with new members expected to upload official identification that the website uses to confirm you are who you say you are - this goes for hosts and users. In addition, most of these sites have a reviews feature, where everyone gets publicly rated by the people they’ve had dealings with. For example, on Airbnb, both hosts and travellers give a statement about one another, with these reviews made available to all others.


For hosts or people offering their goods, insurance is sometimes offered to make owners feel at ease. For example, Getaround, which connects drivers who aren’t using their car with people who need to hire one, gives its car owners full insurance should anything happen during the rental. Unfortunately, this car sharing website is only available to a handful of US cities.

Top Takeaway

Most people are inquisitive and good. We sometimes forget this but that’s what’s great about the sharing economy - it’s centered on bringing the world together based on collaborative, altruistic and ethical ideals that tackle overt waste or fear of the ‘other’. For travellers, this means experiencing a country in a unique and often cheaper way than normal. How could the sharing economy be helpful for you on your next trip away?


Author bio: Thanks to a journalistic career history and a childhood at Sylvia Young Theatre School, Natasha has her fingers in a few professional pies, doing her best impression of a model and actor as well as personal finance writer. Outside of work she compulsively watches BBC period dramas and constantly lies to herself that this year will be the year she learns French, once and for all.

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