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Four (Almost) Free Ways to Travel

harvesting cropsIf the recessionary mindset has taught us anything, it's that we still have expansive travel desires even when our wallets are slim. Enter the working vacation, where callous-palmed travelers don the sun hat and gloves of the temporary laborer, and pay for their camp grub, modest accommodations and instructional lessons on trail maintenance by picking heirloom tomatoes or keeping leaf-eating beetles at bay. Or forgo the work and embrace the free. Below are a few ingenious ways to take a vacation for next to nothing.

Harvest 22 varieties of figs in Malibu. Help build an off-the-grid dwelling situated at 10,000 feet in Colorado Springs. Rake wild blueberries and make wine in Phillips, Maine. What is this strange bourgeois migrant labor, you ask? There are some 1,400 farms associated with WWOOF-USA, the American chapter of World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. (There are thousands more across the planet, but costly flights make extreme penny pinching more of a challenge.) The exchange: You work for a half day, and the farm owners, whom you've hopefully vetted (and they you, crazy eyes), provide food and shelter. No previous experience extolling the virtue of the soil is needed, but you do have to be at least 18 years old to work on your own. (Those younger than 18 must be accompanied by an adult.)

The length of a farmstay is determined by you and your host, and can vary from a few days to a season. Gaining access to WWOOF-USA's online database of farms costs $30 for a one-year membership.

Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay

If you're able to get cheap airfare (or some other cheap overseas travel -- merchant marine ship, anyone?) you might enjoy exchanging a few hours of work per day for food, accommodations and the opportunity to learn about the people and places you visit. Workaway.info states as one of its goals an aim "to promote cultural understanding between different peoples and lands throughout the world." Set up to facilitate travel and foreign language immersion, the network of families, individuals and organizations seeks volunteers to paint, build, baby-sit or plant. If it needs doing, you may be asked -- in a foreign tongue -- to do it.

To become a Workawayer, it will cost a single person $27 for two years' access to hosts. The cost is $36 for a couple or two friends for two years.

Appalachian Trail Work Crew
appalachian trail marker Working as part of a volunteer crew to build and protect the Appalachian National Scenic Trail is a decidedly couch-free affair. Trail crews tackle large-scale projects such as trail relocations and rehabilitation, and bridge and shelter construction. The work is rigorous and there are no "vacation days" if you're working for the minimum week-long stint. But what you do get, if you're so disposed, is the chance to pass on the 75-plus-year legacy of a 2,181-mile trail that runs from Georgia through Maine, the pursuit of which has given men, women and children the freedom to grow wizard-like beards without recoiling in society's mirror. As part of the bargain, you also get food, transportation to the work site, the chance to share a group tent, work tools and equipment, and crew leadership. Volunteers are responsible for providing their own camping gear.

Apparently, there are quite a few hardy noble souls ready to take on the task -- there's often a waitlist for the first-come, first-served positions, which are filled in equal parts by men and women, with ages ranging from 18 to 80.

Couch Surfing
If you'd rather not do any work harder than lifting your backpack and hoofing it to your next destination, you might want to consider couch surfing, which could or could not involve sleeping on a sofa. CouchSurfing.org describes the concept as "a global network of travelers, adventure seekers and lifelong learners," but basically it's a way to find free places to stay while you travel. Travelers share their homes, bikes, car rides, museum passes, fun times and more. It's free to register.

Toilet Paper Tussle at the Airbnb: How I Survived a Homestay

Not interested in sleeping on a stranger's couch or getting your hands dirty on vacation? Check out these nine creative ways to save big on your next trip. And don't forget to use our handy travel budget calculator for planning a wallet-friendly getaway!

Ever been on a volunteer or working vacation? Tell us about it below.

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    -- written by Dan Askin and Jodi Thompson
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