How to travel free or nearly free this summer

PHOTO: A couple is seen having fun by the sea in this undated stock photo.STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images
A couple is seen having fun by the sea in this undated stock photo.

Let's face it: even the least expensive vacations can add up fast. But for friends, couples, families and singles desperate to get away this summer, there are a few ways to travel on the very cheap. Like, free -- or at least almost free.

We've rounded up a few lesser-known sites that those in the know have known about for years. While some of these budget travel sites are relatively new, a few have been around for years - allowing countless people to travel for next to nothing.

Here are a list of our favorites:

Home Exchange

It started out primarily as a way for teachers on sabbatical to trade homes with each other and travel on the cheap, but the companies expanded and now boast tens of thousands of listings -- including primary homes and members' second homes. Here's how it works: You list your home, including photos, but with no exact address, plus details about yourself and what you're looking for. You can sit back and wait for people to contact you or be more proactive and reach out to people whose homes are located in places you're interested in visiting to see if there's a match.

So isn't it weird to have someone you don't know stay in your home?

"By the time the exchange actually takes place, they're not a stranger anymore," said Ed Kushins, founder of HomeExchange. "There [have] been multiple email exchanges and Skype conversations. Many people become friends and swap with the same people year after year."

HomeExchange.com has been in business for 25 years. There are over 65,000 listings in 150 countries.

Because of HomeExchange's Balloon Exchange program, swaps do not need to be simultaneous. By letting someone stay in your home, you can earn a "balloon" that you can then use to stay in another person's home at a later date. You earn Balloons by committing to host fellow members in your home as invited guests while you are home or away. Then, redeem your Balloons to stay anywhere in the world, not just at the home of the member you hosted.

Nightswapping.com

With 10,000 hosts in 160 countries, according to the site, the concept of NightSwapping is based on a virtual "Wallet." List your home or a room in your home with a price per night fee. When a person chooses your accommodations, you earn the total of that stay in your "Wallet." You can then use the funds in that wallet to stay at another member's place for free. Or, you can choose to collect the money to go to your bank account.

It's necessary to host in order to gain a free stay somewhere else. If you're not traveling, it's also a way to earn extra money. There's no commission fee if you choose to take the cash.

TransferCar

Great for domestic road trips and for people who can travel somewhat last-minute, TransferCar offers free -- or almost free -- one-way car and RV rentals. The vehicles, the site explains, need to get back to their home cities, and this is a cheap way for rental car companies to make that happen (otherwise, the cars have to go on a truck). In some cases, gas and insurance are included.

Chief Marketing Officer Pascal Languillon said there is often a lot of inventory between Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and between Florida and New York/New Jersey - in both directions. The site is updated daily and "we usually don't know too far in advance exactly what we will have, so if you're looking now on the website you won't be able to see what will be available in August, for instance. So the best for customers is to register, subscribe to an email alert for their particular route of interest, and come back to check the website regularly."

At the time of publication, there were 127 active listings, ranging from free 3-day rentals from Phoenix to Denver to $5 per day for an RV from Los Angeles or Las Vegas to Seattle.

TrustedHouseSitters.com

Though TrustedHouseSitters has been a staple for budget-conscious travelers abroad for several years, it was only in May that the site added U.S. properties. In a short time, company officials say, the U.S. market has become its largest.

In short, travelers get free accommodations in exchange for taking care of a pet or pets and a home while the owners are away. There is a membership fee of $119 per year and being an animal lover is a must.

Upcoming house-sitting options include a two-week stay in Sonoma starting in June, an August stay in New York City, a July stay in the south of France and more.