Rick Steves Reveals The Best Places He Slept For Free In Europe When He Had To

While some prefer all-inclusive resorts and cruise packages for travel, this approach is not the only way to see the world. A backpacking trip through Europe can be the experience of a lifetime. Having a transformative coming-of-age (at any age) adventure with limited funds can mean roughing it. In fact, before travel expert Rick Steves became a well-known writer and TV show host, he and his best friend traveled through Europe for the equivalent of around $20 a day. They slept anywhere they could for free, including slumming with friends, snoozing on trains and in train stations, and even dozing off outside when they had to. As scary as that might sound, today, the travel aficionado still recalls it as his favorite trip to Europe.


When he started out as a tour guide, Steves tried to give people a taste of that way of living by intentionally booking them into unpleasant hotels or leaving the group hanging until the last second about whether or not they had a place to stay. The goal? "Get out of our comfort zone so we could appreciate what we have and be more thankful and also recognize there's a lot of suffering and a lot of need outside of our comfort area," Steves explained in an interview with PBS. "Now, I've graduated to do the same kind of mission as far as experiential travel and exposing people and having people think about what they're experiencing without making them go into a dangerous, horrible rat house for a hotel."


Staying with others

The easiest and least dangerous way to sleep in a foreign country for free is staying with somebody who has a secure and safe place that they're willing to share with you. In some cases, that might mean lodging with locals, like acquaintances or distant relatives, something that Steves recommends as a great way to make close friends for life. If you don't have any connections in the country you're visiting, consider finding a volunteer group or cultural exchange organization that will locate you a host family in exchange for volunteer hours!


In Rick Steves's Audio Europe, the travel expert recalls sneakily sleeping in his friend's hotel room so they could split the cost of a space only intended for one guest. He also has some excellent advice about how to find accommodations on a shoestring budget, like checking out hostels. On his website, Rick Steves' Europe, he suggested that this provides a more authentic experience, anyway, saying: "Spending more for your hotel just builds a bigger wall between you and what you traveled so far to see. If you spend enough, you won't know where you are. Think about it. 'In-ter-con-ti-nen-tal.' That means the same everywhere — designed for people who deep-down inside wish they weren't traveling, people spending someone else's money, people who need a strip of paper over the toilet promising them no one's sat there yet. It's uniform sterility, a lobby full of stay-press Americans, English menus, and lamps bolted to tables."


Sleeping on trains

If you can invest in transportation, that can theoretically double as a place to spend the night. As a teenager backpacking through Europe, Rick Steves and his best friend bought themselves unlimited rail passes, which allowed them to take as many trains as they wanted. That also meant that they always had a place to sleep. "To maximize nights on trains, we structured our trip by artfully connecting the dots with eight hour train rides," Rick Steves recalled in Audio Europe. "On occasion, to enjoy more time in a town and the budgetary boost of a free night of sleep, we'd ride a train for four hours out, cross the track, and catch a train for four hours back."


To ensure themselves a little privacy, Steves and his friend tried to make their train car seem as unappealing as possible to other travelers. The two decided that the best way to do this without being rude to their fellow passengers was to sit cross-legged and chant at each other. Usually, other people found this behavior too weird to tolerate for an eight-hour train trip, so they'd choose a different car and leave Steves and his friend in peace.

Sleeping in train stations

If you're desperate for a place to stay, you might be able to find a safe, dry spot to spend the night in a train station. On his website, Steves advises that as long as you can find one that doesn't close at all overnight, any upcoming train ticket should secure you a seat in the station without any station agents trying to clear you out. You probably won't be the only person sleeping there, either. If the station has lockers for luggage, you can leave your bag where it's safe, or you can use a budget-friendly lock on your bag to prevent theft.


In an episode of Audio Europe, Steves recalled a time that he and his friend tried to spend the night on what they thought was an abandoned train car, only to wake up and find themselves stranded in a station outside of Belgrade. Fortunately, the station guard was kind to them, and although they didn't speak the same language, he allowed them to spend the night in the empty station. In the morning, he woke them up with breakfast and coffee. In general, though, Steves warns that you're more likely to be chased out of the station with a broom if you're not waiting for a train.

Sleeping in airports

Sleeping at the airport may be a good option if it's the first or last night of your trip. If you plan ahead and learn about the best ways to sleep comfortably in an airport, you can even have a restful night there. In many terminals, passengers are typically left alone by airport staff, and in some cases, amenities are in place to help you relax. For instance, at the Frankfurt Airport, you'll find comfy seats, showers you can use for a small fee, and plenty of 24-hour businesses and restaurants, though you're probably better off checking out some of Rick Steves' recommendations for places to eat on a shoestring budget in Europe since airport food can be pricey! However, security may wake you up and ask to see your ticket.


Other European airports, like Paris Beauvais, close overnight and don't allow passengers to sleep there, so make sure you look up the airports you plan to stay at in advance. As Steves noted on his website, The Guide to Sleeping in Airports can be a fantastic resource for planning your overnight stay.

Sleeping outside

Believe it or not, when he was backpacking around Europe as a teenager, Rick Steves sometimes slept in church pews, construction sites, and even outside. In an episode of Audio Europe, Steves recalled one particularly awkward experience where he and his friend slept outside in a park in Belgrade, which turned out to be a common overnight meetup spot for gay men in the city. After having to clarify that they were only in the spot by accident a few times, Steves and his friend moved on and found somewhere else to sleep.


While he did it himself many times, especially in the Mediterranean, Steves has warned that many cities don't allow you to just lie down and camp out on a park bench. A lot of travelers might take the chance anyway, but it's probably not worth the risk if you have any other alternative. Steves' experiences with sleeping in unsafe places while traveling in Europe as a young man instilled a deep respect for those who are forced to find a place to sleep for free regularly. In 2017, he even donated a 24-unit apartment building that he had purchased to the YWCA, an organization that provides housing to single mothers without a place to live.