What do you know about sleeping with strangers on the road? Hospitality Exchange organizations have been around for many years and offer both a budget friendly way to travel and also a unique way to learn about your new destination. Maybe you’ve heard of CouchSurfing and were curious how that really worked. Did you know that that is just the start of possibilities to stay free and meet new friends?
I have been a CouchSurfing Host for many years and have meet many interesting people that I wouldn’t have any other way. There was Dieter, a professional published photographer who was shooting his way through urban United States for a new book. I shared my Christmas holiday with Jenna, a French art exchange student. She was in Milwaukee to check out the architecture for one of her classes. Then there was Nancy from Montana. She was in a folk dance competition and showed me all her moves. The list goes on and on, but what these guests all have in common is that they enriched my life in some way. Although using a hospitality exchange service is a wonderful way to save money, the real value is the stories you get to share with like-minded travelers.
CouchSurfing values are: Share your life. Create connection. Offer kindness. Stay curious. and Leave it better than you found it. You join for free and create your profile. Questions you should think about are your travel philosophy, what you offer as a host (even if you don’t want people to stay at your home you could still meet for coffee or a guided city tour) and what you bring to the table as a guest. If you have friends that are also involved with the organization, get them to endorse you. If not, go to one of the many local meetings and make friends. Once you start hosting or traveling you’ll get reviews also. Social reputation is very important when strangers are asking to stay in each others’ homes. Reviews are given not only of the host but the guest as well. Many people will not accept requests unless they find positive feedback about the person. All arrangements are made between members with email sent through the CouchSurfing platform for added security. No money is involved. Sometimes you find a simple futon in the shared living room, and sometimes you get to stay in a luxury bedroom. In any case you’ll know what to expect before you make any travel commitments. It’s all part of the charm of this type of travel.
Don’t stop your search with CouchSurfing. There are many organizations that offer a free place to stay. BeWelcome, not as well known as CouchSurfing so it fewer available members, might be just what you’re looking for. As of June 2014 there were 60,000 members of BeWelcome compared to 3.6 million CouchSurfers. Founded in 2007 by members who felt Hospitality Club (another older exchange) was getting too far from it’s roots and were concerned about the lack of transparency. BeWelcome still remains a non-profit and decision making about organization policies is totally democratic and transparent.
From the BeWelcome website: BeWelcome is all about building bridges and really touching other cultures. Staying at a local’s house and enjoying local festivities but also facing a population’s problems are ways to get to know a totally new perspective. This is why we support local communities and social initiatives and encourage our members to take part in their activities.
If you’re on a bicycle tour and want to stay with other cyclists, Warm Showers is your choice. With 34,000 global hosts, you should be able to find someone to exchange stories and a place to overnight. The advantages here are that other cyclists understand the challenges of touring this way and can give relevant local advice, help fix bikes or just share information that the traveler may not have known.
FoFTravel (Friends of Friends) is only open to new members by invitation. This means that everyone knows someone. It’s like Facebook/LinkedIn meets CouchSurfing. There are never more than a couple degrees of separation.
This type of travel isn’t for everyone, but if you’re up for an adventure and want to spend your travel budget on things other than a comfy bed in a hotel, I urge you to give it a try. Here are some points that will make your stay more enjoyable:
- Do check a host’s profile to see if you are a good fit. If you like your privacy or have allergies, don’t request to stay with a pet owner that only offers a sleeping bag on their living room floor.
- Do check what type of personality your host shows in their profile. Quirky and fun loving or full of warnings and rules to follow.
- Do think about things like age and gender. Personally I only stay with other women and those closer to my age. I do this for security and a better chance to have common interests.
- Don’t ask to stay more than 3 days. Don’t expect meals to be included.
- Do make sure you understand the arrangements before you arrive so there are no misunderstandings.
- Do show up when you say you will or call and let the host know if your plans change. That is just common courtesy and respect for someone offering to open their home to you.
- Do let friends and family know your plans and hosts address. Let host tactfully know others are aware of your whereabouts. Safety first.
- Although this is a free stay, do bring you host as small gift or cook a meal for them, or at least offer to help them with something around the house during your stay.
- Understand that your hosts will not usually be able to entertain you during your entire stay, but most are happy to have conversations with you daily.
- Have a back-up plan just in case things change at the last minute, or you find you just can’t get along with this particular host.
These guidelines may sound a bit harsh but don’t let them deter you. Use common sense, take usual safety precautions, be a courteous guest and make sure your expectations of the stay match your host’s. I have never had a bad experience nor heard of any of my friends having one, although I know they sometimes do happen. On the flip side, I have been robbed in a Paris hotel and many times had to deal with rude hotel staff. If this type of travel appeals to your sense of adventure, I urge you to give it a try.
Have you ever used any of these organizations? Please let me know what you thought of your experience in the comments.