Forget about overpriced hotels or crowed backpacker hostels.
For today’s growing number of budget-minded solo travelers, there is a growing online presence of something called “hospitality exchange” websites, which are helping to bring the global traveling community even closer.
When we say close, we’re not kidding.
So close, in fact, that you may find yourself spending a night or two on someone else’s couch… which means that you’ve scored the cheapest accommodations possible.
Hospitality exchange sites are usually free — travelers and hosts simply connect through the site, and then chat over email or the phone to make necessary arrangements. The level of contact between the traveler and host is up to the individuals: Some hosts offer nothing more than a place to sleep, while others get fully involved with cooking meals, sightseeing and socializing with their guest.
Of course, the first question is always the most important… what about safety? Rule of thumb is that there are no guarantees. However, most of these sites address the safety issue, as follows:
This site is basically what started the couch sharing revolution — it was created in 2004 by a backpacker named Casey Felton, who saved big bucks on his trip to Iceland when he emailed hundreds of university students in the country asking for a place to stay.
Security: Over the years, the site has implemented several safety precautions for users: Members can officially “vouch” for another host or travelers; only an already-vouched-for member can vouch for someone else, and the site cautions users to think carefully before putting their own reputations on the line by vouching for another. A verification system means that the user has paid $25 via credit card for the website administrators to check on the name, physical address and also that the user’s name matches the credit card. Essentially it’s just an extra step to show that the user is a serious Couchsurfing member. However, note that vouching and verification are only optional steps.
This one of the oldest and best-known hospitality organizations out there — it’s an accredited non-governmental organization that is recognized by the United Nations to promote global friendship. “Servas” actually means “to serve” in the international language of Esperanto. Established in 1949, the organization includes about 13,000 homes in 130 countries.
Security: Servas is a little more structured than other hospitality websites, as host homes are divided into nine areas around the world with a coordinator for each region. You’ll find that security measures are more stringent than most, as you have a point person to contact with any questions or concerns you’re having with your host family.
This site was founded in 2000 by Veit Kuhne, a German traveler who is active in both the hitchhiking community and the global volunteer organization AFS. His mission for the site is to build “intercultural understanding and peace through hospitality exchange.”
Members can offer each other travel help, whether it’s free accommodations, a tour around town or just a local friend to have coffee or dinner.
Security: The site has several “rules” that guests and host must follow. In order to become a member (it’s free), you must provide detailed information about yourself, which the site operators will verify before approving your membership. When contacting another member, you must supply your full name and passport number, and when you arrive you must show your passport to the host.
This is the only one of these sites that charges for use: Members must pay $30 a year to use the site, and $10 a night, per person, to the host as a courtesy, which of course is a far lower rate than most hostels or hotels.
The site sorts posts into specific groups to bring together like-minded individuals; for example, there are sections for quilters and crafters, educators, and women-only, to name a few (there is a general section as well). Guests are also strongly encouraged to offer accommodations to other travelers, even if it’s just floor space.
Security: This company is newer than most, so it doesn’t have the same user feedback and personal vouches as the other websites.
If you’re planning to make your way around the world, one couch at a time, here are a few tips:
–Always let one or more people know exactly where you’re staying each night, including the name and phone number of your host. If your plans change, alert someone as quickly as possible.
–Have a backup plan in case your host arrangement doesn’t work out. Keep information on local hotels and hostels, as well as contact numbers for transportation.
–Provide feedback, positive or negative, about your host/guest to the organization that brought you together… it will help others in the long run.
–Be a respectful guest! That means always being polite, cleaning up after yourself (offering to do the dishes is a big one), and don’t treat your host like a hotel manager–get to know them, ask questions and be aware of their boundaries.
Click here for information on “Budget Accommodations in Asia.”
Another idea for budget accommodations: “Sleeping In Airports.”