Omni Traveller

Budget Backpack Travel in Europe

CouchSurfing Networks are Great Places to Sleep While Travelling

Hospitality exchanges, also known as “home stay networks” operate on a simple idealistic principle: creating a better world through understanding. The idea is to provide a place for travellers to hook-up with volunteer hosts that are willing to provide a place to crash for a few nights.

This comes with the concept of reciprocity- you stay at someone’s place and in the best scenario you allow someone else to stay with you back home. But it’s more than just a place to sleep, there is a social aspect of the exchange, of conversation, getting local information and advice, and perhaps some meals along with a sleepover. Most people like hospitality exchanges because of the social contact with similar folks in a foreign country. In other words, it’s fun.

All you need do is to join a hospitality exchange, create a profile (some require more information, others less), sometimes you need to be approved, and then you are free to search for accommodations within the city you’re planning to visit, and make arrangements for your visit. Your search will bring up a whole bunch of people offering a couch, an air mattress, or even a bed in a spare room, all for free to travellers just like you. Find accommodations you like, send your prospective host a message letting them know when you’re going to be in town and asking if they’d put you up for a night or two or three, and (best case scenario) you’ll receive a response pencilling you in for your desired dates. Some allow almost immediate availability, others up to a 4-week scheduling period.

In addition to providing free accommodations, tapping a hospitality exchange network offers you a very social way to travel. You can search for hosts with the same interests as yourself. While it isn’t a requirement, hosts have a reputation for taking their guests out on the town, even if it’s just for a drink, to provide them with a truly local perspective on their destination. This also means that hosts often expect their guests to be equally social.

You don’t need to put in the time to be an active member on a hospitality exchange to take advantage of its many benefits, but committing to the community will certainly help you find the free accommodations you want, when and where you want them.

Please keep in mind that while hospitality exchanges are technically free, you should pay for something to your hosts in exchange for a free place to crash. It isn’t a requirement, but it’s a nice thing to do, and a true sign of genuine appreciation (as well as an enhanced reputation on the site). Even if it amounts to nothing more than to shout your hosts some beers, buying some little gift, or spending the effort to cook a nice dinner, it is the right thing to do.

Hospitality exchanges usually have fine reputations and enjoy the support of hundreds of thousands of members, but some are “nicer” than others, and a few have problems. Be aware that CouchSurfing and Hospitality Club censor members comments. Hospitality exchanges include:

  • CouchSurfing is very popular especially among younger travelers. They have a beautiful website that includes a women’s forum. They are especially socially-minded and sponsor organized events. They request donations and have some fees. They encourage a detailed profile to better pair travellers to hosts (and to better direct corporate advertising). This and other practices have generated a great deal of anger and controversy due to arrogant policies- see discussion below.
  • Hospitality Club is the oldest hospitality exchange site and maintains an active volunteer base. Hospitality Club is a free service and they have hosts in every country in the world. But there is discontent in the membership. They say the applicant review system is inadequate. The website is old, unattractive, and out-of-date with limited features. Example: It can be tedious to contact multiple hosts. The club censors members comments and is very slow to respond to inquiries, to approve new profiles, too slow to removal spam and they have not removed dormant accounts for years. They leave many members feeling disappointed, that other new exchanges have more energy, more vision. Some have left Hospitality Club especially in favor of BeWelcome.
  • BeWelcome is European based and has gained in membership from an exodus following the problems at CouchSurfing and Hospitality Club. BeWelcome is much smaller membership but it is highly ethical and with broad support from long-time active hosts. It is a free service. Volunteers review and verify all new members. They have a beautiful and efficient website with a blog, a fully featured forum, photo gallery, and a trip organizer connected to your profile.
  • GlobalFreeloaders is Australia based, has an old website interface that is very simple and straightforward. GlobalFreeloaders is a completely free service that requires all potential guests to also be hosts, completely free of charge, for as many times as you wish to be a guest.
  • StayDu.com is a new, small service that is now worldwide. There are more options at StayDu because you can “stay with locals for help, money, or free,” so you can stay with a host and work for room and board (and maybe earn a few euros or dollars), you can stay pay for unexpensive accommodations of a longer period of time, and you can stay with a host when you need to find a free place to crash for a few nights. They have a simple but well-designed website including a forum.
  • Servas is a peace-centered organization. Servas membership requires extensive references and an interview; there are various fees and a contributions requested.
  • Tripping is a newer service and has a beautiful, efficient website. They offer an emergency help contact feature for travelers in trouble. This helped people stranded in Iceland because of volcanic activity. Tripping is a small but it is a good, ethical organization with a bright future.
  • VolunteerStays.com offers short-term volunteer work for room and board.

If you’re really serious about receiving free housing while you travel, joining some of these sites is a really good idea. There are other hospitality exchanges geared to special interest groups including cyclists, gays & lesbians, women, over 40’s, over 50’s, etc.

 

Troubles in CouchSurfing

Many people have had amazing experiences using CouchSurfing so I know a lot of people have been very pleased. Nevertheless, the organization has had a bumpy ride. They suffered a devastating database loss in 2006 that had the unexpected effect of rallying its members to create “CouchSurfing 2.0” which was very successful and saved the organization.

You’d think the organization would be appreciative for the massive support that got CouchSurfing back up and working, right? Sadly, No. Oddly, after a wave of warm-hearted support and fresh popularity, CouchSurfing stuck it to their membership.

First, in 2011, CouchSurfing became a “for-profit corporation” which disappointed and angered many members. About that time, CouchSurfing began to censor members comments. If that wasn’t enough, in 2012 CouchSurfing nonchalantly changed its Terms of Service in a highly abusive manner that made member’s personal profile data available for sale! Yes, you read correctly, in a sense they sold-out their members private information from under them. Members were in startled disbelief and, yes, even more infuriated and disillusioned than in 2011.

Many long-term members including an angry “ambassador” resigned and migrated to BeWelcome. The new Terms of Service caught the eye and rapid condemnation of the German government, calling the new Terms of Service “unacceptable,” and “inadmissible under German and European data protection law”. Conveniently, CouchSurfing is an American organization (the USA has no data protection laws as in Europe), so CouchSurfing ignored European outrage.

So just remember if you wish to join CouchSurfing, you must accept their Terms of Service to join or log-in. Your private profile information at CouchSurfing will not be kept private.

Some people avoid CouchSurfing as well as Hospitality Club because of their intrusive practices.

 

Your Personal Safety

As far as physical safety is concerned, hospitality exchanges are usually very safe. Most hosts are honest, good folks that wish to host foreign visitors, spread peace and goodwill, and make some friends with foreign visitors to their country.

But there is always the possibility that an occasional host is trouble.

Females travelling alone (guys too) need to be cautious. Females should be alert to single male hosts offering accommodations. It is reasonable to be concerned about being propositioned by a male host. So, check up on him. Take a look at the sex of previous guests he hosted. If you notice a single male hosting mostly females, that may be a red flag. Does he have a wife or live-in girlfriend? Check previous guests for their take on him.

Most importantly, as with everything in life: always trust your instincts.

Before the trip you should have numerous emails back and forth to make sure it seems like a good fit. Skype if at all possible before deciding.

If the host’s home is out of town, never make your own way out to a secluded area. Always meet your host in town, at the airport or at the train station and have a coffee with your host at a nearby café so you have time to size him up.

If you arrive at a host’s home and you feel uncomfortable with the situation or unsafe for any reason, leave at once. Don’t think twice about it. Always have a backup plan just in case. Usually, a local tourist office will help you find a hostel with an opening for you, or a cheap hotel room for the night.