Few accommodations (perhaps with the exception of Airbnb) are getting so much press these days as couch-surfing - the art of staying on someone's couch (though most times you'll probably get a bed).
Couch-surfing - and others not unlike it - is about staying at someone's home when you travel, or enjoying their hospitality, at least in some way. It's not always about a bed - sometimes it's about connecting for a meal, or information about a place you're visiting.
Whether you're hiking in Iceland, climbing Kili or kayaking in the Philippines, there's a local hostess (or host) waiting to welcome you.
Most will share at least one thing with you: a love of travel. And most of these hospitality exchange sites were built by travelers themselves, touched by the kindness of strangers as they traveled and wishing - often in pre-Internet days - that they had a network of like-minded people with whom to share their joy of the road.
It's all quite simple. First you join your network of choice (many of them are free), then you search for members near where you're going, and you get in touch with them, either directly or through the site. That's it.
You build a profile and provide information about yourself, and others do the same. Most people who use hospitality services say there's more involved than just a bed - but an exchange, of conversation, of food, of information, of social contact.
The idea is reciprocity: you stay in someone's home, and somewhere down the line you might provide someone else with hospitality.
Couchsurfing is one of the most popular, with over 10 million members in 220,000 cities. It is also a community with a number of special interest groups, including several for women travelers and solo travelers. Ask questions, get advice, find a travel companion - or just use the service to find a place to stay pretty much anywhere in the world. Here is their philosophy: "Couchsurfing connects travelers with a global network of people willing to share in profound and meaningful ways, making travel a truly social experience." My friend Lisa of LL World Tour spent nearly three years touring the world and much of it was by staying with couchsurfers.
Another popular organization that provides free accommodation, no strings attached is the Hospitality Club. My friend Jose in Rio has used it extensively and raves about it. He and his wife have hosted a couple from the US and a Malaysian lawyer and her son, while he has used it to travel to Morocco. The hospitality doesn't have to be an overnight trip - it can be a city tour, transport from the airport, or a simple exchange of emails about local sights of interest. Hospitality Club is free and not-for-profit and seems to have members in every country imaginable. Its philosphy: that bringing people from different cultures together will increase understanding and strengthen peace.
Similarly, Servas, which means 'service' in Esperanto and may well have been the first service of this kind, offers hospitality to promote world peace and understanding. It doesn't see itself as simply a free accommodation service - hosts expect to have a meaningful exchange with guests and to part ways with a better sense of one another's worlds.
The Friendship Force International, founded by former US President Jimmy Carter, is another group that tries to overcome differences among people by bringing them together through hospitality.
Global Freeloaders has a great database that finds only those hosts with available accommodation on a specific date, but unlike the other two, requires all its guests to also be hosts.
If you prefer a women-only service, Women Welcome Women World Wide, or 5W as it's also known, operates in 80 countries. There is a membership fee for which you receive a list of members, whom you then contact directly.
Finally, a French start-up, Nightswapping, allows you to build up your capital of nights by hosting people. Each time you host someone you get points, which you can then spend by staying the night elsewhere. So far it has 110 000 members in over 160 countries. Like the rest of these systems it's vetted and you can communicate with your hosts beforehand, or turn anyone down as a guest. The novelty here is that you have to host as well, although it falls short of being a home exchange since you don't have to stay with anyone specific.
This is a great way to travel. Rather than hanging out in tourist spots and hotels owned by multinational conglomerates, staying with people in their homes often takes us off the beaten path into people's everyday lives. Just think of it... you could couchsurf with a dancer in Ghana, a chef in Bangkok or a farmer in New Zealand. Not only will you see a new world - they will too. Imagine how much richer both your lives will be.
There aren't too many downsides to this kind of hospitality - but as with everything there are some.
For example, if your free accommodation doesn't work out, if your hosts turn out to be different than expected, there's no one you can turn to. Of course you can give the person a negative review (several services offer a rating scheme) and make sure others are alerted, but since it's free, you can't claim a thing - unlike in a hotel.
Most services have a built-in safety mechanism, which I feel is essential. The last thing I want is to wander into a dicey situation in someone's home. Of course there is never a guarantee of safety but here are some of the safeguards: since people have to register as members, they can be tracked; reviews and testimonials provide information about members and their hospitality; the organizations provide a verification system that ensures your name and address are correct and valid. Make sure you take advantage of these!
Still, it's important to go the extra mile. Don't make arrangements with hosts who haven't received extensive reviews. Be especially cautious if the home is out of town. Don't make your own way to a secluded location but meet your hosts in town or at the airport first. And make sure you exchange plenty of emails before deciding - with Skype these days, you might even be able to talk in person before you meet.
Remember - if you're a guest this time around, give something back by hosting travelers too.