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Couch Surfing, Hospitality Club and Other Intensely Local Accommodations

Women on the Road
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18 January 2019 — If your favorite travel experiences involve living like a local, why not stay with someone who lives in the country you're visiting?

That's why social networks that match hosts with guests have become so popular.

But wait. Are they still popular? What about all the safety issues we've heard about? How sensible is it for a solo female traveler to use one of these services?

This article will peel away some of that confusion, tell you about the best hospitality exchange networks, and provide you with a list of things to watch out for if this is something you'd like to try.

Couch surfing possibilities are endlessYou never know what kind of bed you might end up with!

what exactly is a hospitality exchange?

Hospitality clubs, as they're also called, are 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.

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.

Hospitality exchanges: the basics

They all tend to operate the same way: first you join your network of choice (many of them are free), then you search for members near your destination, and you get in touch with them, either directly or through the site. That's it, a slightly sophisticated version of "Can I crash on your couch?"

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 delayed reciprocity: you stay in someone's home, and somewhere down the line you might provide someone else with hospitality. In most cases there's no obligation, but if everyone is a guest and no one a host, the system will soon fall apart.

Couchsurfing room exampleCouch surfing: it's not always a couch

Whether you're hiking in Iceland, climbing Kili or kayaking in the Philippines, there's a local hostess (or host) waiting to welcome you.

This isn't for everyone, mind you, but this kind of intensely local experience will make you feel like you're practically a local yourself. 

the most popular hospitality clubs

You may already be familiar with the more popular ones: Couchsurfing, for example, or Hospitality Club.

Plenty have come and gone over the years but a few are still worth looking at more closely.

Couchsurfing

This one is by far the largest and most popular, even today. With over 15 million members in 220,000 cities, you'll be hard-pressed not to find something suitable.

Couchsurfing has its supporters and detractors. A corporate takeover took away much of its distinct personality, and in many places the network has deteriorated, especially in large touristy North American and European cities. 

My friend Lisa of LL World Tour spent nearly three years touring the world and much of it was by staying with couchsurfers.

"At first, like many, I was hesitant. But honestly, once I read some of the profiles and tried it, I was hooked. And I’m an introvert and like my space, but I also like connecting with people one-on-one so that part about it was perfect for me!"

Couchsurfing seems to thrive in some Asian countries and in developing countries, especially those with people too poor to travel beyond their region or who are subjected to restricted exchanges by authoritarian regimes. But in some urban centers, it can be more of a hookup platform or one that is used purely to save money, with no interaction with the owners.

So yes, it's still there, and still heavily in use, but it will take a lot longer for you to find the right connection with the right person in the right place. If you're patient, chances are you'll be rewarded. (You'll find a discussion of safety issues further below.)

servas

Servas means 'service' in Esperanto and may well have been the first service of this kind. As active today as it was upon founding more than half a century ago, it 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. 

warm showers

Warm Showers is no newcomer, having been founded in 1993. It is a hospitality group for cyclists and is managed by a group of volunteers. It now boasts more than 120,000 members in more than 160 countries so if you're on a long-distance bicycle tour and are looking for meaningful exchanges along the way, this is a well-maintained network that's definitely worth a try - The Guardian speaks highly of them as well. The one proviso: you must be ready and willing to 'pay it forward'.

Women welcome women worldwide (5w)

If you prefer a women-only service, Women Welcome Women World Wide, or 5W as it's also known, operates in 80 countries and has a great reputation. There is a membership fee for which you receive a list of members, whom you then contact directly.

They definitely sound like my kind of people when they say this: “If only people would learn that experiencing a different lifestyle is interesting, enriching and mind-opening. Too many people regard different as threatening."

bewelcome

For many travelers, this is the non-profit alternative to Couchsurfing. Here's their mission: 'Their dream is to create a project that allows everyone to visit a destination through the eyes of local people and to experience the variety of cultures in everyday life - when travelling but also at home."

The news about this site is that it seems to have taken over where the old Couchsurfing left off, bearing the standard of the truly curious traveler, and less of a 'dating service', which is what some people fear Couchsurfing is turning into.

other couchsurfing alternatives you might consider

In my research I've come across quite a few other possible networks if this type of travel is something you'd like to try:

  • Trustroots: launched for hitchhikers but now opened up to everyone.
  • HelpX: you don't pay for accommodation but you have to help with chores instead - there's also a membership fee.
  • Working Traveller: an interesting foray into the barter economy - you provide skills in exchange for your stay. A number of other groups offer this kind of exchange. 
  • Pasaporta Servo: for those of you who speak Esperanto.
  • Staydu: a slightly different formula where you can stay and pay or stay for free - the host decides and provides the information in her listing.
  • Affordable Travel Club: now we wander into the realm of paid accommodation, but not quite. It's called a "small gratuity" and it's cheaper than paying for a hotel room, but does include a local orientation by your host. Interesting: it's for the over 40s.
  • Evergreen Bed and Breakfast Club: this is another hospitality exchange with a modest price tag, for people over 50.
  • Hospitality Club: once a biggie, this one is limping although a few diehards are trying hard to keep it alive. Too bad - this was an excellent service, not only for overnight stays but just to connect for lunch or coffee. Who knows, it may re-emerge like a phoenix yet...

There are many more but this list can at least get you started and help you find ways to connect with locals at your destination, either for free or for a modest fee.

pros and cons of hospitality clubs

Yes, they're great. No, they're not perfect.

some great reasons for using hospitality networks

✅ They help you connect with local people so you can see how people live, not just skim the surface.

You'll be guided towards places that aren't on the tourist circuit - great restaurants, little-known sights.

A chance to exchange views and ideas with people you might not normally meet.

The possibility of staying in unusual places away from tourists; most people don't live in tourist areas and you might see towns or regions you wouldn't visit otherwise.

You'll understand your destination better because you'll be part of it, a participant rather than a spectator.

You'll spend less money. By their nature, these accommodations are either free or inexpensive.

The downside of hospitality exchanges

There's a lot less choice; you can find a hotel on every corner but not a host.

 There's a safety factor that comes into play when you stay with other people - you'll be sharing some facilities with individuals you've never met.

 You may have to sacrifice some privacy.

 There's no one you can really turn to if something happens - no front desk or organizational structure to direct your complaints. That said, given increasing safety concerns, most networks now have at least some way of registering a complaint against a host and vice versa.

 You might be expected to do a few things around the house, keep your room clean, help out with cooking, or abide by certain rules; you may not have the 24/7 freedom you'd have if you'd stayed in a hotel. Or none of the above.

 Just as you might discover new, non-touristed areas, you might also be far from the area's best sights.

 You won't have the guarantees you would from a hotel if your host cancels at the last minute.

 If for some reason you don't get along with your host or hostess, you'll be stuck unless you've made alternative arrangements.

These are the downsides, but in my mind a bit of caution and foresight should help minimize them, if not eliminate them altogether. The upsides are huge, especially in the quality of the connections you'll make during your travels.

My friend Lisa sums it up best.

"It completely changed my travels. It was such a wonderful way to meet open-minded, welcoming locals. It felt like I was meeting a friend of a friend. I was always very selective in choosing with whom I stayed. I made sure they had dozens of positive reviews and were vouched for by other members. Plus I really ‘listened’ to their profile — what were they saying and HOW were they saying it? Were they interesting? Did we have similar interests? Would I have my own room (many are not a couch at all)? Did other reviewers say how trustworthy they were? How clean the space was?"

A few final tips about hospitality exchanges

While this kind of hospitality is something many of us enjoy, there are things to watch out for. Some organizations are well structured for feedback and safety, others less so.

  • This is one of those cases in which you have to trust your gut. My rule tends to be stay with women only, or with a family. You'll have your own boundaries, but set them and stick to them. If you get that gnawing feeling in your stomach, listen to it. It's better to pass up potential accommodation than to spend your time regretting you didn't.
  • If your network has reviews, make sure you only make arrangements with those whose reviews are positive. 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.
  • Most services have a built-in safety mechanism, through reporting or hotline or email. 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; some organizations provide a verification system that ensures your name and address are correct and valid. Make sure you take advantage of these.
  • With barter groups where you exchange work for rooms, read the fine print. Make sure you're not working for free or that you're being exploited in any way. If it looks too good, it probably is. And if a lot of work is involved, think about it.
  • If something untoward should happen, let the organization know immediately and head straight to the police. Trying to resolve something on your own in a strange place in a foreign language is not a recipe for success.

And remember - if you're a guest this time around, give something back by hosting travelers too.

Not your kind of accommodation? There are plenty of alternatives! You could...

  • stay in a lovely hotel, with all the services and amenities
  • if you're tight on money you could try one of the modern hostels (many of which have private rooms)
  • try an organized homestay
  • sit in the lap of luxury and mind someone's house while they're away
  • rent an Airbnb for the duration

There is no lack of places to stay but you should try staying with someone through a hospitality exchange at least once: it will make your travel experience so much more intensive.