How To Stay With Strangers Around The World For Free

It’s no secret I’m a fan of couchsurfing. Finding hosts online to put you up in their living rooms sounds sketchy, but I’ve never had a real negative experience. The value isn’t just in a free place to crash. The biggest plus is meeting incredible people, real people who can show you a side of their city that you normally wouldn’t see as a tourist.

For me, that meant everything from a house party in Paris to sipping beers in Munich while discussing German historical consciousness. Oh, yeah. And staying for free.

Here’s how to crash with strangers around the world, without landing yourself in a shady situation du jour:

Be Discerning
When I was traveling alone in Europe in my early 20s, I set specific guidelines: I limited my search to women in their 20s and 30s with good English and favorable reviews from former guests. Luckily, I was traveling in populated areas with lots of options for hosts, and I used that to my advantage. You can actually filter your results by certain criteria like language skills, something I thought was important as someone traveling alone, so there were no misunderstandings.

Have A Backup Plan
You never want to be beholden. If you get a bad vibe, be prepared to leave. The best bet is a list of hostels or hotels in the area. It’s great to save on accommodations, but if you feel weird about a certain place, suck it up and pay. The closest I got to a bad situation was when I showed up at a host’s house and she told me I could stay in her roommate’s room, and use her roommate’s laptop. I gladly obliged … until her roommate came home and they started a screaming match. I was prepared to up and leave. Luckily, the roommate said it wasn’t my fault and I slept in the living room. Needless to say, I cut my tenure short by leaving first thing in the morning.Come Armed
When you show up to your host’s place, always come with a gift. It can be small, but you’re not paying, so be courteous. In my experience, the best gifts are less about money value and more about history or a back-story. Generally, as I backpacked from place to place, I brought my new host something from the place I was leaving. I brought a decorative plate from Madrid for my first host in Paris. She had never been to Spain and told me it was like a small piece of the travels themselves.

Follow Their Lead
Some hosts would rather act like your personal hotel: “Stay with me for a night, but I don’t have a lot of time, so leave with me in the morning when I go to work and be home by X time.” Others really want to bond and hang out. As a couchsurfer, it’s on you to figure out what your host is expecting, and to be adaptable. Hosts occasionally gave me keys, but not usually. That often means coming and going on their schedules. There were times my host and I would cook dinner together, share a bottle of wine – I spent a whole day walking around with one host, who took me to the hippodrome, the park and a museum. Others just don’t have the time.

Tell Tales
Everywhere I stayed, I asked my hosts why they chose to let people stay with them for nothing in return. I got a smattering of answers, but for the most part they fell into two camps: for some, they wanted to pay the kindness forward either because they had stayed with hosts in different countries, themselves, or because they’d like to in the future. For others, the only price they asked was for me to tell them stories of my experiences. My first Parisian host was also my best; she hosted couchsurfers all the time and wanted to embark on solo travel of her own someday, but had never worked up the courage. In the meantime, she traveled vicariously through us.

We stayed in touch, and less than a year after I stayed with her, she proudly told me that she had finally gone traveling, inspired by the incredible stories she heard from her guests.

[Image credit: Flickr user Wonderlane]

Adventures Of A Couchsurfer: London Edition

One of the hairless cats cozied up to me. The other looked on, like a bald alien. My friend and I were sitting on a leather couch, listening to a guy we’d just met share intimate – and disturbing – details of his sex life.

I was traveling with a guy friend through this leg of my Europe trip. I’d stayed with a few couchsurfers before. When I was traveling alone, I’d always been careful to choose hosts who seemed safe. Read: nice, sweet-sounding women in their 20s or 30s.

Traveling as a pair presented new challenges and opportunities. First, a lot of those reliable-sounding hosts only opened their places to a singular guest, so it ruled out a whole demographic of non-axe murderers. But, on the upside, traveling as a pair – especially when one of us was a guy – meant I also felt more comfortable staying in a place of a shadier persuasion.

London, obviously, can be very expensive for travelers. So the first order of business was finding a reliable couch to crash on.

A guy I’ll call Wes offered to host us. He was from Italy, but spoke with a perfect British accent (to my American ears, at least). His job was in fashion, and he sported a mohawk with buzzed-out designs all over his head, black leather pants and jacket, and extremely tall platform shoes. That description sounds Marilyn Manson-esque, but there was no makeup. Wes noted that most fashion stylists were gay, but wanted to make it very clear that he wasn’t. He just liked his own style.

Wes lived near Kings Cross, and met us at the station before taking us to his favorite Chinese dive. The food was good and cheap, and that was the point.

Next, he took the two of us back to his apartment. We put our stuff down, set up camp in the living room, and, without any bidding I remember, he began to tell us about his sexual escapades. I’m nearly positive he wasn’t planning on inviting us or anything, but perhaps he wanted to impress us.
Apparently, Wes went clubbing every night of the week. Not every weekend night, or even every weekday night, but literally every night. I asked when he’d last taken a night off. His answer? About three weeks prior. He didn’t strike me as the let’s-giggle-and-drink-and-dance-til-the-sun-comes-up type, and that’s where his escapades came in. He treated clubbing like a job. He often went alone and scouted out women who seemed interested. Usually, he succeeded in finding someone as excited about him as he was them – in sometimes graphic ways.

While Wes regaled us, his hairless alien-cats came to join. After story time, he gave us the tour of his apartment. It was spacious considering the neighborhood, but also dirty.

The craziest part was he had a tarantula exoskeleton in his kitchen – on the counter … near where he prepped food. According to Wes, there was a tarantula in his house, it molted and he kept the exoskeleton around because it was cool. How a tarantula found its way to a kitchen in a highly urban corner of London, I’ll never know.

Most of the things that came out of Wes’s mouth were hardly credible, and yet I couldn’t find any evidence to the contrary.

That night, he took me and my friend to “his guy” for falafel before we went with him to a club. The owner of the restaurant came out to greet Wes and give us our food.

After, at the club, it was clear Wes didn’t want to hang out with us anymore. My friend and I walked aimlessly around the multi-story space, but watching Wes prowl was far more fascinating than the music. Tall in his platforms, he scanned the crowd, a man on a highly questionable mission. After an hour or two, we told him we were going to head back to rest up. Wes said he’d be out a few more hours and gave us his keys.

We left the next morning around noon, when our host was still asleep. We wrote him a note thanking him for the free accommodations, and saying that, truly, meeting him was a unique experience.

Wes, sleeping off the night before, didn’t hear us slip out.

[Image credit: Flickr user Tomi Tapio]

How To Go Couch Surfing In a Cave

As the popularity of the Couch Surfing movement grows exponentially across the budget travel community, it’s widely understood that often times you won’t actually be sleeping on a couch. Sometimes you will have your own bedroom. Other times it could be the floor.

Or, as this recent article from CNN points out, it doesn’t even mean that you’re going to be staying inside of a house. In the case of one couch surfer outside of Petra, Jordan, you could opt to spend the night couch surfing inside of a cave.

Listed on the site by Ghassab Al-Bedoul, this 42-year-old Bedouin invites travelers to stay in the same cave he was born in just minutes from the ruins at Petra. Although there is no bathroom, his cave can accommodate up to ten guests who all sleep on thin mats on the desert ground.

A traveler himself who reportedly received ample free lodging while bouncing around Europe, Al-Bedoul has no qualms about opening up his cave to visitors coming to pay a visit to his hometown. As of publication, Al-Bedoul estimates he’s welcomed over 1,200 travelers into his humble abode.

Renowned for being a site where travelers are able to have unique experiences unavailable to those staying in traditional accommodations, Couch Surfing yet again offers up a tale such as this one, which can only stir the wanderlust of scores of adventurous travelers.

[Image courtesy of Jack Zalium on Flickr]

Travel Smarter 2012: Use CouchSurfing to ditch your hotel addiction

Hotels are so passé.

How many times have you visited an exciting destination only to find you’re staying in a generic hotel room completely lacking in local flavor? When I visited Greece last month, I stayed in affordable, centrally located hotels in Athens and Sparta. While they offered good service at a fair price, they could have just as easily been in Los Angeles, London, or Cairo.

CouchSurfing offers a better way. With a bit of online networking you can stay in a local home, and it’s free! CouchSurfing is a social networking site linking up friendly people around the world. Once you’ve created a profile, you can search through profiles in your destination and request to sleep in their spare room or couch. No money changes hands, although guests often bring an inexpensive gift from their home countries or take their host out to dinner. It’s a fun way to make friends and makes traveling a richer and less lonely experience.

As I’ve mentioned before, even though I’ve never actually surfed a couch, CouchSurfing has been hugely helpful to me. When I moved to Santander in northern Spain, the local CouchSurfers threw my wife and I a welcome party and 25 people showed up. Soon we knew the best barrios to get an apartment, where to shop, and they hooked me up with a hiking group. The group for Cantabria is pretty active and in the four months I’ve been here I’ve been to several meetings and met lots of people.More recently, local CouchSurfers gave me a ton of information that helped inform my travel series on Greece. One memorable night, two Athenians showed me around the Exarchia neighborhood. We visited some great bars I probably would have never found on my own and I got insights into the life of an area noted for its activism. The two CouchSurfers showed me a park that had been slated to become an ugly parking garage until the locals took it over and turned it into a garden.

On a more somber note, they also showed me the spot where a fifteen-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot and killed by a policeman during a demonstration in 2008. The cop is serving time for murder and the spot where his victim died is now a shrine and political rallying point. Try getting that sort of information from your hotel’s concierge.

Couches can be found in some surprising places. One Gadling blogger has tried CouchSurfing in Haiti, and while I was in Ethiopia, I met someone who was going to stay with some expats in Somaliland.

CouchSurfing had a big year in 2011 that’s making 2012 the start of a new era for the organization. After having its 501(c)(3) charity status rejected, its owners decided to become a for-profit corporation. Currently, all revenues come from the verification service, in which members donate money in order to have their address verified, thus making them more trustworthy in the eyes of other members. There’s no word yet on how else the new corporation plans to make money. This change has not gone without protest, with many members pointing out that the website and network were built communally for free, and therefore should not be used for profit.

A more popular move last year was the creation of the CouchSurfing Cultural Exchange Fund, which offers grants for cultural exchanges between refugee groups and their new communities, classroom-based international information exchange and relationship building programs, and cultural understanding between ethnically or racially disparate communities.

CouchSurfing now has more than three million profiles in about 250 countries and territories–not bad for a group that only started in 2003. While you should always keep safety in mind when dealing with strangers, I highly recommend you try it. I’ve had nothing but good experiences.

[flickr image via CaseyDavid]

Book review: inyourpocket guide to Athens

This was originally supposed to be a review of the Rough Guide to Greece. I really like the Rough Guides and two weeks before I set off to write my travel series about Greece I ordered a copy from Amazon. The morning of my flight it still hadn’t arrived.

Luckily I knew about the inyourpocket guides. I had never tried these free, downloadable guides to dozens of cities, and now looked like the perfect opportunity.

Their Athens guide is 68 pages. After discarding several ads, the kids section, the gay section, and an entire page on prostitution and strip bars, I was left with a compact little guide that fit easily in my laptop bag.

The guide is narrowly focused. The only sections covering attractions outside Athens are a few pages on Delphi and skiing. For Corinth and Sparta I had to wing it. In fact, I winged much of my Athens itinerary as well because I already knew what I wanted to see during the day and the local Couchsurfing community took care of my nightlife. I was reminded just how little we actually need guidebooks for short stays in countries where we have local contacts.

The inyourpocket guide to Athens has several things going for it–free, compact, and handy for grabbing at the last minute, or even after the last minute since you could always print it out at an Internet cafe. Despite its low page count it has lots of listings, giving a wide variety of options for dining, nightlife, and sightseeing.

There were a few problems, however. The maps were too small and coming out of a black and white printer were all but illegible. Luckily the Athens airport hands out good free maps. I also found a few errors of fact. The Athens War Museum is billed as a leading free attraction but actually costs two euros. The transportation section states that to get from the airport to downtown, you take a train and then change to the metro at Nerantziotissa station. Actually there are direct trains to Syntagma Square (downtown) to and from the airport. These are only announced in Greek, but you can spot them because they have an airplane logo and luggage racks. I was excited to hear that a famous souvlaki restaurant, Kostas, is at Pentelis 5, right next to my hotel, yet when I went there I found this address to be an apartment building and there was no restaurant in sight. Considering the guides are published five times a year and this was the Winter 2011-12 edition, these errors should not have happened.

Despite some flaws, I found the inyourpocket guide to Athens a useful last-minute stopgap and would probably try additional guides in the future. Hey, you can’t beat the price. If anyone has used their other guides I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments section.

Oh, and my Rough Guide to Greece arrived the day after I got back. Thanks Amazon!