Top ten alternative lodging options

When it comes to lodging, most people automatically look for a hotel. And if you want room service, a business center, gym, and all the other perks that come with a hotel, that may be your best bet. But if you’re looking for a more unique place to stay, if you want to save money, or if you want to experience a destination in an entirely new way, you have a whole range of options outside the sphere of Marriotts, Hiltons, and Four Seasons. Here are the top ten alternative lodging options.
Bed and Breakfasts/Guesthouses
A bed and breakfast (which in some countries, goes by the name guesthouse) is always my first choice for accommodation. Do I have a deep-seeded fetish for doilies, furniture that looks like it belongs in my grandma’s house, and forced interaction over tea and scones? Definitely not. Luckily, not all B&Bs fit that stereotype. Many offer chic, modern décor and accommodations that are just as luxurious and stylish as their hotel counterparts.

The reason I choose these types of bed and breakfasts is this: generally, as it’s a small business, the owners are very hands on and present. You don’t feel so much like another anonymous customer as a welcomed guest. At bed and breakfasts I’ve stayed at, the hosts have been more than happy to sit down and give me personalized recommendations for the city I was visiting, to offer champagne toasts on New Year’s Eve, and even to provide me with a ride to the airport when my cab didn’t show up on time.

Bed and breakfasts tend to be located in more residential areas of a city, which means that you can better imagine what life is like for those who live here, you see a different side of the city, and best of all, rates are often much lower than the average hotel. Plus, the included breakfast means you save even more.

Boutique Hotel/Inn

Boutique hotels and inns are often very similar to a bed and breakfast. They may not go by the name because they don’t want to be associated with the stuffy Victorian image of other B&Bs or perhaps they aren’t truly a B&B if they don’t serve breakfast. Many are more of a hybrid between B&B and hotel. Thanks to their small size, they may offer the personalized service of a bed and breakfast, but with some of the amenities that you’d find in a hotel. Every boutique hotel I have ever stayed in has offered free wi-fi and many have had small lounges for afternoon drinks or snacks.

Maybe your days of sleeping in bunk accommodations with young, unwashed travelers are long gone. You’d never even think about staying in a hostel again. But if you are a budget traveler, you may want to reconsider that position. Many hostels offer private double rooms (with shared or private baths) in addition to dorm style accommodations. Actually, several that I have stayed at in the last year have only had private rooms and the shared bathrooms, while located next door to the room, were only shared between 2-3 rooms and were single-stall locking bathrooms. Sure, you still have to go down the hall to use the loo, but for a traveler on a budget, saving $10-$20 per night in exchange for doing so may be worth it.

At every hostel I have stayed at, I never had to wait for the bathroom, the other travelers were older budget travelers like myself, internet was free, and every few rooms shared a small kitchenette, which meant I could save even more money by cooking lunch or dinner in the hostel a few times. And again, the hostel prices were significantly cheaper than comparable hotels.

If you’re planning an extended stay in one location, or are traveling with kids or a few friends, an apartment or cabin rental can really make financial sense. It may cost a bit more than a hotel, but the money you’ll save being able to cook your own meals, enjoy a few drinks in your living room, or wash your clothes in your own laundry machine, may offset any extra expensive. And if you have a few friends to split the cost with, you can save big.

When I think of camping, I think of packing a tent and a cooler and heading “up north” with friends. Or at least, that’s what I used to think of. Now I’ve learned that you can camp just about anywhere – in the US, Asia, Africa, and even just outside of Europe’s biggest cities.
Camping doesn’t have to mean roughing it either. Many European campsites, for example, are located 15-20 minutes by bus outside of the city center and offer dining halls, internet access, swimming pools, and modern bathrooms. In Africa, if you can’t quite afford a $500 per night luxury lodge, just buy a tent when you arrive, drive to the game park, and pick one of the many available camps where you can score a spot for about $20 per night, eating in the camp’s dining hall and relaxing in the communal swimming pool.

Agritourismos/Farm Stays
When visiting a city, I generally like to stay in the city. I want to be able to step outside of my lodging directly into the fray. I want to wander all day down cobble stones streets, and then be able to totter home after a few drinks to fall asleep to the sounds of the city. But in some areas, the way of life is more rural. In these places, I want to get the full experience. Here, I want to look out my window and see rolling fields. I want to see how the people live off the land, and I want to retire each night to watch the sunset from my deck while eating food produced just a few steps from where I’m standing. In these places, I want to stay at an agritourismo.

Like a bed and breakfast, and agritourismo is family run and generally offers breakfast included in the accommodation. But an agritourismo or farm stay also offers much more. Guest will get an education in farming while immersing themselves in nature – horseback riding, wandering through fields, and learning about (or even helping with) the operations of the property.
Servas is an “international, nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for personal contact between people of diverse backgrounds. Members need to apply and pay a membership fee so there is a bit more investment required that with CouchSurfing, and the emphasis on cultural connection is even higher. Both hosts and travelers need to be interviews by a local coordinator in order to be accepted, and have a certain degree of responsibility once they become members.
Hosts welcome guests for one or two nights, and offer some kind of cultural exchange during the process. They are expected to spend time with guests and invite them to share an evening meal. Guests are expected to view the host site as more than just a place to stay. Then interview process and application fees for joining may help set some hesitant members’ minds at ease and people who aren’t quite comfortable with CouchSurfing may be more inclined to try Servas.
A cross between CouchSurfing and a guesthouse, AirBNB is a service that connects hosts – those with a space room or sometimes just a spare couch – with a guest in need of a place to stay. The catch is that unlike CouchSurfing, guests have to pay for rooms booked through AirBNB. Where CouchSurfing is more about community and cultural exchange, AirBNB is more about commerce.

But, many of the AirBNB listings are more than just offers for a couch. Dozens are listings for entire apartments, often at rates much lower than what you would pay for a hotel. The site has more comprehensive offering for big cities than small towns, especially in the US, so while you might score a pretty great deal for someone’s pied a terre in NYC or Chicago, you may have a harder time finding an apartment rental in Tuscany or Bavaria.
Homeswapping requires a degree of flexibility, but the rewards can be great. Here’s how it works. You sign up on a homeswapping website like Home Exchange, pay your annual fee (usually under $50) and then list your house or apartment. You can wait for the requests to come in and respond according to your schedule, or you can approach others for a swap based on your travel plans.

Say you’re looking to plan a trip to Paris this summer. You check out the available houses in the city and begin sending inquiries to the owners asking about your preferred week. One couple may have a house available, and have an interest in coming to visit the city where you live, but they might not be able to travel on that exact week, so you work together and come up with dates that are convenient for both of you.

Most successful homeswappers live in a city that is more popular. For example, it might be harder to find someone from Paris who is interested in traveling to Cincinnati, Ohio, than New York City.
The most famous of all free accommodation, CouchSurfing is a million-member strong community of travelers. Some are offering places to stay, others are looking for a host to take them in on their travels. You post a profile and it’s up to you to decide who to host (or if you want to host at all) and who you feel comfortable staying with. Members span all walks of life, but they all seem to have one thing in common – a desire to see the world and travel cheaply, and to connect with other like-minded people while they do so.

Many hosts and surfers make a point to get together during the hosting period. When I stayed with a couple in Austin, Texas, last year, we all went out for dinner one night. We had a great time and they ended dup showing me a side of the city I never would have discovered on my own. Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of staying in a stranger’s house. And if you’re looking just to relax and escape this might not be the ideal situation. But if you want to connect with another culture and see a place from an insider’s point of view, give CouchSurfing a try.

Gadlinks for Friday 10.2.09

As we say here on the Islands, “It’s Aloha Friday, no work ’til Monday,” and that motto couldn’t sound more precious than right now. It’s been quite a week — complete with a tsunami in Samoa and Indonesia’s SECOND devastating earthquake. I think we’re all ready for some R&R, so how ’bout I provide some good ‘ole Gadlinks to get your weekend started smoothly?

‘Til Monday, have a great weekend!

More Gadlinks here.

Pay to sleep on a stranger’s couch with AirBnB

I recently came across the website, which promises to connect “adventurous travelers” with “nice folks” willing to let strangers stay in their apartment, spare room, or even on their couch – for a fee. Basically, if VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) and CouchSurfing had a love child, this would be it.

At first I thought it was just a way to get money out of people who (somehow) still haven’t heard of CouchSurfing. Some of the offerings are downright laughable – why would people pay $70 to sleep on a couch when they can get their very own room at a major hotel chain for $10-$20 more? And if someone really wanted to stay with locals and make new friends, wouldn’t they just CouchSurf?

Despite some of the clearly deluded potential hosts offering to allow you to squat in their apartment for a ridiculous fee, I still wouldn’t write the site off completely. A few of the options listed are actually pretty great, like an entire apartment to yourself in Chicago, tastefully decorated and ideally located, for just $80 a night. There are even established B&Bs and pensions using AirBnB as another outlet for advertising their available rooms. Luckily the site does allow you to set search parameters like “private room” and “entire place” so you can easily find what you want. You can also look at reviews from previous guests and see plenty of photos of the place before you book. You’ll take on more risk than if you book with a traditional hotel, but you could score a great deal.


Life Nomadic: What Couchsurfing in Haiti is Like

I’d never been to Haiti and I’d never tried couchsurfing, but since Haiti was just a $75 bus ride away ($67 if you have the foresight to pay in Pesos), I felt like I had no choice but to try it.

A search for couches in Port Au Prince yielded a few pages of results, with Natacha and Charlene showing up at the top. The site said that they both replied to almost all of the requests, and each offered a couch for up to two weeks. I e-mailed Charlene first because she has a son and I love kids.

Charlene wrote back the same day and said to let her know what dates I wanted to come. I replied back with a weekend and she said she’d be expecting me. It was so easy and painless that I wondered if it would actually work.

I had lingering worries in the back of my mind. Haiti was supposed to be a pretty dangerous place, so if she changed her mind at the last minute, I might be stranded. Besides, we all know that everyone on the internet is a demented weirdo (except for me). How much weirder do you have to be to invite strangers into your home for weeks at a time?

After a long scenic bus ride, I arrived in Haiti. I took a taxi through the unlit streets and arrived in front of a night club, where Charlene’s sister was waiting for me.

“Charlene is at Toastmasters. Come with me.”

I followed her down a narrow concrete alley (everything is concrete in Haiti), through a nondescript doorway, up a winding set of railing-less stairs, and into a small kitchen. As soon as I got in, Olivier, Charlene’s son, ran up to me, jumped, and latched on with a giant hug. Quite a welcome, I thought.

The power was out, as it often is in Haiti, so we sat and talked by the light of a single candle.

An hour later, I learned that it doesn’t much matter who you couchsurf with in Haiti. All of the surfers are best friends, and by signing up with one of them you put yourself at the mercy of a mob of hospitable Haitians determined to show you everything in Haiti. I ate home cooked food in four different houses, never once having to go to a restaurant.

Natacha picked me up to bring me to a club. I was terrified, not of the danger of Haiti, which I’d already begun to suspect was overhyped, but that I might have to dance. I am a terrible dancer.

We wove through the dark streets of Port Au Prince and finally arrived in front of what appeared to be a walled off apartment building. The only indication that it might be something more was a kerosene lamp sitting in the middle of the walkway. We descended into the backyard which held five or six large tables of people, a group of traditional Haitian drummers, and the flicker of kerosene lamps which served equally as functional light and ambiance.

Our table was already stocked with Natacha’s friends, some couchsurfers and some not, whose origins ranged from Haiti to Ghana to Belgium. French was the common language, but enough people spoke English that I was still able to be part of the conversation. When things got too French I would zone out and watch the drummers and the dancers that they attracted.

The next two days flew by. By the time I woke every day Charlene had already made breakfast and had coordinated with Natacha to plan my schedule. In just two days I visited an orphanage in the ghetto which Natacha takes care of, a Montessori school that she started, the landmarks downtown, a rehearsal for the Port Au Prince dance company, and a jazz concert. I quickly realized that I would have had a much different and less authentic experience if I hadn’t couchsurfed.

I went into Haiti knowing no one and left feeling like I have a whole social circle there. They prodded me to stay longer and asked when I would come back.

I used to see couchsurfing as a cheapskate’s alternative to a hotel, but now I realize that it’s a lot more. Couchsurfing offers the unique opportunity to have an instant group of friends in a new place and to really get to see it through the eyes of a local. I like to rent apartments wherever I go, but from now on I’m going to consider couchsurfing for the first few days to make some friends and learn about the city from someone who actually lives there.

To create a profile on Couchsurfing, check out

Side note: For anyone wanting a good charity to donate to, consider Natacha’s orphanage. I’m always leery of how much of the donated money actually gets to people who need it, and I can tell you that there is no overhead here. When they’re short for the month, Natacha takes money out of her own paycheck to make sure that the kids eat. If this is something you’re interested in, e-mail me at tynan.gadling at weblogsinc dot com and I will put you in touch with her.


Out: couch. In: tent

If you thought couchsurfing was an ingeniously simple concept, try Single Spot Camping. The website matches travelers with any place that can fit a tent–be it a deck, field, or ‘even your garage entrance’ as the website suggests.

What’s in it for the traveler: more options, in theory. Locals might be more willing to offer up space outside their home than inside. It’s definitely an usual travel experience. And if you’ve got a horse in tow (doesn’t everybody?), you might luck out with a place for her, too.

For the host, there’s a little more privacy compared to couchsurfing. And you get a little income (roughly 10-20 euros) directly from each traveler. You do have to pay a 40 euro registration fee, but if you register before February 28, you only have to pay 20 euros.

The website just started up last year, so the list of camping spots is sparse. So far, the listings are in backyards, farms, and vacant lots in Sweden, Norway, Australia, US, and Canada.

The information available to the traveler is pretty descriptive, though–everything from number of spots, what they’re able to accommodate (tent, caravan, motorhome), facilities (electricity, toilet, shower, kitchen, playground, shops nearby), price, directions, GPS coordinates, months open, and contact info. Once you find a listing that you like, you’d just contact the landowner directly.