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]

Eight interesting facts about North Korea’s airline

What do you know about Air Koryo? Probably not much. The state-run airline for North Korea, it’s the only realistic way you can fly into the country, unless you have some sort of crazy commando resources at your disposal. Of course, there’s a lot you have to do before booking your ticket, and getting a visa can be quite difficult for Americans and other westerners. If you do make it through the red tape though, you’ll find yourself with more options than you realized.

So, ready to book your trip to Arirang and sample the beer and pizza of the most reclusive nation on the planet? Here’s what you need to know about the airline that will take you there:

%Gallery-105693%1. More destinations than you’d expect: the Beijing-Pyongyang route is the one for which Air Koryo is “famous,” but the state-sponsored airline actually connects to eight other cities: Moscow Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, Shenyang, Shanghai, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Kuwait City. Of course, if you want to use these cities to enter North Korea, you’ll still need to jump through the many hoops necessary to secure a visa.

2. Road warriors don’t get squat: are you a frequent flier to North Korea? Well, don’t expect much in exchange for your loyalty. While airlines around the world offer rewards programs, a mileage run on Air Koryo is worthless, as the carrier doesn’t have a program, according to a comment it made on its Facebook page.

3. A new home: as of July 15, 2011, the airline’s new terminal at Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang is open for business! The airline claims on Facebook, “The new terminal features modernised facilities for luggage, security, customs, border control and the list goes on to an extent.”

4. Mongolia may be next: it’s always hard to tell when Air Koryo is going to add a route, but this comment to a prospective customer offers some hope: “Flights to Uanbator have been tossed up for a while now, since there is a decent amount of DPRK citizens traveling to Mongolia for a number of reasons. Also vice versa. We havn’t [sic] heard of any flights for August, but we will make some inquiries.”

5. Kuwait’s on the map for a reason: it may not be as busy as the New York-to-London route, but Pyongyang and Kuwait City seem to comprise an important city-pair for Air Koryo. According to the person operating the Air Koryo Facebook page, “Between 5 and 10,000 North Korean workers currently reside in Kuwait. These numbers change weekly with the flights by Air Koryo now enabling the DPR Korean direct flights to Pyongyang.”

6. True dialogue in social media: social media marketers have always discussed the importance of “dialogue” via social media, rather than generating revenue. Well, Air Koryo is a fantastic model. A user responded to the above claim about North Koreans living in Kuwait, “‎between 5 and 10000″ … Wow, that is an accurate answer !” The airline’s intended range was probably “between 5,000 and 10,000,” but the fan appears to have a fetish for the exact. Showing a bit of style, Air Koryo replied, “We’re [not] exactly demographers here, so exact figures are beyond us. Sorry.” The missing word in the response makes the whole exchange even funnier.

7. Online check-in: okay, this is not in Air Koryo’s future, probably because the carrier has a different set of priorities. According to SFGate: “‘You kidding right?’ Air Koryo responded. “There are many things to do before even looking at ‘Online check-in’ such as actually creating a website.'”

8. Don’t expect much love from the cabin crew: in the United States, you only need to worry about bad serviceand the occasional meltdown. In North Korea, the flight attendants will great you with such pleasantries as “I hate America!” But, they do follow it with, “What would you like to drink today, sir?”

Sir?! Now that’s service!

[photos via Wikipedia]

Traveling women are Facebook addicts

A new study of female travelers indicates that close to half can’t let go of Facebook when they’re on the road. Unsurprisingly, Facebook is the social network of choice for women on the go.

Ninety-three percent of women who have had an overnight trip in the past month, according to Women on Their Way, have Facebook accounts, and 68 percent of them use it for travel purposes. What do they like to do most? Share multimedia! Fifty-seven percent engage in that activity. Status updates and commentary about the trip are next (38 percent), followed by Facebook Places check-ins (13 percent).

While these activities can happen before or after the trip has come to a close, 46 percent of respondents said they use Facebook while actually traveling, and 77 percent connect to the social media platform via a laptop.

So, if you see some hottie in the hotel bar and want to know if she’s interested in doing something regrettable … well, it helps to be “friends” first.

[photo by Andrew Feinberg via Flickr]

Whereboutz by TeleNav lets you create a social networking travel journal

Whereboutz is a new social networking site from the people behind the popular Telenav navigation software. The site lets you create your own trip journal, filled with maps, geotagged photos, videos and more.

Unlike many other social networking sites, Whereboutz allows you to keep your site private, which means you get to pick the people you share your trip with. Of course, if you prefer to share everything you do, you can also share your updates using Twitter of Facebook. With the iPhone app, you can upload your location, along with photos, videos and voice memos.

The site is free of charge, as is their iPhone app. Best of all, if you sign up, and provide some feedback, you’ll be entered to win a $500 Visa gift card!

So, if you are heading on a trip this summer, and you’d like to keep friends and family updated on your adventures, go sign up for the site and take it for a spin.

Social Networking and Travel: Do’s & Don’ts

People are more connected than ever before. Between Twitter, Facebook, foursquare, Flickr and all of the other social networking sites out there, you no longer need to leave your house to interact with friends and strangers (looking at you, Chatroulette). Social networking sites are also becoming key tools for travelers as they both plan and enjoy their trips.

However, like any new medium, there have been growing pains. Anyone who has seen their Twitter feed clogged by constant foursquare check-ins knows that some people overuse social networking. These sites (and the new ones that are launching nearly everyday) are here to stay and are valuable resources for travelers. That said, we all need to help the medium mature so that we can stop being so annoyed by people who are oversharing and start engaging in constructive, entertaining and educational dialogue.

With that goal in mind, Gadling has compiled this guide to using social networking as a travel tool. This should eliminate any confusion and help quiet down those who are abusing their newfound connectivity.Updates

Do let people know you’re alive: Rather than sending out mass emails saying, “I’m OK,” you can now utilize your Facebook and Twitter accounts to let people know that you haven’t been swallowed by a sinkhole. A moderate numbers of updates per day lets people keep tabs on you and know that you’re thinking of them along the way. The earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, along with the eruption on the Icelandic volcano, have shown that connectivity can be critical to helping people when disaster strikes.

Don’t give up-to-the-minute updates: If people are more aware of what you are doing on the other side of the planet than they are with what their roommate is doing on the other side of the wall, then you are updating too often. Add something to the discourse rather than just trying to be omnipresent. Put down your iPhone, step away from the internet cafe and go live your life. You can’t share stories with people if you don’t first create those stories.


Do give people a peek: Posting a few pictures along the way helps people share your excitement and see places through your eyes. Photographs also act as proof that you are indeed where you say you are while helping to tell your story in under 140 characters.

Don’t give it all away too quickly: No one wants to see your grainy, dimly lit cameraphone photos of what you claim is steak tartar but looks like a watercolor painting of vomit. If you can’t get a good shot of it, don’t share it (suggested by @Ellsass).

You don’t need to share every picture you take while you are still away. Save your full photo upload to Flickr, Picasa and/or Facebook for when you return. If you’re spending hours uploading and tagging photos, you’re missing out on experiences and memories (and more photos) while your trip is still happening.

Lastly, don’t feel as if every moment of your trip needs to be documented and shared. Gadling’s Sean McLachlan advocated going so far as to leave your camera at home.


Do ask for tips: Utilize Facebook and Twitter to find out about local attractions and restaurants before you hit the ground. Gadling’s Jeremy Kressmann touched on this previously when discussing place-dropping. Asking for advice on what to see and where to drink before arriving gives you with more information than guidebooks are often able to provide. Heck, I crowdsourced looking for suggestions before writing this post.

Don’t become a puppet: There’s no need to turn your trip into an entirely interactive experience decided by your followers. Do you really need to ask your virtual friends, “Should I have the flan or the poached pears?” Ask your waiter for some real-life advice. Or just follow your heart (er, stomach). Ask some locals in person while you are there. People discovered local secrets and hidden adventures long before the internet was created. Don’t turn over every facet trip over to crowdsourcing (but definitely order the poached pears).


Do check in and leave tips: Including tips on foursquare regarding the food at a restaurant, where to find the door to a speakeasy or what rides had the shortest lines at the amusement park actual make the service a real tool for travelers.

You should also check to see if anyone you know is at that location at the same time so that you can meet up and enjoy some time together in person.

Don’t link your foursquare and Twitter accounts: Sending all of your foursquare check-ins directly to your Twitter feed? I hate you. Your followers hate you. Stop. Unless you are adding some detail to your check-ins (i.e., “New bar with fantastic whiskey selection”), you’re just broadcasting your life and hoping that someone cares. People can follow your movements directly on foursquare if they so choose. Clogging people’s Twitter feeds just to overshare is sad.

Speak for yourself

Do let people know what you are doing: Updating your Facebook status or Twitter feed to let people know where you are and what you are doing is OK so long as your don’t mind people being able to track you down. You’re responsible for what you put out there.

Don’t reveal details about your friends: Just because you’re OK with your parents, employer and everyone else who follows you knowing that you are “so wasted” at Hooters doesn’t mean that everyone who is with you is as comfortable broadcasting that information. Don’t include other people’s names (or aliases) unless they approve of you doing so (suggested by @thecitizeNY).

Dealing with companies

Do follow travel-related businesses: With the list of airlines, hotels and tourism bureaus on Twitter growing exponentially, it’s becoming easier to seek out deals, navigate through problems and speak with customer service representatives. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about traveling with Twitter and looking for deals. By following these travel businesses online, you can take advantage of sales and voice your complaints when companies fail to meet expectations.

Don’t publicly attack them: If you have a substantial issue with a company, it’s best to reach out using traditional methods. Speak with someone in person if you are at a hotel or airport. Call their customer service numbers. Send them an email or letter. Only if they fail to respond or truly let you down should you seek to contact them via their Facebook page or Twitter account. Going off on a rant or tweeting about them incessantly tends to make you look like a lunatic rather than a victim.

At some point, you need to put your phone away, leave your wifi enabled hotel room and actually do something. Cut the cord (or leave the cloud, so to speak) and enjoy your time with the people who are there with you in real life. Or just be alone. There’s a time to share and a time to live. Knowing the difference will help you enjoy your trip and keep your online followers from deserting you.

There are definite advantages to traveling in the age of social networking. You can find deals, stay connected and share your experiences from anywhere in the world. But without boundaries, we all must suffer through cults of personality. We all want social networking to reach its full potential as a travel tool. We just don’t want to have deal with so many travelers who are complete tools.

This is by no means a definitive list. What did we leave out that you’ve learned from your own experiences with social networking and travel? Share your thoughts on all things connectivity in the comments below.

You can follow Mike Barish on Twitter, Gadling on Twitter, Foursquare, and Facebook and the rest of the Gadling crew on Twitter.