Monday, May 16, 2011

Hospitality Exchange Overview

One of the first discoveries that drove me to hit the road was that of hospitality exchanges. Essentially, these are online directories of generous people all around the world that are willing to open their doors and host you in their own home. It almost sounds too good to be true! Sometimes you will be sleeping on the floor, other times you’ll have room to yourself, but it’s free, and it is your ticket to experiencing the culture you are visiting in a more intimate way. In London, my host took me on an informal Jack the Ripper tour. In San Francisco, my host Kathleen took me hiking out to a beautiful lighthouse called Point Reyes that I would have otherwise missed. When in Seattle I hosted two sisters from Vienna and one woman from Paris, and we had a beautiful day at the beach playing guitar and ukulele, and ending the evening with a meal they cooked for me.

It is natural that people get excited about staying for free around the world, but the true emphasis in these communities is that of cultural exchange. Your hosts are bringing you into their lives, friendships, and sometimes even their families! Oftentimes they will serve as invaluable resources about their own city, culture, and language. If you decide to utilize these wonderful sites, please ensure that you are joining for the purpose of enriching your travel experience through local perspectives. While it is not necessary or expected, it is kind to make or buy dinner for your host, or perhaps buy a drink for them at a pub as a 'thank you.'

It is an added and wonderful perk that hospitality exchanges mean 'free accommodation,' but the more focus you place on the monetary savings these sites bring you, the less likely you are to fit well in these communities. I have met some of my dearest friends by hosting travelers and staying with locals this way, and it is because of this that I continue to do so. As a host, it gave me the excitement of meeting new and foreign people while I wasn’t able to travel myself.


The most popular site by far is Couchsurfing though there are several other options available as well. Couchsurfing has the most aesthetically-appealing layout, the most safety features, the largest number of members (currently sitting at over 2 million), and is very user-friendly.

The second most popular option is Hospitality Club. This predates Couchsurfing and is a very welcoming community. It is a bit less attractive to the eyes, but is still a good option to use in many situations.

A few more sites with matching ideologies but smaller communities and (for whatever reason) a bit less of a following are: Stay4Free, Global Freeloaders, and Tripping.
All of the above-mentioned sites are free to join, though a few have optional ‘donation’ amounts.


When people first hear of these communities, they either rave about how wonderful the idea is, or shake their heads and say ‘it’s not for me.’ Whichever side of that coin you are on, we encourage you to read on. Upon first hearing of these sites, I was skeptical and found it all a bit dodgy. Wasn’t it foolish and dangerous?

The answer is no.

Like anything else in life, risks are involved. The same is true of driving to work every day, and if you plan to travel, there will always be something that can go wrong. The key is to utilize the safety features on these sites, and to send your requests to the right individuals.

As a woman, I often hosted travelers while living alone and also stayed in many homes through hospitality exchanges while on my own. When I was traveling solo, often using Couchsurfing, I would only send requests to families, couples, or females. In addition, I would only request to stay with those that had ample references. I can guarantee that most men on these sites are genuinely good people, but why add risk that isn’t necessary?

By following these safety steps, your personal welfare will be greatly enhanced:

1. If you are a woman alone, do not send requests to single men or groups of men living together, unless their references are ample enough to give you confidence in their character.

2. Read references carefully. Are most of their references from hosting or traveling, or just from people they met at gatherings?

3. Follow your instincts. If you meet them and feel uneasy, or if you feel uncomfortable in their home, find a way to leave the situation immediately. It’s always better to spend money on a hotel or hostel than to put your safety at risk.

4. Do your homework. Read their profile so you know what to expect, and send messages to people that left them references if you have any doubts. This is fairly common. Make sure to have a phone with you at all times in case of emergencies, and always have a back-up plan in case a host doesn’t feel safe or in case they have to cancel on you for some reason.


Your success in these hospitality exchanges will depend mostly on one thing – your etiquette.

If you join Couchsurfing, for instance, there is a certain way to go about sending requests that will greatly increase your odds of getting hosted, especially in major cities where hosts are flooded daily with requests.

First and foremost, fill out your profile. When you are starting out with no references, this is imperative. Why would someone allow you into their home with no information about you whatsoever? Put yourself in their shoes. When I first began using hospitality exchanges, I filled out my profile extensively, with even more details than I thought necessary. Almost no host I have ever met will host you if you have not uploaded a current photo as well.

Read profiles carefully before sending a request. What type of person are you, and how will you mesh with their lifestyle? It’s all common sense – but you miss the details if you skip reading profiles. If you are conservative in beliefs and actions, avoid those that mention alcohol, drugs or partying. By the same token, if you are a party animal you should avoid requesting people that have an early work schedule or conflicting beliefs. If you smoke, yet you see in the profile that ‘no smokers may stay here,’ then do not request to stay with them!

Do NOT send the same request copied and pasted to several hosts. This will not only prove you have no interest in who you stay with, but also that you aren’t considerate of hosts that will accept you and clear your schedule. What if more than one responds? As a host, it was frustrating to receive a request, approve it, then arrange my schedule accordingly… only to find my guest was already taken care of!

Once you have selected a host, send a request that is personalized, lengthy, and descriptive of who you are and why you want to meet them. A good length is usually 3-4 paragraphs, though everyone has their own style. I spend the first paragraph introducing myself, why I am traveling to their area, and what inspired me to take my trip. The second, I usually mention what stood out to me in their profile and reasons I think we would be a great fit. This could be similar musical or political interests, countries they have visited that you would like to visit, or anything you feel you would have in common to talk about or enjoy. In the third paragraph, I let them know that as a ‘thank you,’ I would be happy to cook a meal for them or treat them to a drink at a pub. I also usually say something along these lines: ‘Even if you aren’t able to host me, I would still really enjoy meeting you to have you show me around your favorite parts of town if you have the time.’ This is just a breakdown of the method I tend to use; be sure that if you use this format you are honest and do not just add things about yourself to increase your odds. Honesty and a genuine interest in meeting them will go far.

-Tips and Tricks-
-Try not to request the busiest hosts, or the ones that come up at the top of the queue with 300 references! These hosts are often busier and your chances of getting hosted are slim. Try for hosts that seem eager to host but haven’t had as much experience.

-I can’t say this enough – have a completed profile!

-Avoid asking hosts or people you meet to ‘vouch’ for you, or ‘trust’ you. The vouching system works only because you may only vouch for people you have met and trust beyond the shadow of a doubt. Asking puts people in an uncomfortable position. Requesting references however, is something else altogether, though I still wouldn’t necessarily go around asking for them. Some people will reference you, and some will not; some people are more diligent at leaving references than others.

-To get started with references, join local groups and attend meetups. Remember though to only reference them if you felt you spend sufficient time with them. Couchsurfing has the best ‘Group’ tool of any of these sites. You simply go to the ‘Community’ tab, and search for whatever city you are heading. Most larger cities like London, Paris, and Dublin have weekly meetups that are fabulous.

-If someone hosts you, promptly leave them a reference. Don’t wait months! They took time out of their busy life to have you in their home, so pay them their respect!

-Have fun. These communities have changed my life. I wouldn’t be traveling as happily without them. They broaden your horizons and open up local perspectives!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

on Wanderlusting

There are many of you who have followed my blog over the last few years, and I am so thankful! It has been my pleasure to follow some of yours as well. I have some exciting news and changes to share with you. The Breathing Room has been the online home of my thoughts since several years ago, and I’ve been feeling lately the need to change this home to something more relevant and current to what my life holds in it now.

When Kurt and I decided to go all in and travel a few months ago, we had the seeds of an idea that could be something great and wonderful, and it is now on the verge of being realized! I receive questions and comments frequently about how people wish they could travel like we do, to stay with locals, to find cheap airline fares, to work for room and board, and embark on long-term travel adventures of their own. The problem is that as humans we get caught up in the ‘if only’ trap. If only I had more money, if only I could get the time off work, if only it were possible for me. It’s endless really – and if we continue to put our dreams on hold, we may never realize them at all.

I myself was trapped in that mindset for a few years; wanting to see the world but waiting for the opportune time. I was dangerously close to settling for what was comfortable instead of taking the initial leap of faith and just DOING it! In a matter of three months I have taken control and transformed what was a mundane, normal existence into something I’m proud to call my life! Now I am living my dream – helping to run a hostel in an Irish village where I hear Gaelic spoken daily and am a moment’s walk from the sea.

It took me years of researching how to attempt long-term travel. I found countless websites and blogs, all with tidbits of helpful information, but none containing everything I needed to get started. That is when the ‘seed’ for our idea began.

I am pleased to announce that soon our travel site called Wanderlusting will be launched! Beyond just featuring blogs from Kurt and me, it will also have many different elements to help others get started on their own travel adventure. It will cover the gamut – working for room and board, sleeping in local homes, safety while hitchhiking or ridesharing, how to obtain your visas, and most of all how to get this whole process started for YOU. Eventually, I also plan to offer my cheap-flight-finding prowess for a nominal fee (maybe 30-50 USD), to get you that much-needed ticket abroad.

I will continue to post here on The Breathing Room until the launch, and will keep you up to date on when that launch will be.

Thanks for reading – I’m excited to see you on Wanderlusting.