Come Strangers, Stay Free, Part Friends

For most travelers, the single largest expense following plane tickets is accommodation. Even at the low end, hostel sleepers will spend between $10 and $20 per night for their bed in a dorm-style room. Over two weeks, that adds up to $140-280; over six weeks, $420-840. Two weeks of hotels runs $700-1680. Now imagine you could free up that amount of money to continue your travels. Where else would you go? How much longer would you be able to travel?

Three years ago I discovered a way to reduce my lodging costs to zero. I did this by becoming a member of the Hospitality Club. HC is the largest free international network of hosts and travelers. After registering and creating a profile, you can search the database for potential hosts in your destination of choice. You contact your selections via the website (or email or even instant messenger, if they’ve listed their details) and negotiate your potential stay. Then you show up, make friends and stay happily ever after . . . or something like that.

Hospitality Club is by no means a guarantee of free lodging. No one is required to take you in. Maybe the town you want to visit has very few members. Maybe everyone you contact is on vacation or out of town themselves. And sometimes, despite everything, your host has simply forgotten to meet you and isn’t answering their phone either. But these are generally atypical situations. Far more often, the situation ends up more advantageous than you’d planned.

More than once I have had hosts meet me at the airport or the train station or return me there when it was time to move on. One host from Tallinn (Estonia) stored my luggage during a two-week trip, then helped me arrange transportation for it to Helsinki (Finland). Other hosts have lent me maps and given me advice on excursions; some have tagged along for sightseeing or even driven all day. This year I ended up staying with my hosts in Hamburg (Germany) for over five weeks (at their invitation) when I moved to the city to begin a graduate program without a place to stay; they helped me move into my new place and even provided me with some dishes they had planned to get rid of. We remain in contact and — far beyond the call of duty — they even helped me move across the country to Berlin!

It is easiest to summarize such benefits of staying with HC rather than in an anonymous hostel or hotel; however, the true reward is far more intangible: relationships with the people you meet. All of my travels are now associated with new friends in each city I visit. During a stay, we generally have time to talk about our travels and about ourselves, over dinner or a bottle of wine. With HC, you quickly break down the barriers that typically stand between travelers and natives. You understand your host culture from an insider perspective, one generally denied to the tourist.

There was the young family my mother and I stayed with in Tartu, Estonia. They slept on mattresses on the floor on one side of the 12 sq.m. room, we slept on the other. They didn’t really have a kitchen per se — a stove, but no sink or refrigerator. We ate buffet style off a trunk on the floor. Dishes were washed in the tiny bathroom sink. We didn’t bathe for two days, since showering required climbing over the washing machine. And while this may sound like your personal version of hell, we still think of them and Tartu warmly. They opened up their tiny home to us, something we probably never would have done in their situation. Their 3-year-old daughter entertained us by singing, dancing, and asking us questions in a “foreign language” (not Estonian — her parents had hosted so many people that the daughter had constructed a made-up language to communicate with all the foreign guests. Even her parents couldn’t understand her). When we mentioned we’d like yogurt for breakfast, they brought us over 15 different kinds to try (the Estonians are quite proud of their milk products). To tell you the truth, Tartu wasn’t that interesting of a destination. Had we stayed in the hotel by the bus station, it would be a place we’d seen and promptly forgotten. Instead, both my mother and I have indelible memories from our visit there.

I have stayed with many of my hosts more than once: in Helsinki, Tallinn, or Bergamo (Italy), cities I am often flying through. Returning to them is returning to a familiar home. There are other hosts I would love to visit again: in Vienna (Austria), Nicosia (Cyprus) and Brussels (Belgium). In order to truly enjoy HC, you must be open to people, their ideas and their customs. Tapping into this network is tapping into a wealth of information and experiences. The anthropologist in me simply loves seeing how other people live.

Hosting others, when you have the time and the means to do so, is also rewarding. Many of my hosts are people who currently cannot travel themselves. HC lets the experience of traveling come to them: different ideas, customs and foods enter their homes and are shared across the conversation table. Others who cannot offer a place to sleep are more than willing to invite you over for dinner or to spend a day showing you around their hometown. Strict reciprocity is not required, but the network works in theory on members hosting AND being hosted. The Golden Rule is applicable here.

Hundreds of thousands of people of all nationalities, ages and persuasions have registered with Hospitality Club (and, I must mention, other hospitality exchange organizations, such as CouchSurfing or Servas) to welcome and help travelers like themselves along their journey. Consider trying out HC on your next trip — I promise you it is safe and fun to stay with people you met on the internet!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *