“I would never in a million years pay what you pay in New York City rent,” my houseguest said.
This statement was uttered a few years ago by a friend of a friend of a friend who had just regained consciousness on my living room couch. My response, according to witnesses, was “Well, then I guess you’re lucky you get to stay here for free.”
My guest’s comment was probably made in a more good-naturedly fashion than I recall, and neither of us had had our coffee yet. But let’s face it, while there are no official rules of conduct for houseguests, one of the basic ones ought to be refraining from remarks that make your host feel like an idiot for living where he does.
If you’ve ever hosted an overnight traveler or been one, you’ve likely walked this sometimes tricky terrain. With no money changing hands, what further obligation do you have as the host? What should you say and do as the guest?
Whether you’re planning to crash with friends or family, or are heading to an exotic destination where they don’t have the courtesy to live, there are a growing number of ways to sleep for free on vacation that are easy and fun. And the rules aren’t all that complicated.
Catch the couch surfing wave.
In case you’re late to the party that is the worldwide phenomenon of couch surfing, it’s generically defined as the act of crashing on someone’s couch, or letting someone do the same, with no money changing hands. Recently, this practice has been somewhat formalized at couchsurfing.org, a website enabling surfers and hosts to find each other and share experiences.
On a whim this summer, travel guidebook writer Erica Rounsefell headed to Great Britain. Couch surfing figured into her visit to York, England, where she stayed with a “dentist originally from Poland. He and some friends of his took me on a road trip through Yorkshire, visiting the seaside at Whitby, an historic abbey, North York Moors National Park, and culminating in a musical performance in the village of Harrogate.” Not incidentally, she saved “at least $1,500 on what I would have had to spend on hotels, but more importantly I met local residents that I never would have gotten to know otherwise.”
Hosts don’t particularly expect anything in return, Rounsefell says, though couch surfers find that the best way to reciprocate is to act as hosts themselves. However, some surfer guests make exceptions for particularly good “service.” One of Rounsefell’s hosts “was very interested in Pakistan and we had a good discussion about it, so I got the book ‘Three Cups of Tea’ for him. Some travelers cook a meal from their home country to share with their hosts, but there's no expectation on the side of the host.”
Indeed, a surfer visting health coach Melissa Wood's house cooked her dinner by way of payback. But when Wood offered to buy breakfast for some hosts she crashed with "they said they always buy for the guest, because to them it seems like the thing to do."
For six of the years he lived in Amsterdam and Dubai, corporate executive Michael Flink hosted more than two dozen travelers, some of them couples. “For me it was a way to meet different people, from all walks of life and all cultures. It may sound strange to open your house to strangers, but only once did I have a bad experience, and that was mild - someone who just wanted to stay longer and wouldn't take no for an answer until I walked them out."
Flink concurred with other surfers and hosts that the best payback from the experiences was enduring friendships, though he adds “in terms of little thank yous, a couple from Estonia brought me a bottle of their homeland's well known booze…and a guy from Poland shared his ‘how to pick up women’ secrets, which eventually led me to meet my wife.”
Stay at (a) home.
By traditional definition, a homestay typically entails renting a room in a family home. But with several homestay services, such as Servas, no money is paid to the host, though the traveler is required to pay Servas a membership fee that varies from country to country. Unlike couch surfing, whose community of hosts and guests is self-policing, Servas reps need to interview and approve potential hosts and guests, all of which must be 18 or older.
“I rarely stay in hotels. Mostly, I visit people in their homes, make new friends, have more fun, and enjoy a much higher quality trip,” says Shel Horowitz, author of “The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty With a Peasant's Pocketbook” who has done homestays with Servas for more than 25 years.
His typical stay, whether in the United States or abroad, is two nights and he confirms that “no money changes hands, though there is an annual membership fee and we usually bring a small gift.”
Tour leader and Trip Chicks co-owner Ann Lombardi, who has overnighted in more than 70 countries, says her US Servas membership letter of introduction has been a lifesaver. “I’ve used it for last minute homestays when my flight or train is delayed or cancelled, or there's a problem with a hotel booking.” As with the other lodging scenarios, good advice for and from travelers is often a happy fringe benefit.
“I can call a member if I am in the area and ask if he or she can recommend a good value restaurant,” Lombardi says. It’s like Twitter, but the old-fashioned way.”
Barter a bed.
In the spirit of the expression that “the most expensive suit in your closet is the one you never wear,” many travelers in our sour economy are looking to trade their unwanted and unused stuff for big-ticket travel items, including housing.
The site swapthing.com permits you to barter your unused stuff for just about anything, including timeshares and apartment rentals. Similarly, milehighswap.comlets you trade your unwanted things for airline miles as well as mileage for stuff that might include housing.
Motivational coach Bert Martinez says he has also successfully placed ads on Craigslist.com and Kijiji.com to barter for travel. “As a speaker and trainer company we have had a lot of success trading and bartering for items including airline tickets, hotels, time-shares and condos,” Martinez says. “I estimated we routinely saved thousands of dollars by not using a traditional hotel experience.”