There was once a time when the idea of opting to stay on a stranger’s couch or in their home rather than a hotel would have been considered outlandish and dangerous. But like online dating, connecting with fellow travelers or potential hosts through the web has become somewhat the norm and is increasingly widely used.
Websites such as Couchsurfing.org allow you to connect with people in cities all over the world who are willing to offer up a couch, floor space or, if you’re really lucky, a spare bedroom, for no cost. This significantly reduces your travel costs and creates opportunities for meeting locals and ex-pats that can show you around a city and be a friendly face when you’re trying to navigate a new place.
House exchange programs are also great ways of traveling on the cheap, and providing the same opportunity for other people looking for a place to crash. But as with anything, proceed with caution. Do your due diligence before agreeing on a home exchange or couchsurfing set-up to avoid aggravation, frustration and generally hairy situations.
Here are the benefits and risks of opting for a travel exchange arrangement, and how to optimize your chances of having a great experience.
The Benefits of a Home Exchange Program
There are plenty of perks and possibilities when it comes to using services such as Couchsurfing.org. It’s a great tool to use for saving money on accommodations, as there is no cost for creating an account and no charges associated with crashing on a willing host’s couch. There are no official obligations when it comes to surfing, although it is good manners to bring a gift from your hometown, or help clean the place up, or cook a meal as a thank you to your hosts.
If you’re traveling alone, using a travel exchange service is an easy way to meet people. Most of those who are signed up for these kinds of services are friendly, outgoing, eager to trade travel stories and more than willing to offer recommendations for things to see or to take you around themselves.
Having a point of contact in a city or town before you land can come in quite handy if you’re delayed getting in, or are lost immediately upon arrival. Practically speaking, someone who lives there can help navigate you where you want to go without your having to wander and beg people for help along the way. It’s also comforting to know there is someone expecting you and waiting to welcome you into their home.
The Risks of a Home Exchange Program
Of course, there are potential downsides to using a hosting or travel exchange website to make your travel arrangements. It might be tempting to take up the first offer you get for a place to crash, but if you’re not careful, you can end up in a rather uncomfortable situation. Without asking the right questions, you might end up staying with a host who is keen for more than a short-term house guest and is hoping your stay will be more than platonic. Or you might find yourself in a cramped space with little to lie on besides your backpack as a pillow. If you don’t get all the details in advance, your first night in a new place might be more of a nightmare than the beginning of a dream vacation.
When it comes to home exchange or rental programs, well, it doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to consider the disaster scenarios there. An inconsiderate or disrespectful guest might trash the house, or leave it dirty and unkempt for you to deal with when you return home. Although some exchange sites use verification tools and strict guidelines to guard against such issues, these are still legitimate concerns when it comes to allowing strangers to utilize your home.
How To Plan For A Good Home Exchange
Whether you’re seeking a host or arranging a home exchange, prepare a list of questions to ask before you make any firm agreements.
Here are some examples of questions to ask:
- Ask about their expectations: Do they plan to spend time with you or are you just a casual house guest?
- Do they expect you to help out around the house?
- What exactly will your sleeping conditions be and what is the privacy situation?
- Have they ever participated in a house exchange before, and what was their experience?
Their responses to these questions can be quite telling about how flexible and reliable they are, and how they view other people who will be staying in their home.
Be sure to use web services that verify members’ identities and offer some protection against a disaster. Reviews help you weed out potential bad partners, as well as a little face time of your own. You can communicate with your host or exchange partners via email and Skype, and decide if you get a good feeling from them or if your interaction makes you uneasy. Even if you’re feeling positively about someone, it’s still a good idea to put your valuables, such as jewelry and other important personal items, in a safe or leave them with someone you trust.
Services such as Couchsurfing.org allow past surfers or hosts to leave public recommendations that let you know their experience of staying with a person and also give users an opportunity to get verified accounts to boost their credibility.
Sometimes plans fall through at the last minute, whether that’s because of a genuine emergency or the other person’s flakiness. Don’t simply rely on a host to come through; even if they seem legitimate, set some money aside to cover a couple of nights at least in a guest house or hotel. This will buy you some time to contact a potential new host, and if you plan for the cost, it won’t cause you to panic if that situation arises.
Travel accommodation exchange programs offer social and financial benefits and are likely to continue increasing in popularity and security. They have the potential to be cheap and fun, and staying in a house or furnished apartment is often preferable to booking a hotel. After all, it makes a city feel more like home. Just be sure to cover your bases and protect yourself along the way, and get to know the people you’ll be dealing with as well as you can beforehand.