COUCHSURFING – HOSPITALITY CLUB – SERVAS
You can have a great trip sleeping in hotels/hostels/guest houses/tents/under bridges, but the human element of meeting locals and then the privilege of staying with them is immeasurably more valuable and adds an extra dimension. Being allowed in their homes to see how they live, do what they do, and get the insight into the place you are, it affects you in ways that are hard to elucidate. Memories of the people you visit will last longer than any building you went to see. I can’t say enough about it.
It is no small thing to invite someone you have never met into your home and stay for free or to take time out of your day and meet them. No matter how much a person writes in their profile or how many references they have and how you seem to get a sense of who they are, it is still a matter of accepting a stranger. For this reason I am profoundly thankful to everyone who has hosted and met with me.
The Big Three of amazing non-profit organizations that bring travelers and hosts together are CouchSurfing, Hospitality Club and a special one under the radar, Servas. Another is Global Freeloaders, and even though it is the only one that requires travelers to also be hosts, the name alone tells me it will never gain traction. Why not Global Count Your Silverware After I’m Gone? Global Hide The Valuables Before I Arrive?
CouchSurfing has unlimited potential. I’m a huge fan. I like that CouchSurfing used to call itself a “project”, something nebulous which gave it latitude to let it go and see where it flows. Glancing through some profiles you’d be forgiven if you thought you had mistakenly stumbled upon a dating site or something where you can’t quite believe your eyes, but it just goes to show that there are all types of people and it gives you the freedom to portray yourself as you see fit. The more information, the better, as it gives a more accurate sense of the person. However, you can have a sense of the person up to a point. I like the box of chocolates aspect of not knowing what you are going to get. Be open to anything.
The benefit of Couchsurfing being the biggest is that there is critical mass and like-minded people find ways to get together. Couchsurfing has members that have organized themselves into groups within most countries and bigger cities and very interesting classifieds. Often these groups are well-connected and they arrange excursions, dancing nights, soccer matches, pub crawls, and then there are useful subcategories. How about a 600 member Bogota, Colombia language exchange group!
Sign up for these groups a couple of weeks before you arrive to see what is going on. Some groups are so big that you will be surprised at how it becomes an information exchange. I got some freelance voiceover sound work in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this way. (My voice was made for radio. My face, too.) I give more detail about how to approach this in Advanced CouchSurfing Tips.
Hospitality Club actually took off before CouchSurfing, but I am convinced its horribly-designed website and the fact you are allowed only one photo is dooming it to extinction, fading into a MySpace-style slow death; it has lots of members, but they are more and more inactive. One friend told me that when she writes to a host who has profiles on both CouchSurfing and Hospitality Club, she always writes through Hospitality Club because she is more likely to get a reply as it’s more “serious”. Hospitality Club is still big in Eastern Europe, particularly the Baltic states, and it might skewer older since CouchSurfing can come off as too freewheeling for some.
Servas International / USA is the original and positions itself as a peace organization first and foremost with the simple premise that bringing together people from different cultures and backgrounds promotes understanding. For Americans this presents a special opportunity because Americans generally don’t travel and therefore it’s interesting for others around the world to meet “regular” Americans.
Servas has a policy that guests stay two days. If a host wants you to stay longer, they will say so, but otherwise it prevents an uncomfortable situation of the host having to ask you to leave. A special aspect of Servas is that many hosts want travelers to stay for a longer period of time, In their profile description I have seen things like “If you mow the lawn you can stay all summer” and “extended stay if you teach my kids English”. I read about a German girl who was going to study in USA for a year and she wrote to five hosts in the college town to ask if she could stay for a couple of days while she looked for permanent housing, and four of the five replied that she could stay with them for the school year.
Servas is something intrinsically a little deeper, more than simply slapping up a profile page of yourself. It’s a whole process of gathering references, an interview with a local coordinator and a not insignificant fee, but this vetting means that the people involved are quite dedicated. Before the internet, a member would accept you into their home just by mentioning the name Servas in a short phone conversation. (In the old days when such peace organizations were banned in communist Eastern Europe, you had to say a code name because phones were routinely bugged and you had to carefully hide members’ names at border crossings from guards. It was all very James Bond-ish.)
Servas has been dragged kicking and screaming into the internet age. The website isn’t very good. I include both the United States and international websites above since they serve better as a complement to each other, though they can’t even agree on what year Servas was founded.
The disadvantages to Servas are the sign-up fee (you didn’t hear this from me, but it is much cheaper to renew, if not join, from abroad), the length of time to get started, and the rule of paying a deposit for address lists (refundable, though you need to also make trip reports). If you buy into the whole system, it is all worth it, but lately for me Servas is untenable because of the necessary advance planning. I don’t know where I’m sleeping tomorrow, much less in a month, but that says more about my deficiencies than Servas’.
I was in New York to volunteer for a few hours in the Manhattan Servas office just before my flight in the afternoon. I called the day before and told them I would go downtown and have breakfast and then come into the office right when they opened, which I thought was 9am. They said the office actually opened at 10am which turned out to be a fortunate bit of timing as the date was September 11, 2001. The Servas office was on John St., just one and a half blocks from the World Trade Center and had the office been open at 9am, I would have already been in the area when the planes hit at 8:45am.
Too Much of a Good Thing
I’ve visited Servas/CouchSurfing/Hospitality Club hosts hundreds of times. (It sounds excessive, but I have been traveling for dozens of years!) Don’t overdo it. It is easy to fall into the trap of constantly visiting people, but sometimes you need to take a break and decompress on your own in a hostel. When visiting someone, you need to be “on”. Your host wants to chat, get to know you, maybe go out, go do something, be active, and if you are tired and uncommunicative, you’re dragging everyone down and ruining the experience for both of you. Is the host really going to be excited about the next guest if the last one was a lifeless dud?
Some Advice For Travelers That No One Is Asking Me To Give:
–These organizations aren’t only about accommodation. There are lots of locals who want to meet travelers but can’t or don’t want to host, though they will offer to show you around or meet in town. In Servas they are called Day Hosts and in Couchsurfing they are listed as able to meet for a coffee or a drink. (Also, when signing up for Couchsurfing, there’s no need to pay $25 to be “verified”. There is a small “skip this” in the bottom left corner.)
–Each site’s feedback systems should be taken with a grain of salt. It may be of some comfort to know that a member has had a history, but that history is tainted by nearly everyone’s reluctance to leave negative feedback. The rare times you do see it, there are always interesting comments back and forth!
–As a guest, try to go in with an open mind about the people you will meet. You can develop a mental image of someone from their profile, but you never know what they are like in person and you have to be flexible. For example, if you’re hankering to go out and party, you can’t assume your host wants to or has time even though their profile suggests so.
–Everyone and their mother wants to stay downtown in the center of the action, but those hosts are probably sick of the nonstop parade of guests and you start to feel like a statistic. Suburban hosts get relatively few guests and welcome them more, plus public transport makes being away from the center not a big deal.
–Visit people with backgrounds different than what you are accustomed to. There are so many possibilities. Since I grew up in the suburbs, it’s always an experience for me to visit farms. Everyone under the rainbow is represented and waiting to meet you! As corny as that sounds, it’s true.
–It’s better to stay too short than too long. Have them want you to return. (Right now all my friends are saying “What?! Is this really Kent?” How long did that bastard stay with us last time…?”) I like to think that I’m a good guest, but as the Italians say, fish and guests begin to smell after three days.
–While it’s impractical to bring thank you gifts to everyone you stay with, one must is to send a thank you email not long after your stay. It’s not a lot to ask, and this very small gesture demonstrates you didn’t sell your soul on ebay.
–Be considerate. This sounds like a no-brainer that doesn’t need to be mentioned, but I have met many hosts who are wavering in their enthusiasm for accepting travelers and it always comes down to someone being inconsiderate or taking advantage of them, violating their trust. I hear all the stories. I can’t imagine a traveler deciding not to show up AND not letting the host know, but it happens. Others have used phones without offering to pay for calls, thrown a wet sandy towel on a nice bedspread–all variations on the same theme: being inconsiderate. Don’t treat your host like a concierge nor your host’s place like a hotel. Offer to do stuff like wash dishes; help out however you can.
100 Word Story:
In Gdansk, Poland, my host, a high school teacher, met me in town and said that she had a last minute impulse to go to the countryside at that moment for the weekend and did I want to come? I stammered a bit, saying these were my last days in Poland and I had really hoped to see Gdansk, home of Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement. She said that was fine and handed me her apartment keys. She called some of her students to hang out and show me around and that was the last I saw of her!
Another 100 Word Story:
In Milan, Italy, my host picked me up at the train station and while driving home made an apology, saying (this sounds infinitely better with a heavy Italian accent), “Eh, Kent, when you called and asked to stay, I said it was fine—and it is fine—but I forgot to tell you something: you must sleep with my daughter". It took a moment for me to remember from her listing that her daughter was 14 and I realized she meant in the same room, but it was one of the rare times in my life when I was speechless.