How to Travel for (Almost) Free

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There are lots of ways to travel on the cheap: staying at a backpacker hostel, taking a gamble on a one-star motel. But what if you are looking for something really cheap? Say, free?

Reflecting the paradigm shift toward interaction through social media, sites offering free nights for travelers are now a growing segment of the global online hospitality network. The organization World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms hooks travelers up with organic farmers for overnight stays in return for help, a practice known as WWOOFing. There is also the 60-year-old organization Servas, which acts as more of a cultural exchange and encourages hosts to integrate the travelers into their daily lives. The site CouchSurfing.org, which officially launched in 2004, now offers a worldwide network of hosts with a free couch. "We consider ourselves more of a social movement than a traditional company," says co-founder Daniel Hoffer. "Our goal is to enable people to have adventures and develop friendships that they wouldn't otherwise be able to."

New Laws Against Cheap Rentals

Savvy travelers know that a great way to save money, especially in big cities, is to rent a spare bedroom or even an entire apartment from a local. And there are tons of listings on sites such as Airbnb, Crashpadder, Roomorama, and the old standby, CraigsList. But the government has different plans.

In July 2010, New York State Governor David Paterson signed controversial legislation outlawing the rental of apartments in New York State for periods of less than 30 days (the legislation goes into affect in May 2011). Maui has already enacted similar laws, as has Paris. Vocal opponents have argued that this punishes both tourists looking for budget alternatives and cash-strapped New Yorkers.

"The law will stop the abusive practice of landlords illegally renting out apartments as hotel rooms," says State Senator Liz Krueger, co-sponsor of the bill. "Because the Internet has made it easier than ever to advertise illegal hotels, most tourists have no idea they have not made reservations at legitimate hotels until they arrive at their destination."

The good news for travelers looking for cheap digs is that the ban includes exemptions when the owner/renter remains in residence (often the case with social B&Bs) or when no money changes hands. Meaning that couchsurfing is safe -- for now.
While surfers appreciate no-cost digs, most maintain that it's ultimately about experiencing the local lifestyle (the site boasts 2 million users in 230 countries). Besides connecting travelers with available couches, the site also hosts online discussion groups where you can solicit tips and swap stories and advice. "By joining, you've opened up a world, literally, of potentially deep social and cultural interaction," says John Gunther, a 60-year-old writer/consultant. Numerous organized events like picnics, potlucks, and hikes provide another forum to exchange opinions and ask questions.

Ian Krammer, a 22-year-old self-described adventurer/enthusiast calls couchsurfing "the best thing that has (ever?) happened to travel." The recent Colorado State University grad is currently hitchhiking all 50 states with just a backpack and a banjo, planning to write a book about his experiences. "I make a new friend in every town," he says. CSing provides an actual local perspective on interesting places like offbeat museums and favorites that don't make it into guidebooks.

Safety is obviously a huge consideration. Last November in Leeds, England, Moroccan national Abdelali Nachet was convicted of raping and threatening to murder a 29-year-old Hong Kong woman he'd met via Couchsurfing.org. Though apparently a fairly isolated incident, it raised legitimate concerns. That's why travelers and hosts should always analyze profiles carefully. "Couchsurfing's success has created technological growing pains," Gunther observes. "Like any online social network, [it's] vulnerable to vandalism by jokesters, marketers, misfits, and crazies." In addition to human safety arbiters, the site implements security protocols through voluntary verification (a $27 payment confirms identity through a credit card and a code sent to the mailing address), references (posted by hosts and surfers based on actual experiences), and vouching (veteran members approve those they consider reliable). This engenders trust, acting as a personal firewall. Nonetheless you should take sensible precautions.

Whether you are WWOOFing or Couchsurfing, you need to remember that you are staying in someone's home, meaning there is also the matter of etiquette. "It's selfish to visit a host strictly for a free place to stay," says Gunther. Being a rude guest who arrives late and makes a mess will elicit negative evaluations from hosts, "who by and large expect a quality interaction, some gratitude for their hospitality, and some reciprocity -- like help with cleanup chores or a meal cooked by the traveler," says Gunther.

Washing dishes is a small price for life affirming, even altering experiences. Cody Wolcott, a 25-year-old Chicagoan enthuses that within one week his adventures ranged from a hair-dying party with a Belgian girl to grilling at the beach with other travelers from Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Brazil while discussing the fate of the Brazilian presidency. "You'll wonder why you ever traveled any other way," he says.

But what is it really like to sleep on a stranger's couch -- or to have someone sleep on yours? We spoke with two surfers about their experiences.


Free Travel

David Zetland
A native Californian, this 41-year-old water economist has hosted travelers from Uruguay to the U.K in his Berkeley home and himself has surfed Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, Iceland, Indonesia, Australia, and throughout North America. Though older than most couchsurfers -- 92% of the site's members are under 40 -- David doesn't consider himself atypical of the movement and believes its intergenerational appeal is growing. "There's huge variety, from partying backpackers to modern Kerouacs," he says. "Passions span age differences and the typical couchsurfer gets you fired up about seeing the world."

He doesn't mind occasionally Spartan accommodations. "I hate hotels. I don't want to spend $120 on a box," he says. "I'd rather save that money and buy dinner for CS hosts and have a three-hour conversation." The downside can be a host whose hygiene is not up to standard. "Sometimes they're filthy and we've had to clean the kitchen before using it." And people can turn out to be strange, he grants, "beyond you're Republican and they're a Democrat, you're vegetarian and they eat burgers, they like dogs and you're a cat person." But it can be educational to stay with someone who thinks differently. "The best part of the community is learning tolerance, especially when they're kind enough to let you into their house."

He advises making your profile as comprehensive and multi-dimensional as possible to engender trust and enhance matching during the screening process. "It's like a user's manual for your phone or camera," he says. "You can't read the short version if you want to know how it really works." Putting details that make you interesting -- passions, peeves, philosophy, ideals -- will help you stand out to potential hosts. "Include photos of yourself, your kids, your dog, your travels," he says. "No need to be coy or politically correct. You're not applying for a job, you're making friends."

Free Travel

Amanda Alewine
Like most couchsurfers, Amanda Alewine looks to immerse herself in the local culture when she travels. "The people I met at hostels and hotels all had the same guidebooks and they were getting the same information from the front desks on where to go," says the 34-year-old planner from Oklahoma City. She has been surfing since 2006, having such indescribable, would-never-find-in-a-guidebook experiences as attending a Creole anniversary party at a baboon sanctuary in Belize.

Alewine has also acted as local host to travelers from Italy to Australia to Vietnam, showing them her favorite spots. "I take them to places like the Bricktown Canal or to Edna's, a dive bar that is filled with local characters," she says. Alewine, who has hosted more than 60 surfers, has never had an issue, but she carefully studies travelers' profiles to weed out potential problem guests. "This site can be compared to eBay," she says. "You wouldn't buy something from someone with negative feedback, so don't host or surf with someone with negative feedback." And establishing ground rules are essential when hosting. "I get first dibs on the bathroom and don't park behind my car," says Alewine. Like most relationships, communication is key. "If you're vegetarian, let people know. If you don't drink, add that," she says. "The more information you give, the better chance you'll find a good match."

It's also important to be flexible, as both a host and a traveler. "People have had car problems, over/under-estimated drive times, or decided to skip Oklahoma City and go another way," says Alewine. And it's always good to have a backup while you are surfing. "We were going to stay with a guy in Hollywood, California, but unfortunately he lost his job that evening," she says. "Although he said we could still stay, you could tell he wasn't up for company." They found a hotel instead.

More Affordable Overnights
Couch-surfing isn't the only way to stay cheap. Here are four sites offering low-cost stays around the world.

WWOOF Founded in the U.K. in 1971, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (nicknamed Willing Workers on Organic Farms) is dedicated toward sharing more sustainable lifestyles. Hosts must use ecologically sound practices and also provide lodging and meals in return for volunteer work. No money exchanges hands for WWOOFing, though local organizations sometimes charge a small booking fee.

Servas This 60-year-old "open-door" movement is arguably the first host/traveler network and focuses on peace and social justice. Traveler membership is renewed annually for a fee (stays are free), is conditional on an interviewer's approval, and you must carry an official letter of introduction containing details and photos. Host and guest commit to spending time together during the standard two-day stay.

Hostels The first "youth hostel" was founded in 1912 in Germany, but there are no age restrictions at these low-budget accommodations. Locations exist around the world, from large cities to remote outdoorsy destinations that appeal to backpackers. Hostels are a time-honored way many post-grads first explore the world, which can mean lots of noise.

Airbnb Launched wide in 2008, Airbnb connects travelers with people and companies leasing anything from a couch to a castle in 7,300 destinations spanning 161 countries. Not free, rentals can cost anywhere from $10 to $3,000 per night. Payments are held securely until you and the renter (who often remains on-site) meet in person and approve, safeguarding against fraudulent listings.
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