Before people rented out their spare rooms and couches through Airbnb, they offered them up for free through a number of other websites. And some still do! Here’s what I’ve experienced with a few of the hospitality exchange sites out there (I’m not counting sites like WWOOF or HelpX where you work in exchange for board here – just those that offer some sort of lodging for free).
I’m not a big fan of Staydu, and not just because I get random friend requests from strangers a lot.
Variety of accommodation options
Staydu isn’t a straight Couchsurfing clone. There are three aspects to it. You can search for places to crash for free, places to volunteer, and places to stay for a fee.
There isn’t a large user database, and in the sharing economy, there’s strength in numbers. I’ve sent out a couple of requests through it, but never heard back.
Unlike Couchsurfing, you can’t filter for hosts by, say, the ability to host two travellers. You’ve got to click into individual profiles to see what limitations they’ve set for hosting.
You can pay for membership privileges … or do activities to get points by participating in the community, e.g. writing blog posts or commenting in the forums.
Unlike most other hospitality exchange sites, Global Freeloaders is pretty upfront, as the name suggests. There’s no grand vision here about a cultural exchange and enriching experiences – just finding a place to crash. I admire the mercenary take, but as a result, the response rate is pretty abysmal.
Unlike other hospitality exchange sites, you don’t pick out individual hosts and write personal messages to them. Rather, you blast out a mass request to multiple recipients. It saves time, but the impersonal approach obviously doesn’t yield the same kind of response.
The site is very old, and it’s an eyesore. The layout is totally borked; search results come up sprawled across the screen, forcing you to scroll sideways.
Following on from my last point, it seems very few members are actually still active. I think I received two (negative) replies in total through Global Freeloaders, and one of them expressed surprise that his profile was still coming up as available to host.
We’ve been more successful with Hospitality Club, which is surprising, as it’s another very old site that’s dying out a bit. First, a host reached out to me out of the blue (as a brand new member, no less!) to offer us accommodation in Munich. Then when I sent out a few requests to Berlin hosts, I heard back from one member, who was going to be out of town, but referred me to her boyfriend, who ended up hosting us in their apartment. The response rate from hosts is probably comparable to Couchsurfing in my experience.
As an established site, I get the impression Hospitality Club has a pretty engaged community. Loads of NYC Sublets, which comes at no surprise. Active hosts seem genuinely interested in connecting and conversing, as was the case with both our hosts.
It’s hideous. Seriously. Stuck in a 90s time warp. And while the search function is more powerful than Staydu’s, it’s still not as user-friendly as Couchsurfing.
Perhaps the mother of all hospitality exchange sites right now, Couchsurfing has exploded into a total behemoth in the past few years, thanks to a lot of recent publicity. As a result, it’s getting tough to find hosts. In my experience, you’d be lucky to get any response from half of the requests you send. Heck, surprisingly, even newbies don’t seem to bother replying half the time (tip: they’re often good to target as they’re eager to get started using Couchsurfing and to build up feedback). I’ve had a few hosts reach out to me with invitations to stay after seeing my itinerary – you can post details of upcoming trips and dates that you’ll be in a particular city – but none have worked out, as I’d either already got accommodation sorted by then, or the hosts bailed on me after realising I was not a single female traveller. Read into that what you will.
With a membership of over 5 million, you’ve got the best odds of finding a host.
Couchsurfing occasionally groans under the pressure, and its backend is being rebuilt, but by and large it works smoothly. You can filter your search for hosts by a number of criteria and search by map. And it’s just so darn purty.
More than couches
Couchsurfing is about much more than finding free places to stay. Events are a big part of Couchsurfing, and in big cities, there are meetups every night to suit all types of people. You can also use Couchsurfing to find people to share rides with (like we did in Iceland) and ask for travel advice on the local city pages
Losing its way
A common complaint about Couchsurfing is that it’s just gotten too big. That the community has changed and is full of freeloaders. It defintely feels like there are too many surfers these days and not enough hosts. (It bugs me when bloggers and mainstream media tout Couchsurfing just as a free way to travel; if people keep taking and taking, soon there’ll be nothing left. It’s an exchange – or at least, that’s the original idea.)
Staying with hosts can be a priceless experience, but it’s not an easy path to take. It can be hard not to take rejection personally. When hosts have fully fleshed out profiles, I put in a lot of effort to find common ground and personalise requests, and often get regretful ‘no’s that thank me for writing a thoughtful message. There’s a lot of work involved – and no guarantee of a payoff.