In today’s dire economy, travelers with all types of budgets are looking for ways to trim back on their travel expenses. Even if you usually prefer to bed down in a Four Seasons or a Fairmont, finding cheaper accommodation is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. But just because you’ll no longer find mint chocolates on your pillow doesn’t mean you have to scrimp on comfort and safety. In fact, now’s a great time to try out some alternative approaches to finding vacation lodging, approaches that will not only save you money but that will also offer interesting cultural interactions that your usual hotel accommodations can't match.
Ever since couples have been fighting, and friends have crashed after a long night out, there have been couch surfers. The idea is simple: If you have a couch, you've also got a place to host someone for the night. However, fairly recently, couch surfing has extended beyond the friend’s couch to strangers’ homes in foreign countries. According to couchsurfing.org, the purpose of couch surfing is “to internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance, and facilitate cultural understanding." It may seem a bit strange—even somewhat scary—at first glance, but travelers have direct access to locals and their knowledge of a destination, and couch surfers and hosts are vetted and vouched for. Even more fabulous, couch surfing is totally free. And in this economy, that’s just too good to pass on.
How to Couch Surf Like a Pro:
First, sign up as a member at couchsurfing.org, an international non-profit organization based out of San Francisco that has over one million volunteer "CouchSurfers" spread around 230 countries. Make sure to fill out your profile as completely as possible. Upload pictures of yourself, and perhaps some of your own comfy couch at home, so other members can get to know you better. After you’ve chosen a destination or several destinations, search for members in the area. When you’ve picked out several prospects, send them a message about the type of traveling you plan to do and how long you plan to stay. You will then receive a few offers for places to stay. You pick which ones will work best for you, get in contact with the hosts, figure out how you'll meet them, tailor your travel itinerary to accommodate your housing plans, and then off you go!
While couch surfing, be sure to be a respectful guest by washing the dishes, keeping your living quarters clean, and helping out with things like breakfast and dinner—better yet, offer to make dinner. And don't forget to take advantage of your host’s local knowledge. What better way to get to know a place than from your own personal travel guide, who's sure to be more knowledgeable (and up-to-date) than even your most trusty guidebook!
After your stay, or when you return from your travels, post your experience on couchsurfing.org and offer up your own couch for fellow “surfers.” It's not mandatory, but it’s nice to return the favor.
As with any type of travel, take the necessary precautions! Take some time to read the safety tips offered at couchsurfing.org, and other tips for sound couch surfing practices under its Surf/Host section.
For those of you who prefer a bit more privacy in your temporary digs, HomeAway is probably more your style. Homeowners rent out their apartments or entire homes for prices that are typically much lower than local hotels or condo units. For example, in Paris, I found a renovated and gorgeously decorated apartment located in Montmartre, near the Sacré-Coeur and Moulin Rouge, that comes with a washer, dryer, kitchen, two bedrooms and one full bathroom, an entertainment library, Internet access, a living room, and more—all for only $180 a night (or $208 during peak seasons)!
How to Rent:
It’s very simple. Visit homeaway.com and enter your travel dates and the city you wish to visit. From the list of prospective rentals, choose a few you like and send a message to the owners. After you get your responses, choose the rental that best suits your needs. Then you put down a deposit, typically between 10 to 50 percent of the total rental fee. HomeAway recommends using your credit card, but PayPal and personal checks can also be used (HomeAway also offers basic and comprehensive rental-protection plans in case of fraud). After receiving your deposit, your owner will send you a written agreement regarding dates, payment, policies, and cancellations/refund terms and conditions. Be sure to thoroughly read the agreement before you sign. Full payment varies from rental to rental, but it is usually expected before your arrival.
Other sites worth checking out include roomorama.com, and airbnb.com. Roomorama basically works the same as HomeAway, but doesn’t offer rentals abroad. Most of its services are in select major U.S. cities. Visit the website for dates, payment, and rental details. Airbnb is a little more like couch surfing in that you don't rent out an entire house or apartment, but rather you pay to stay in someone's available guest room, extra bed, or yes, even on the couch. Its mission is to foster peer-to-peer traveling, where people who have extra room can post it for rent, and those looking for an alternative to hotels can find various options on the site.
For more resources about how to find affordable beach vacation spots to adventures on a shoestring, check Away.com’s Cheap Travel Guide—all the info you need for a big time on a small budget.
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