Travel Wise | Hospitality exchanges: Find a bed, make a friend
CouchSurfing, the Affordable Travel Club, Casa Casa and other hospitality exchange clubs offer travelers a cultural experience as well as budget accommodations.
Seattle Times staff columnist
I left my husband waiting at the ferry dock with our suitcases as I followed the woman toward her house hidden among a grove of orange trees on Lopud Island in Croatia.
Her name was Ane, and she had a room to rent.
"How much?" I asked, when she showed me a simply furnished upstairs bedroom with chairs positioned to take advantage of a sea view.
"Thirty dollars," she said.
I rushed to the dock to tell my husband about our bargain. We rolled out suitcases back to her house, and began to unpack when we heard a knock.
Payment could wait until later, Ane said, after we finished the platter of pancakes and glasses of orange juice she had prepared for us.
We awoke the next morning to a thunderstorm. The ferry back to Dubrovnik didn't leave until noon, so we sat on the bed trying to decide whether to make a break for breakfast on the waterfront.
Ane knocked at the door again, this time with a plate of fritters and a pot of coffee. She pointed to her watch to make sure we knew what time the ferry left.
Whenever I think about Croatia, I think about Ane. I especially remember the way she took my hand and kissed it when we said goodbye.
Ane offered a cheap room, but looking back, the experience turned out to be as much about connecting with a local as it was about saving money.
Here in the U.S., hospitality exchanges and social networking sites such as CouchSurfing make it easy to organize this kind of travel before leaving home.
Lodging at each other's homes or apartments is free to members of CouchSurfing, (www.couchsurfing.org), a volunteer-run international hospitality network started by a group of friends in 2004. Smaller, more specialized clubs charge members annual dues, then ask that guests pay hosts $15-$20 per night to defray the cost of breakfast and incidentals.
"Travel is not just about where you're going. It's about who lives there," says Lauren Braden, 35, founder of Seattle's Casa Casa Travel Club (http://casacasa.org). When she started Casa Casa last year, Braden, who works part-time for the Washington Trails Association, had been blogging for a while at Northwest Cheapsleeps (www.nwcheapsleeps.org) on the deals she and her family found at B&Bs, small inns and hotels.
"I think many budget travelers are looking for more than just a good value; they're seeking a unique experience when they travel," she says. "Real B&Bs provide that experience, but they can be quite expensive, especially in the U.S."
Casa Casa members pay annual dues of $20 (going up to $40 once membership increases) for access to an online directory of members — 165 so far in 14 countries. Members post pictures and information about themselves and their accommodations, usually a guest room, with private or shared bath.
In the Silver Lake Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, for instance, a 33-year-old organic gardening and yoga enthusiast named Moira offers to take up to two guests in her 1920s cottage in what she describes as the "coolest neighborhood in L.A."
Members can stay as guests as often as they want, as long as they are willing to host once or twice a year. There's no obligation to act as a tour guide, although many guests and hosts end up spending time together.
Braden modeled Casa Casa after the Affordable Travel Club (www.affordabletravelclub.net), founded 17 years ago by Gig Harbor residents Suzanne and John Miller, and managed by Lauren's mother, Maria Braden.
With ATC limiting membership to those 40 and over, Braden saw a niche for a club aimed at younger travelers. Casa Casa has no age restrictions.
ATC, in the meantime, has grown to more than 2,000 hosts in 49 states and 50 countries. "For many, this satisfies the urge to do a B&B," says Suzanne Miller, 69. "Some of them don't use the club as a guest. They just want to host. They say they just want to live vicariously through others."
Futons and feedback
CouchSurfing (www.couchsurfing.org) uses Facebook-like social networking tools to connect travelers worldwide.
With one million members, including more than 3,000 in the Seattle area, in 230 countries, CouchSurfing began with a focus on hosting and "surfing" (staying in a local's home on a couch, futon or whatever might be available).
It's evolved into a cultural exchange network that's as much about making a friend as finding a bed. Members who can't offer a place to stay are often willing to meet up for a drink or a meal.
Some, such as a young couple in Everett with a double futon and folding cots in a condo, volunteer as "city ambassadors" available to help travelers in need.
Members post profiles and photos. Overnight guests might reciprocate with a meal, or other gesture, but there's never a charge.
"Is it safe?" is a question that comes up.
CouchSurfing relies on profiles and a vouching system of online feedback from members. Membership is free, but for a $25 donation, it verifies to others that a member's name, address and credit card information match.
The travel clubs also do some basic checks, and hosts and guests usually call and talk beforehand. "Beyond that, there's a certain level of trust," says Braden.
CouchSurfing's Crystal Murphy encourages members to use common sense and check out profile information. Then be flexible and have a Plan B in case things don't work out.
"CouchSurfing isn't for everyone," she says. "If you want a chocolate on your pillow every night, then CouchSurfing is not for you. If you want to see the world and meet other people, then it's for you."
Carol Pucci's Travel Wise
Twitter updates at http://twitter.com/carolpucci
About Travel Wise
Carol Pucci's column is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. Drawing on her own experiences and readers', she'll cover everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture.
firstname.lastname@example.org | 206-464-3701
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.