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Hospitality Exchange Networks

hospitality exchange

A great way to travel without money is by making use of free hospitality exchange networks. These networks facilitate travelers who are looking for fellow-travelers who are able to host each other. In most cases you can make use of these networks free of charge and through these network you can meet the greatest and most hospitable persons in the world.

In most hospitality networks you create a profile. You can then fill in all kinds of details like your interests and whereabouts. Others have done likewise and you can now search through profiles of other travelers and persons who are opening their doors for people like you. There are also groups and other discussion forums where you can meet other people online and exchange ideas and travel experiences.

The most well-known free hospitality exchange (sometimes abbreviated as hospex) networks these days are BeWelcome and Couchsurfing. Another well known network is Warmshowers. That's a very active hospitality network specifically for cyclists. Other networks include the Hospitality Club (deprecated) and AirBnB, but we wouldn't recommend the latter if you are on a tight budget.

It's free but no invitation for freeloading

If you make use of these networks it's always a good idea to offer things back in return. Not always does this mean you need to spend money though. A great dinner for your host you could make by finding free food at local food markets after closure-time and you can always take a look at for local spots. You can also make art or leave a self-made postcard before you go. In addition, you can also take care of some of the household tasks, e.g. by doing dishes or playing with the baby.

It's also good to keep in mind that this works in a pay it foward. You might not be able to host people yourself now, for example because you're travelling or because you share a house with people who don't like the idea, but it's nice if you will host people some time when you have the opportunity. (And if your room mates don't like the idea, suggest having people over for dinner.)

One minus point of hospitality exchange networks is that you sometimes spend quite some time searching for possible hosts and writing them. That's why it's always a great idea to also have a tent or hammock with you, and to be great at finding alternative spots for camping. For more information you may also find this article very informative: The Ultimate Guide to Traveling Without Money.

History of hospitality exchange

From linguistic research we know that hospitality is at least as old as Homer and the invention of the wheel [more about this]. Hospitality is still very normal in many muslim cultures, where it's quite common to just knock to knock someone's door and be hosted (and fed) for the night. More modern, organized hospitality stems from 1949, when Servas was founded. Servas is still around, but for most people the procedures are a bit tedious, with books and letters. Of course you can still meet great people through Servas.

From Hospitality Club to CouchSurfing to..?

In the late nineties people started organizing through the internet, especially email. From this Hospitality Club (HC) was started, which for many people the first time they experienced the wonders of hosting "strangers". Hospitality Club had a very European vibe to it and its leadership was very strict, an official non profit organization was never started. Consequently it wasn't strange that an American organization took the lead around 2007. CouchSurfing was also the first to grow beyond 1 million members. According to the founders it wasn't feasible to continue as is and in 2011 they turned the organization into a for profit C corporation (a move that has been contested by many). These days CouchSurfing is by far the biggest network, but it has some disadvantages, it is very "mainstream" and in big cities the number of requests has skyrocketed while the "quality" of these same requests is reaching extreme lows ("all hotels are booked").

Non profit, open source networks

As of 2015 there are several open source, non profit networks worth mentioning:

  • BeWelcome started in 2007. Founded by former HC volunteers with a proper non profit based on democratic values and running open source software.
  • WarmShowers is a network for bicyclists. Great if you're on a bike trip.
  • Trustroots was started in December 2013, mainly (but not exclusively) directed at hitchhikers.

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