This article was first published on Times of Malta on 10th November 2013.
Staying with Strangers
Does the thought of spending the night on a stranger’s couch, or opening up your own house to someone you have never met fill you with trepidation? Whilst this may be a common reaction to the idea, millions of people worldwide are welcoming into their homes travellers who are seeking a different way of seeing the world.
Traditionally, visitors to a new country in which they have no friends or relatives, opt to find accommodation in a hotel. However, with the increased ability to create connections with other people online, staying with strangers is no longer the anomaly it used to be.
In 2004 Couchsurfing.org was set up and has revolutionised the way travellers experience a town or city. The website allows users to fill out a profile of themselves, which can in turn be verified. Those looking for a place to stay can then contact potential hosts and, if both parties are happy with what they learn of each other, they can come to an accommodation arrangement.
Couchsurfing is about more than just finding somewhere free to crash for the night. As its website states, “Couchsurfing connects travelers with a global network of people willing to share in profound and meaningful ways, making travel a truly social experience.”
Christa Sciberras is an experienced Couchsurfing host. In her opinion, there are two fundamental reasons participants choose to be involved in the community. Firstly, they believe and wish to be part of a group that comes together solely on the basis of trust. This tallies with what Christina Afonso, also a host, told me: “It’s a great example of human generosity of spirit.”
Secondly, they have a deep interest in learning about people from all over the world, their culture, language, and daily comings and goings. As Christa put it, “Details that no books or Discovery Channel programmes can teach you.”
From a hosting point of view, putting up a newcomer allows one to see one’s country in a different light and brings with it a renewed appreciation for what might be considered commonplace. Christa’s experience of this has turned her into a patriot and opened her eyes to how lucky she is to live in Malta.
A relatively new face on the alternative accommodation scene is Airbnb. Although not the first company to provide a platform for people to monetise their extra space and showcase it to potential guests, it has quickly become one of the biggest.
Through Airbnb.com it is possible to book a room in someone’s house, an entire apartment or even a stay in a unique location such as a castle, treehouse or converted train carriage. The difference to Couchsurfing lies in the fact that you will have to pay for your accommodation.
Since there is still payment involved, some may wonder why using this method is better than booking a room in a hotel. From a financial point of view, listings on Airbnb tend to be cheaper than hotel rooms in similar areas. Also, bookings can easily be made in less touristy areas, which will again keep costs down.
Aside from being cost-effective, Airbnb also encourages the social connections that many travellers crave. While hosts may not be as readily available as one would expect when Couchsurfing, they can still provide suggestions on the best local places to visit, and can offer an overall more fulfilling experience. On my own recent Airbnb stay, my host welcomed me into his living room to meet his friends over a cup of tea after a long day out to discuss the merits of The Great Irish Bake Off. These small touches make all the difference.
The question of safety can be an issue for those who have yet to try non-traditional accommodation but it does not need to be. Both Couchsurfing and Airbnb have a verification system, and reviews by previous guests are readily available. Both sites encourage dialogue between hosts and guests before any travel arrangements are made, to make sure their expectations are clear from the start.
A third, more common example of staying with strangers is in hostels. Hostels offer dormitory-style rooms, as well as private rooms at a higher cost. Most hostels have a strong social atmosphere and are well-suited to solo travellers who are looking for like-minded companions.
Hostels are a much more affordable option for those travelling alone than hotels, which rarely offer single rooms. However, they offer less privacy due to shared bathrooms and bunk beds. Noise can also be an issue so it’s best to pack some earplugs. They may take some getting used to but as Maiju Korhonen, a regular hostel-goer, advises, “Take some open-mindedness with you and you’ll be fine.”
Staying with strangers may seem like an outrageous proposal to those who have not yet tried it but the benefits far outweigh any possible negatives. My own experience of using alternative accommodation has opened me up to opportunities which I would never have encountered otherwise.
Strangers are, after all, friends you haven’t met yet and as the quote by Tim Cahill goes, “A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” Travelling is all about making connections, whether they turn into long-lasting friendships or are simply stored away as tales to be told on one’s return.