“To have friends coming in from afar, how delightful!”
Staying in Other People’s Homes for Free Through Hospitality Exchanges
What Are Hospitality Exchange Programs?
Hospitality Exchange programs maintain lists of people willing to open their rooms, spare beds, tents, cots, or couches to travelers for free. The usual stay lasts from one to three days, though more extended visits are possible.
You do not have to open your home to participate in a hospitality exchange. However, you have to be willing to share some of your interests, life stories, and friendship.
Unlike home swaps (home exchanges), you can arrange hospitality exchanges without advance notice. While most hosts prefer at least three days’ notice (usually, the listing tells how much advance notice the host likes), it is possible to plan up until the eve of your arrival.
Many people will arrange several hospitality exchanges before their vacation and stay in each home for a couple of days. By making multiple arrangements, travelers save the cost of accommodations throughout the trip and get exposed to a wide range of lifestyles at their destination.
Hospitality exchange arrangements are easy to arrange. You consult a directory of other members and then phone or email to learn if they can host you.
Most hospitality exchanges are like receiving a relative in your home. Guests should help with light chores or share in some of the costs. Hosts usually try to set aside time to show their guests around their community.
If you want to stay longer in a local’s home, especially as part of studying a foreign language or participating in a volunteer program, check out my homestay post.
My Experiences Staying in Other People’s Homes for Free (or Very Low Cost)
I have been blessed to stay in approximately 50 homes worldwide for free or next to nothing. Most of these stays were either organized through
- homestays connected with short-term language or other classes for travelers
- as part of a student exchange.
Almost every family was extremely hospitable, and most also were excellent cooks. About half of these stays were free. When I did pay, it cost less than $20 a day, including two meals a day.
My parents and I hosted several people at our homes through Servas and Couchsurfing. I also currently rent my casita out through Airbnb and to students in my Fifty Plus Nomad classes Nearly all my guests from hospitality exchanges and Airbnb were fantastic people who I loved hosting. Some even helped with small chores around the house. My parents and I enjoyed having the opportunity to offer them tours and activities, and I also enjoyed participating in several SERVAS activities in the Bay Area.
I have not been a guest in these programs, though I look forward to participating in the future. (Covid has made me want a more active social life, and I need to save money as well).
I hope to hear stories from my fellow Fifty Plus Nomads about their experiences.
Being a Good Guest: 16 Hospitality Exchange Tips
The success of hospitality exchange programs depends entirely on the quality of the membership. As a guest, you are responsible for being as helpful and appreciative of your hosts as possible. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Bring a gift to your hosts. Most people suggest bringing gifts from home such as postcards, souvenirs, etc. The appropriate gift depends on your destination. On most of the planet, a gift from home is excellent. In Eastern Europe, I would recommend buying a practical gift on-site such as alcoholic beverages, flowers, or candy. Always bring photos to show people your home. I also usually get a large cache of postcards, coins, stamps, and other small trinkets to break the ice. I give these away whenever locals show an interest in the item.
- Offer to pay the cost of any extras like phone calls or a ride to the airport.
- Respect local traditions. Read ahead of time and find what is appropriate at your destination. For instance, find out about local customs about clothing, removing shoes, eating etiquette, diet, alcohol, and non-married couples sleeping in separate beds. I would be conservative unless you have established that more “liberal” behavior is OK with your host. The best advice is to be prepared to act as if you are at your grandmother’s house and to adjust accordingly.
- If you like to cook, ask your host ahead of time if kitchen facilities are available for your use. Bring your food and be prepared to share with your host. Try to pick an easy meal that does not require a lot of pots and pans or spices and is easy to clean up and not time-consuming to prepare (some ideas: stew, spaghetti).
- Never ask if your host will cook for you. If someone cooks for you, offer to pay for the food and/or help with preparation or cleanup.
- If your host invites you out to eat, be prepared to pay for your meal. Make offers to pay for both meals if you can.
- Make your bags as inconspicuous as possible. Do not keep your hygiene products in the bathroom. Put your bags out of the way of traffic. If possible, do not bring a lot of luggage. Your hosts may have a small home. Keeping all your things in a small bag allows you to hide them away quickly.
- Check the space around you before you leave your host’s house. Be careful to keep your areas clean and neat. You do not want to leave anything in plain view if possible.
- Respect your host’s schedule and expectations about your visit. Before arranging your stay, ask your host about their schedule. Find out when you should arrive. Keep in mind that many hosts work or study during the day. Usually, you will be expected to keep yourself entertained during the day, and your host will show you around town at night and on weekends. When you arrive, find out if your host will be able to spend some time with you. Some hosts may only want to provide a place to stay without spending much time with you.
Many hosts (me included) expect to spend time with their guests. The main reason that hosts join a hospitality exchange is that they enjoy showing people around their town and meeting new people. In some cases, hospitality exchange organizations may have rules to encourage hosts and guests to spend time together. SERVAS, for example, has hosts and guests sign that they will respect the agency’s rules, including the expectation that hosts and travelers will spend time together. For this reason, keep a schedule flexible enough to spend some time with your hosts.
- Send a “Thank-You” postcard or note from home when you return (a letter or card is better than an email, but an email is better than nothing)! I recommend sending a note even if you are paying to stay in someone’s home, mainly if you stay for more than a few days.
- If you are visiting for more than a couple of weeks, let the hosts have a few days alone in their home.
- You may want to avoid being at your host’s home when they return from work. Many hosts will be happy to have at least an hour alone after work to relax.
- Let your hosts know when you will be returning. If you are more than fifteen minutes late, give them a call to let them know when you will be returning. You do not want them worrying about you.
- Ask your host about things to do in town. Even if they have no time to go out with you, they want to help you discover their town.
- Find out how to respond if your host wants to pay for your drinks or dinner. In some countries, there are rituals regarding who will pay (for example, in some Asian countries, the host is expected to offer to pay, and the guest is supposed to refuse three times. If the host refuses a fourth time, the guest is supposed to accept). If you think the host is serious about paying, accept graciously. If you can afford it, offer to reciprocate later. Many hosts admire you for getting out of the rat race and want to help you.
- Everyone likes to have a clean kitchen. If you want to help your host, do the dishes. Cleaning the living room may be insulting, and you can quickly put things away in places where the hosts will never find them again.
Hospitality Exchange Tips: Safety
While I have never read of any severe problems with hospitality exchanges, many people are reluctant to join out of fear for their safety. They do not want strangers in their homes or are afraid of their safety in someone else’s home.
While this concern is understandable, it is not justified. It would help if you remembered that most people involved in hospitality exchanges also open their homes to travelers. They have opened themselves up to risk because they are trustworthy and open to trusting others.
If you are overly concerned about safety, you should consider joining SERVAS since they require that all travelers go through an interview. However, rest assured that you will be safe with any organization you choose.
Regardless of which hospitality exchange program you choose, there are things you can do to help ensure safety. Couchsurfing.com has an excellent list of safety precautions, including:
- Make sure you get a photograph and an address. Ask as many questions as you need. No one offering their couch to visitors should be afraid to provide this information.
- You might consider registering with your embassy if traveling in a remote or dangerous area. You can usually do this via phone or email. Leave a copy with friends or family next to your passport copy, with the date, address, and telephone number where you are staying.
- Keep a backup plan. Your host has a family emergency and must leave, or you have found that you do not get along well. Do not worry. Get a telephone number for a hotel or youth hostel ahead of time, just in case.
- Know how to get downtown from where you are staying, by foot, taxi, auto, bus, or metro. Your embassy may help you. This means that you should get a map. Mark your embassy on it. Make a telephone list with the numbers for the police, your embassy, a taxi, an ambulance, and your host. Find out how to use the local telephones ahead of time so you can make calls easily in an emergency.
Hospitality Exchange Costs
While Hospitality Exchanges are a fantastic way to forge intercultural friendships, there is no way of denying they are also a terrific way to save money. Hospitality exchanges are the best way to travel inexpensively in the developed world (the US, Canada, Australia/New Zealand, and Western Europe).
I had one student in my seminars in the 2000s who traveled around Western Europe for a year for only $8000 (including airfare) through hospitality exchanges. She joined Women Welcoming Women Worldwide and stayed in over one hundred homes. She reported that she met a fascinating group of people who showed her a different side of Europe than she would have seen. I cannot think of any other way – even camping across Europe—as cheap as her experience.
Hospitality Exchange Programs
- The granddaddy of all hospitality exchange organizations started right after World War II by SERVAS. They have an imposing list of hosts in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. SERVAS also has membership meetings for hosts worldwide. SERVAS costs from $33 a year to join for US residents (see US Servas for details) as a traveler. You will have to go through an interview and submit a reference to participate as a host or a traveler. To be both a host and a traveler, you may undergo two different interviews. Once you join as a traveler, you will get an introduction form that you are expected to provide to your hosts. Because of the process necessary to join, SERVAS members feel a keen sense of security. Most SERVAS hosts have more comfortable accommodations available than other hospitality exchange programs.
- Couchsurfing is by far the most significant player among the hospitality exchange programs. In October 2004, I interviewed the founder of Couchsurfing, Casey Felton. At the time, I admired the spirit of the organization– connecting travelers worldwide (through sophisticated software) to hosts offering free accommodation who shared common interests–and was impressed by the organization’s success. (In just eight months, 5000 people had joined the organizations). Couchsurfers proved to be such a roaring success that it was sold to a private equity group in 2011. Since then, the membership has grown exponentially. Today, Couchsurfing has 12 million potential hosts in over 250,000 cities worldwide. The group organizes meetups in cities all over the world. Many of the original participants have become disillusioned with the organization maintaining that it has become more interested in profit than the program’s original mission. Nonetheless, it is so big that it could be an excellent way for Fifty-Plus Nomads to meet people worldwide and realize their nomadic dreams on a small budget.
- Hospitality Club, Be Welcome, Couchers, and Trustroots are among a dozen non-profit, low-cost or free hospitality exchange organizations that remain committed to Couchsurfing’s original vision.
Other Hospitality Exchange Opportunities
Goodwill Guides (Day Hosts): Provide tours and hospitality for a day in:
Exchange work for hospitality: Workaway. I don’t know much about Workaway; a friend, Micheline Boisvert, the owner of Calgary City View Bed and Breakfast in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, reported that she has been happy with the workers who exchanged work on projects for her in exchange for a place to stay.
Friendship Force arranges hospitality exchanges between different communities worldwide. Groups of people from the same community host groups from other countries.
Informal Hospitality Exchanges
You can also ask friends, relatives, and acquaintances for suggestions for people to stay with while traveling. You will be surprised how often people know people who would be willing (and often surprisingly eager) to let you spend a couple of days in their home.
I have also found that many people will offer hospitality to travelers they meet on the road. While traveling in Bali, Indonesia, for three weeks in 1991 (a top-rated seaside destination for Australians), I received over fifteen addresses from Australians who offered to host me in their homes should I ever get to Australia.
Some of the best hospitality exchanges have come through informal means. In 1992 I decided to visit Guatemala, and I told my parents, who said to me that they were a bit apprehensive about the trip. My mother mentioned this apprehension to one of her co-workers who hailed from Guatemala.
The co-worker told my mother not to worry since I could stay with her cousin in Guatemala City. When my mother told me about the offer, my first response was reluctance borne out of the usual child-like response adults have whenever parents “interfere” in their lives.
However, after a few minutes, I thought staying in someone’s home could be fun. So, I agreed. The cousin of my mother’s co-worker turned out to be one of the kindest people I have ever met. She and her family introduced me to all their relatives, held a couple of parties in my honor, showed me around the town, and even took me out to a nightclub.