Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Got a Couch? Host a Traveler; Travel Clubs Offer Opportunities to Slash Costs

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Got a Couch? Host a Traveler; Travel Clubs Offer Opportunities to Slash Costs

Article excerpt

The cost of airfare and a hotel can take a huge chunk out of a travel budget and even cut short a vacation by several days. However, for travelers who enjoy venturing off the beaten path, there are rewarding low-cost options that can not only lengthen a vacation, but also almost certainly make it more memorable.

For example, does finding a small local family-owned restaurant not listed in any guidebooks have an appeal? How about meeting interesting people and possibly making new, lifelong friends with similar interests? Would you enjoy staying in a residential community with a local family wherever you travel in the world for no more than $20 a night, or possibly at no cost?

Travel clubs offer the opportunity for such experiences. However, in return you must be willing to open your own home to similar- minded travelers. The expectation is that you will return a friendly dose of hospitality in exchange for the same type of treatment from other club members when you travel.

The innovative Couchsurfing.org website is used primarily by single travelers under 40 while the appropriately named Affordable Travel Club caters to individuals or couples over 40. In each organization members make their own travel or hosting arrangements. Expenses are minimal, and both have members in St. Louis who heartily endorse each organization.

COUCHSURFING

When Casey Fenton discovered a cheap plane ticket from Boston to Iceland in the late 1990s, he emailed 1,500 Icelandic students in Reykjavik before he left, introduced himself, and asked if he could sleep on their couch. When Fenton received an outpouring of invitations, he realized he was on to something good. Today his Couchsurfing.org website is the result, and claims to have 5 million plus members in more than 97,000 cities in every nation.

The site has similarities to both Facebook and eBay. Members compose a profile that includes a photo and information about available accommodations and public transportation. Guests provide feedback on their stay on each host's site. Joining is free and so is sleeping on someone's couch.

Couchsurfer Eileen G'Sell, 33 of St. Louis, who discovered the site while traveling in Ireland, says it is, in fact, usually a couch that is being offered. "Most hosts do not have room for two guests," she says.

As a single woman usually traveling alone, G'Sell is very selective about whose couch she will sleep on. She carefully reads referrals on the website, which are left by people who have preceded her. One bad review, and she will not contact a potential host. Also, she usually will seek accommodations only from other women.

So far she has used the site to sleep on three couches in Maine, and several more on a trip to Uruguay, Peru and Argentina.

During the spring through the summer, G'Sell receives about two requests a week, but before she makes her couch available, she does her own research and does not reply to anyone with whom she feels uncomfortable. When she does accept a guest on her couch, it is not just about doing a nice thing.

In St. Louis, G'Sell has hosted 25 people on her couch in about a year, half of whom have been from abroad.

Protocol is that a stay should not exceed two nights. No meals, transportation or acting as a sightseeing guide are promised.

G'Sell is also quick to point out that the website is not so much about a place to stay and save money as it is about a cultural exchange. "It is an experience that is not even available in a hostel," she says.

"Couch surfing has changed my life," G'Sell says while recounting the new friends she has made, many of whom she stays in contact with and several she plans to visit.

The site has also evolved into a social network of sorts. Travelers already staying on someone's couch use it to meet other local people for coffee or a meal. …

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