We mentioned many times we often use homestay exchange platforms as one of the methods to find lodging during our journey. It's not only us. There's a whole community of people that love to connect by offering and receiving hospitality for free. The Covid situation forced a pause to the movement and strain on the projects that facilitate it. This summer we made a few trips and so we had the chance to get an idea about how community and services are doing. Waiting to see what will be of them once the crisis is over and our "touring as usual" will be possible again, we decided to tell you our view about the different websites which provide space for matching travellers with those who can offer them accommodation without money involved, standing proud under the banner of the gift economy.
People host you in their houses for various reasons – they plan to travel so they collect contacts, tips, tricks and courage from those who are already on the way, they cannot travel themselves but may still want to meet people from all over the world, they want to practise a language, they need some company or they simply think "I have a place, why not share?". The selection process is based on reviews: once the stay is over, host and guest leave each other a reference describing the experience, which is a good clue for those who come next. It may be a bit challenging to start up, before having a bunch of recommendations, as people tend to host more willingly those who already have a positive record. A good idea could be to firstly host somebody in your house so to get an easier grasp about the all thing as well as gain some reference – then you can try with being hosted.
The first proper homestay website was Hospitality Club, launched back in 2000. There are several such projects on the net as well as social media-based (city-specific facebook groups are very active these days) or analogue networks, but here we decided to review only the major active platforms among those we tried so far.
Couchsurfing (CS) – This is by far the biggest community, boasting over 12M accounts. Facilitating the lodging is still the core business, but in time it started to provide more and more services to strengthen the network, such as groups, hangouts, and events. This is the platform we use the most. We have already 143 references, so it's easier for people to trust us and open their doors (and it also means we use CS a lot! ). As said, the community is huge, so you can find hosts literally everywhere in the world - there are very few places, usually super-touristic or middle of nowhere, where we didn't manage to get a spot. However, big numbers means also that not all the users are aligned with the founding values of altruism and cultural exchange, so you may also meet freeloaders, spammers and hookup-hunters. With time we got quite cunning in reading profile and references so to target likeminded users, people we feel more inclined to meet and expect to get more along with. Normally we do not look for party animals or absent/busy hosts. Yet, sometimes we choose different profiles for the sake of experiencing what's out there and not nesting ourselves in our social bubble.
Recently, there was a lot of buzz around the platform: during the Covid crisis, couchsurfing suddenly introduced a subscription fee. The cost depends on the country, as our account is Polish we pay 8 euro per year. A lot of people got pissed, mainly because of the method used and considering it an outrage to the original values, so some decided to not pay and slam the door behind them. As for us, we actually don't mind paying a reasonable amount, as we understand there are people behind the scene which should get paid for their work, although we also didn't like the way CS introduced the change – from one day to another they blocked all accounts, not giving time to people to backup their information and contacts: you pay or you lose everything. We are afraid with such a change it will be more difficult in the future to find hosts – so far so good, at least in Italy.
BeWelcome (BW) – Very similar to CS, it is quite an established platform, born from a splinter group of Hospitality Club in 2007, but it hasn't yet managed to reach a significant scale. The latest moves of couchsurfing executives pushed some part of the community to try out BeWelcome. We used it once meeting great people, but we wouldn't say response rate and involvement of users are particularly high. But who knows, maybe after the Covid, it may grow fast.
Trustroots (TS) – this platform is a kind of response to couchsurfing becoming more and more commercial and profit-oriented over the years. A group of people connected also to hitchwiki decided to open an alternative service to come back to the original values of sharing spaces and experiences among real travellers. It is the smaller network among those mentioned here, yet arguably the most prompt and vivid. The focus on free service as well as building a community of travellers is strong. It is also on the user experience level, the map for quickly locating possible hosts comes particularly handy to us. Yet, in some regions there is really nobody. Although we are registered there since a while, we haven't managed to arrange a stay.
Warmshowers (WS) – There are a number of projects which are meant to target a specific pool of travellers, among them we flag Warmshowers, designed specifically for bikers. It has roots in a early 90s database of members of different biking-hospitality organizations, and the passion for cycling really glues the users into a strong community. We used it once, few months ago, and it was a great experience. It's really recommended if you travel by bike – you can be sure your host will understand your needs (especially a safe harbour for your bike), your tiredness, your schedule, which may not always be the case in generalist platforms.