Imagine arriving in a city like Paris or Delhi and, instead of checking into a hotel, heading to the home of a stranger with whom you’ve only exchanged emails. Most might balk at the idea but for many this has become a great way to get to know a culture and enjoy free hospitality too. No wonder then that online platforms like Couch Surfing, Hospitality Club, Tripping, Bewelcome and Global Freeloaders, have become popular with travelers.
The success of the idea owes much to the fact that these online hospitality exchange networks allow members to find like-minded hosts in different countries and in some cases, in remote areas. It’s a great way for travelers to save money as hosts provide free food and shelter.
Indians may have taken their time to warm up to the concept but a growing number are making up for lost time. Hospitality Club now has 11,000 Indians members, Global Freeloaders has 2800, Tripping has 800, Bewelcome has 400 and Couch Surfing, which tops the list, has 73,458 members. “India has welcomed hospitality exchange with open arms,” says Heather O’ Brien, a project manager with the Couch Surfing network. “The exchange that happens through our network isn’t just about finding a place to crash; it’s about having inspiring intercultural experiences.”
"Apart from the growing cultural amalgamation and a world that’s getting smaller, couchsurfing relies on trust. Despite the fragility of this trait in the modern world, couchsurfing seems to work well. Couchsurfing gave me an opportunity to see places from the inside,” says Vatsal Kant.
“After returning, I’ve hosted travelers too,” he says. Women, who are undoubtedly more vulnerable, are also taking to couchsurfing. A plus is that networks have made it easy to choose suitable travel companions. Staying with strangers after a couple of online exchanges might seem dodgy to some but people usually take the requisite leap of faith after they become part of the community. “This entire travel logic works on the theory of reciprocity. It’s an evolved social arrangement with a human face avoiding anonymity.
Advancement is evident with women also joining couchsurfing communities,” says sociologist Sreedeep Bhattacharya. Apart from the joys of making friends in exotic places, couchsurfing makes economic sense. Paying for accommodation cuts into travel budgets. “Standard accommodation in a small hotel will set one back by roughly £80-100 (upto R8,500) a day abroad. Even in India, a good hotel will be expensive,” says Vimla Dorairaju, head of Mahindra Homestays. “Couchsurfing is an alternative. Free accommodation will save up to 50% of your total travel costs.”
Of course, the quality of your accommodation is not guaranteed and if you are a finicky traveler, this is probably not the best option for you. “Things will be dependent upon the guest’s point of view and the host’s point of view,” says Dorairaju. Of course, every good idea has its champions and detractors.
"Exchange networks sometimes end up being used as a freeloader’s collective, as a source of more cosmopolitan crowds at house parties, and in some cases as an alternative dating website," adds Kant. “India is evolving into a more globally aware nation very interested in travelling,” says travel writer Rishad Saam Mehta who believes that as more Indians travel they are discovering the safety net of local help that hospitality clubs provide. That’s a big shift from package tours where all the Indians stuck together, ate only familiar foods, and gaped at foreign sights in the safe company of their own countrymen.
Shailaja Shah, 37, social entrepreneur, Pune
“I discovered couchsurfing by accident. I had emailed Casey Fenton, the founder of Couchsurfing.com in 2005 when I was in NYC and was planning a trip to Alaska. I felt couch surfing presented a unique community one based on trust and adventure and the curiousity to go beyond the guide book. Fenton invited me to join his site and I was hooked. I hosted travellers and surfed while travelling. I feel lucky to have met incredible people. My husband and I moved back to India in 2007 after living in different parts of the world. My husband took time to warm up to the concept of having strangers staying at home, but today he is happy to host guests.”
Ronita Das, 33, Tour Manager, Delhi
"Since 2006, apart from being a surfer myself, I have hosted people from about 84 countries. I do not host close minded people. Surfers have to be interactive. I expect guests to make something special from their cuisine. So far, I have tried Korean, Belgian, Italian, Greek and Argentinean dishes. My guests have taught me a lot that I wouldn’t have learnt if I had stuck to routine travelling. It’s not uncommon for couchsurfers to discover, after they’ve met, that they have a lot in common. I know a few couples who first met through CouchSurfing.com. CS does not allow people to abuse the system but whatever happens between consenting adults is entirely up to them. After hosting about 500 people, couchsurfing doesn’t seem like a foreign trend to me. We Indians have always had homes full of guests so it’s not new. I have made great friends.”
Debasis Sil, 34, Investment Consultant, Kolkata
“I always dreamt of travelling the world. Couch surfing has helped me live my dream. My first experience of hosting a couchsurfer came six years ago. At 12.30am on a winter night, an Australian couch surfer stranded at the airport called asking for help. I picked her up and she stayed at my place for a couple of days. Since then, I’ve hosted a lot of people from different countries and been hosted in many countries including Singapore, Thailand and the US. Sometimes, I stayed at huge mansions with swimming pools, sometime in modest apartments, once in a trailer. I now have friends of 20 different nationalities as a result of couch surfing.”