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Posted by on Dec 2, 2012 in Culture, Most Popular, Road Trip USA, Travel, Travel Planning |

Staying with Strangers: Hostels, CouchSurfing, AirBnB, StartUpStay, and More

Dinner Table and Hostess in Salzburg, Austria

Staying with Sophie in Salzburg, Austria

Would you stay with a stranger instead of at a hotel? Would you host a stranger from another part of the country or world? I have many times with varying results. I’ve hosted German au pairs in Northern Ireland and camped out in Venice, Italy with two travelers from California. A friend and I stayed with an Austrian woman and shared stories about life while passing around a ram’s horn filled with Drachenblut (a specialty wine called Dragon’s Blood…and yes, there is more to that story). By coincidence, I recently stayed with ordained ministers in Pennsylvania and Nebraska discussing politics, religion, education, human rights, and volunteer work.

Comfort vs. Connection

I stay with strangers because sometimes I need a place to stay. I also enjoy interesting encounters and am open to nontraditional housing as a part of my travel experience. Here are just three examples of what I would have missed if I stayed in a hotel: dancing a tango in the gardens of the Art Institute of Chicago, singing with a Threshold Choir in a hospital in Pittsburgh, and learning that a ‘dooner’ is a comforter in Australia. For my numbers people, nontraditional housing (and staying with friends and family) allowed me to spend less than $2,300 on a 41 day cross-country roadtrip.

Group of Friends in Tel Aviv

Sharing space with people isn’t always convenient, but there are more opportunities to engage in a meaningful interaction.

This aside, every experience of staying with strangers is not interesting or fabulous. In fact, it can be quite the opposite. Staying with strangers means seeing someone else’s toothpaste splatters in the bathroom sink, getting up early or staying up late to work around your host’s schedule, or putting up with light and noise while trying to sleep. However, it is to say that engagement is sometimes more valuable to me than comfort and convenience. I fully expect that staying in a hostel, CouchSurfing, or accepting an invitation into someone’s home will likely entail excitement, boredom, laughter, discomfort, and awkwardness. It may also include moments of shared understanding and deep connection. Is this not consistent with the fabric of normal life? Why should my travel experience be so comfortable, sterile, and perfect? Why shouldn’t it be a bit unpredictable, adventuresome, and delightfully unexpected?

What about the weirdos?!?!

People sometimes say to me, “You are lucky you haven’t gotten robbed or worse!” My decision to stay with strangers is anything but careless. It is possible that someone could take advantage of me, but crime is not inevitable or even more likely! An article that appeared on Freakonomics called The Cost of Fearing Strangers points to the fact that statistically, we are more likely to be victims of crime from people we know than from strangers. I certainly know people with horror stories about staying with or hosting strangers, but in probably more than 100 experiences I have never been treated poorly by a host or guest. How does one assess what is safe or unsafe when it comes to nontraditional housing options? There are no 100% guarantees, but if you do the following you will be a savvy traveler.

  1. Trust your instincts. Am I uneasy or comfortable around this person or these people? Always listen to this instinct even if you cannot point to why you feel uneasy. Frequent travelers hone this skill and develop what I call ‘traveler’s instincts’ over time by having interactions with people in multiple settings across different languages and cultures. For this reason, less experienced travelers might consider staying with strangers only with company or more experienced travelers until they feel confident in their judgement.
  2. Do your homework. If you plan to stay at a hostel or use a website that facilitates connections between travelers, like CouchSurfing or AirBnB, read about safety on their website. Check out the profiles and check the Facebook pages of people you will potentially be staying with. Have people made comments recently? Are there photos that show that person interacting with a partner or being active in positive ways in their community? In theory, it is true that someone could fabricate friends and photos, but it would certainly take an enormous amount of energy and effort to fabricate the ‘appearance’ of a normal life over a period of months or years.
  3. Take precautions and use common sense. Tell someone you trust exactly where you will be and for how long. Make sure you have cellphone coverage in the areas you will be traveling. Have the number of a trusted taxi company and the ‘911’ equivalent on hand. Do not walk or take certain forms of public transportation late at night if you are unfamiliar with the area or specific route.
  4. Be sharp! Do not drink so much or take substances that blur your ability to think clearly or make a quick decision.
  5. Say “No” and be ‘mean’ when you need to be. It is better to potentially offend someone than to compromise your health or safety. There is no need to personally insult someone, but it is important to be able to clearly say “No”, or “I am leaving”, or “You are making me uncomfortable. Stop what you are doing” and back that up with your tone, body language, and actions. I have found young women particularly struggle with this idea, but it is super important to develop the skill to be aggressively clear while traveling. Ditch subtlety! Speak up.
  6. Have a Plan B. Did you commit to CouchSurf at someone’s house, show up and feel in your gut that something is wrong? Thank the person for their offer, apologize for any inconvenience you caused, and politely tell them that last minute you changed your plans and will be moving on. If they protest, it is further evidence that your instinct was correct and utilize step five above if need be. Have the number of some nearby hostels or hotels ready and spend the extra money without guilt! You made a good decision. Read a first-person account of this example.
Ven Diagram for Hostels, CouchSurfing, AirBnB

Nontraditional Housing for Travelers Ven Diagram

Hostels, CouchSurfing, AirBnb, StartUpStay, and More

People have hosted foreign travelers for thousands of years but the internet has opened up new possibilities in the exchange of hospitality, language and culture. I have chosen to highlight four well-known non-traditional housing options for travelers. All four provide a unique and less-costly alternative to traditional hotels.


Breakfast on a rooftop hostel in Istanbul, Turkey

Breakfast on the rooftop of a hostel in Istanbul, Turkey

It is no secret that hostels are a haven for backpackers and budget travelers in their twenties and thirties who don’t mind sharing room and bathroom space as long as the price is right (and it usually is at $15 – $50 per night). For me, hostels offer a great solution when I need an affordable option in a centrally-located part of the city. I can come and go when I want without having to work around someone else’s schedule. I sometimes choose a hostel over CouchSurfing or staying in someone’s home when I need a more predictable few nights. Sure, I may have to contend with noise or light at night, but I know what the challenges will potentially be and what they will not be. Hostels are also great for solo travelers wanting to find travel buddies from all over the world. I have gone on day trips, explored museums, shared meals, and sang karaoke with people I met in hostels. I sometimes think of hostels as my Plan B, like if someone does not get back to me through CouchSurfing or AirBnB in time. Also, most hostels provide single rooms and private bathrooms for a higher, but still reasonable, price. Sometimes hostels provide an incredible value for a price you could not believe, like staying on a beach in Santorini, Greece for 6 euro a night in the off-season or enjoying a breakfast on a rooftop overlooking the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, Turkey.


CouchSurfing.comis a website that allows people to create a profile, search for other CouchSurfers by location or interest, and request to meet up or ‘surf’ their couch (i.e., stay with them). It is free to CouchSurf and this is a huge benefit. I once met a guy (the same one who I camped with in Venice, Italy) who had been CouchSurfing around the world for 9 months and had not stayed in a hotel or hostel one time. You do the math. I would not, and I repeat, I would NOT recommend CouchSurfing to anyone who is just looking for a free place to stay. Why? Because the reason people open up their home to travelers in the first place is because they feel it enriches their life in some way. The world comes to them. So if you intend to show up and disappear because you want time alone, consider a hostel or hotel. CouchSurfing is about putting yourself in the path of people you wouldn’t otherwise meet in order to share conversation or a meal, travel, and learn something new.

Pidgeons in St. Marks Square

The now-famous 9 month CouchSurfer feeding the birds in St. Mark’s Square, Venice, Italy

This is exactly what makes CouchSurfing so great but also unpredictable. Of the three options in discussion, I would say CouchSurfing has the highest ‘risk’ and highest ‘reward’ potential. Highest risk because you are committing to stay with one individual or family as opposed to a group of people in a hostel. You may have to come and go with your host(s). You enter the personal space of someone’s home. Even though hosts offering a place to stay share information about the room(s), sleeping areas, and their general expectations, you cannot really know what kind of space you will be staying in and whether or not their dog likes you. Highest reward because this person you are staying with actually lives there and therefore knows the best places to eat, shop, visit, and avoid! The type of person who is willing to host travelers is also the type of person, in my experience, who will answer your questions, make you feel at home, and in some cases go out of their way to be generous. In short, CouchSurfing is a fabulous option if you are looking for an unpredictable but rich experience. CouchSurfing is kind of like going on a blind date…boom or bust you will always have a story!


Worth a mention is what I commonly refer to as the ‘CouchSurfing for entrepreneurs’, which is StartUpStay. You need an invite from someone who is already a part of the website but the site makes it easy for entrepreneurs to network and meet for coffee or host/stay. My two experiences with StartUpStay so far yielded a friend and collaboration on mutual projects in both instances. Jonesin’ for an invite? No worries! You can request one on the homepage.


AirBnB is a website where people create a profile and connect with other travelers to host or stay as as guest. The difference is that guests pay for the space and the owner/renter of the house may or may not be there. Certainly there are people on AirBnB who are interested in exchanging conversation and culture but there are also people who view this as a chance to make a few extra bucks. This means there is a higher expectation for a certain quality and cleanliness of the space provided but a lower expectation about the level of interaction hosts and guests will have. Guests have the option of booking an entire house or apartment as opposed to just a room or space on a couch or living room floor. Options range from paying a few bucks for a futon in the living room to luxury digs in exotic places. I see AirBnB as a fabulous alternative for getting better value for your money. In other words, if you are going to pay for a hotel, why not book a sweet apartment with charm and personality in a trendy part of the city rather than pay for a predictable hotel? You get to “play local” for the week or weekend and many AirBnB hosts provide local information for the guests who stay. Additionally, if you are traveling to attend a big event and all the hotels are booked, AirBnB may save the day! Homeowners or renters, if you have an empty room or second home, AirBnB may be an excellent way for you to help pay the rent or mortgage!

Etiquette for Staying with Strangers

Be consistent and clear in your communication before you arrive or agree to host (if CouchSurfing or using AirBnB or StartUpStay). Show up and leave when you say you will or when it is convenient for the host. Guests, do not take long showers, leave a mess or make noise when others are sleeping. Respect your host’s privacy. Offer to help out with dishes or other tasks that your host is doing and accept it whether they say yes or no. Leave everything in its place and the same or better than you found it (aka, clean up after yourself!). Follow hostel protocols that will most likely be explained to you at check-in and posted throughout the hostel. Hosts, only invite someone to spend time in your home if you are truly available. There’s nothing worse than showing up and feeling like an add-on to a stressful day. The house doesn’t have to be perfect, but keep it clean! Check in with your guest and ask them questions to feel out how much energy they have to engage in conversation or if they need a bit of quiet time to recover and rest from a long journey. For guests and hosts, if you are not sure what is appropriate or not, ask!

The Final Word

Nontraditional housing options for travelers provide an excellent way to maximize the time and money spent in any given place. At minimum, nontraditional housing options like hostels, CouchSurfing, StartUpStay, and AirBnB provide interesting and often less expensive alternatives to hotels. At best, these encounters with strangers become memorable and meaningful interactions that make the traveling experience more rich. Strangers become new contacts and even friends in far away places.


Have you stayed with a stranger before? Leave a comment and tell us your story (the good, bad, ugly, and fantastic!).