Is your couch really very different from a Parisian divan? Does snoring soundly on a Japanese tatami mat mean sleeping better than in a hammock strung up in a Jamaican backyard? The great equalizer is that they’re all comfortable when you’re sleeping for free, dreaming the dreams of the budget traveler.
Thanks to the Internet, global nomads are exchanging couches, futons, and, in some cases, floor space for a free night’s sleep. By signing up on website communities, you offer to host itinerant travelers-and get reciprocal access to thousands of crash pads around the world. Consider it a karmic piggy bank for backpackers.
Founded by American traveler Casey Fenton, who was inspired by some Icelandic students who hosted him one weekend in Reykjavik, CouchSurfing.com is one of the fastest-growing communities spreading the gospel of free accommodations. With more than 5,000 members who vouch for each other, e.g., Aurora says of Adrienne, "I can verify that she’s not a psycho couch surfer killer! She cooks and roams around and leads an action-packed life of fun like nobody’s business" the site is much more than a clearinghouse of nice sofa photos. It’s about cultural exchange, local guides, and strangers becoming friends (much like what happens normally during travel), but free, unless you want to drop some change behind the cushions.
With a heavy Aussie membership, as well as sizable Canadian and UK contingents, GlobalFreeloaders.com might be the perfect Commonwealth connection for American students looking to save a few bucks by skipping hostels on their next trip. This is a grassroots site and a little rough around the edges, but with a very indie traveler ethic.
The name’s not the coolest, but The Hospitality Club has every other site beat on sheer numbers: nearly 30,000 members, pretty heavily European (especially Germans, which makes sense since it was started by a German college student in 2000). Aurelie Nollet, a 23-year-old Belgian girl living in the Netherlands, is a typical member. She’s stayed free in England, Bulgaria, and Turkey, and has hosted six other travelers at her pad. "You have every kind of person," she says. "Some bring a gift from their country, some pay for the food, including my food, some don’t pay anything. But that’s okay because it’s about helping each other out."
Though it’s smaller than other sites, CasaSwap.com thinks big – literally. Not only do students swap spring-break flats on this Danish-run community, but many are looking to trade houses for an entire academic session. If you’re off to study in Spain for a semester, there might be a Barcelonan looking for an apartment like yours near your campus – so why not help each other out? CasaSwap.com has support from some of the biggest study-abroad organizations, like the Erasmus Student Network and ESIB, which represents more than 10 million students in Europe.