Whether flying solo or with the whole family, travelers are increasingly turning to housesharing sites as an affordable alternative to hotels. When Lauren Lyons Cole spent six months traveling around Colombia learning Spanish, she used Couchsurfing.org to book accommodations for part of her trip and estimates that she saved several hundred dollars. "I was getting meals [from my host family], and didn't have to share a dorm room with other people," she says, adding that the real draw was spending time with locals. "I felt safer than staying in a hotel by myself."
Couchsurfing caters to the adventurous traveler who's happy to crash on someone's couch or spare bedroom for free, but it's not the only option. Sites like HomeAway.com, FlipKey.com, and Roomarama.com offer short-term house or apartment rentals, which appeals to families or jet-setting professionals who want more space than a hotel room. Airbnb.com offers a mix of options, ranging from luxury penthouses and beach bungalows to a spot on someone's dorm room futon.
Prices vary depending on the host, amenities, and location, so it's not always cheaper than a hotel. But large families or groups and those who want to cook their own meals instead of dining out are especially likely to save money.
Considering using a housesharing site this holiday travel season or beyond? Here are some tips on finding the right place.
1. Get specific about your needs. Do you simply need a bed and a bathroom for yourself? Or are you hoping to cook meals, relax in the hot tub, or get recommendations on local hotspots from your host? Many of these sites allow you to filter very specifically by price, geography, amenities, and more.
Julia Harter, who used Airbnb to rent two different apartments in Berlin, Germany, and couchsurfed through New Zealand, says the ability to stay in her chosen neighborhood was a big part of the sites' appeal. "[The places I chose on Airbnb] were slightly more expensive than a hostel, but it was worth it to have my own space and be in an area of the city that I wanted to be in," she says. It also felt more personal than a hostel or hotel. Says Harter, "when I showed up at these places, they have a guest book so other guests can share their recommendations, and they left a bike for me to use so I biked around the city."
2. Screen your host carefully. In some cases, the host sleeps in the next room, while in others, the host could be renting out a vacation home and sleeping hundreds of miles away. Just as hosts screen their guests based how they plan to use the space and whether they seem trustworthy, you should do the same, especially if you'll be sharing space. "I sort of liken it to online dating," says Harter. "I think there's a lot of value in the profile of the host and what they're interested in, what their deal is." For instance, Harter chose a host who was plugged into the local music scene so she could get find out where to go.
On her trip to Colombia, Cole filtered her couchsurfing host search to local women in their 20s and 30s who speak English and Spanish. She wound up staying with the family of a woman her age whom she describes as "very cool and artistic and hip." Hanging out with the woman's friends and family made her feel like "an extra daughter." However, even with those filters in place, Cole says she has turned down couchsurfing options when she sensed that she and the host were on different wavelengths.
Reading reviews of the host and their space also offers valuable insight into what you can expect. On Airbnb, for instance, guests rank spaces according to accuracy, cleanliness, check in, communication, location, and value. Airbnb also chooses certain hosts as "SuperHost," meaning they're known for going above and beyond for guests. Harter says she'd only stay in a place that had reviews because unrated spaces present an unknown.
3. Consider the extra costs. Couchsurfing is free, because the focus is on cultural exchange rather than the exchange of currency, but other sites charge on a nightly or weekly basis. Depending on the site or property you choose, you could be on the hook for other fees as well.
For instance, Airbnb charges guests a 6 to 12 percent service fee on each reservation, while other sites charge the host to list their properties. On top of listing or booking fees, individual hosts can charge their own fees, such as a cleaning fee, a pet fee, or an amenity fee (for use of a golf course, tennis courts, or other amenities). Some charge a security deposit as well, which is refunded after your stay if the property is left in good condition. These extra costs should be mentioned on the listing, so make sure to factor them into your budget.
4. Plan ahead. You may score a last-minute deal, but the popular, well-reviewed hosts often book up quickly. That's why Harter booked her Berlin stay (with a SuperHost) a few months in advance. She traveled in May and estimates that she booked in February or March. It can take time for hosts to respond and since they have the power to accept or deny reservations, you're not guaranteed to get your first-choice property even if it's available.
That hasn't stopped Cole and Harter from reaping the benefits of housesharing sites. According to Harter, "in my experience with couchsurfing, I have a network of friends all over the world now. When people come to New York, they always stay with me. When I was in Scandinavia, I stayed with friends of friends." She adds, "it's not necessarily a connection you'll make staying in a hostel or hotel, because you're immersed in their lives."