Hospitality Exchange Websites

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"I have met and stayed with some incredible people through[1] These are warm, friendly local people who a regular tourist would never meet, and their travel experience would be far richer if they had. Besides the obvious benefit of not having to pay for accommodation, CouchSurfing allows travellers to experience a country and its culture from within, instead of just as an observer. Inevitably, a CouchSurfing host will introduce you to his or her friends, and take you to the places that they enjoy. Basically, you can become part of their life for the time you're visiting. I promise your life will be richer through your membership to CouchSurfing."
Traveller from Australia

"Hospitality Exchange is the best peace-keeping mission ever!"
Traveller from Germany


What are hospitality exchange programs or websites?

Hospitality exchange networks, programs or websites are increasingly popular internet services that connect people around the world, and provide them with an interface to host travellers in their homes, stay for free in other users’ or peoples spare bedrooms, couches, etc., or both!


Even before the first hospitality service was started Islamic hospitality was legendary. Social functions recommended people eat together, "Gather together at your meals and you will be blessed therein" (26:14). Pushtuns, Muslims who live primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan, take loyalty in hospitality so seriously that they include it in their code of honor, Pushtunwali. The Bible expresses similar sentiments. In Hinduism, the guest is percieved as a form of God and treated as such.

  • In 1949, Bob Luitweiler founded the first hospitality service called Servas Open Doors as a cross national, non-profit, volunteer run organization advocating interracial and international peace.
  • In 1965, John Wilcock set up the Traveler's Directory, originally as a listing of his mutual friends willing to host each other when traveling.
  • The Traveler's Directory later became the Hospitality Exchange in 1988 when Joy Lily rescued the organization from imminent demise.
  • Hospitality Club is the direct successor of Hospex, the first Internet-based service, operating out of Germany since 2000.
  • CouchSurfing is a newer hospitality exchange organization founded in 2004 by Casey Fenton.

Why do people join social travel networks?

The basic motivating factors for membership - and they very much influence the quality of later social exchange - include:

  • to meet locals and to gain an insider view of a place
  • to meet interesting people
  • to save money through the offer of free accommodation
  • to get contacts, pursue effective networking
  • the wish for flexibility and freedom of choice when travelling
  • to improve language skills

What are the Opportunities, risks and limitations?

The Opportunities

  • To discover culture and traditions through the eyes of a local
  • Promoting peace
  • An understanding of cultures which can remove stereotypes and misunderstandings
  • Broadening of education
  • Make people care about situations and conflicts in other cultures
  • Make them realize differences and help overcome them

The Risks

  • Incomprehension, misunderstanding and stereotype thinking based on individual experiences with members
  • Generalization of culture according to experience
  • Failure to cope with confrontation of different habits and customs
  • ‘Black sheep’ abusing the network (burglary, spam or dating)

The Limitations

  • These networks mainly address open-minded and curious people
  • A high level of tolerance is needed
  • Members are not representative for entire culture
  • Access may be excluded to some part of the community due to lack of technical equipment, older people, financial resources, social prejudices, untech savvy people.

Benefits of using a hospitality exchange network

  • Monetary Savings

Staying in peoples private homes saves money which for a longer trip cuts travel budgets in half. These savings can then be used generously towards patronizing local establishments and buying local handicrafts or simply travelling for a longer period of time.

  • Local Economic Sustainability-

As most tourist vacations today are sold as packages, the money for which lands in the hands of mostly large multinational corporations, accommodation sharing breaks up the pattern and redirects tourist money to local economy.

Very often hotels in rural areas are built in extremely picturesque though fragile environments. Staying with a local person reduces the demand for such hotels.

  • Local Contact

Usually, one of the primary reasons we travel is to experience what life is like for people living in other countries. During hospitality exchanges, hosts want to show off their local knowledge and exciting “off the map” venues. Not only may travelers get a distinctly different experience, but they will also get a feel for the everyday lives of local residents.

  • Reciprocity

Implicit in the agreement to host travelers is the ability to ask to be hosted by them in the future.

  • Authenticity and Adventure

As tourism has been thoroughly commodified by everyone who wanted to make a buck in the process, accommodation sharing offers a way out of this bind.

Drawbacks of using a hospitality exchange network

  • Lack of Guarantee

For those who feel insecure unless their travel arrangements are written in stone before departure, this system will not be comforting. Since, there is no contractual agreement between users in these systems, reservations when broken cannot be compensated. These are trust based websites. They work on referral systems and ratings of users.

  • Potential Interpersonal Conflict or Awkwardness

There is a chance that guest and host will not get along. Therefore, your living conditions, length of stay, and overall experience will be circumscribed by the living conditions you enter into.

  • Digital Divide and Demographic Segregation

The average user on these networks is a young white person who speaks English and lives in a developed nation. While there are ofcourse exceptions, most people living in the developing world will most likely not have easy access to computers and the Internet. Therefore, the sample population found in searches of these databases are really much less diverse than a geographical representation of worldwide users might suggest.

  • Security

There is a distinct possibility that someone will abuse the system and that innocent users (especially women) will get hurt.

Most popular Hospitality Websites

General Networks

  • CouchSurfing [2]
  • Hospitality Club [3]
  • Global Freeloaders [4]
  • Place2stay [5]
  • Servas International [6] -- human rights and global peace oriented since 1949

Specialized Networks

  • Lesbian and Gay Hospitality Exchange International[7]
  • Warm Showers [8] -- world-wide, internet based organisation for travelling pedal cyclists. Free registration.
  • Pasporta Servo [9] -- for Esperanto speakers
  • WWOOF [10] -- "Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms", help on the property is exchanged for food, accommodation, education and cultural interaction. Hear an interview with some WWOOFers
  • Homeshare International [11] -- charity organisation providing exchange of housing for help in the home
  • Digsville [12] Allows users to trade apartments or homes for an agreed-on amount of time.

How do these sites work?

Today, the process of establishing a close emotional relationship with another human being is experiencing a modern crisis. As societies modernize, the family diminishes in importance and is replaced by more impersonal kinds of social ties. The hollowness of impersonal social ties has led the individual to search for more substantial relationships. And since the bond of family has become weak, broken, or never fully established, individuals search other spaces and places that will provide them with the experience of closeness. Here is where the emotional tourism comes in. The boundaries that were earlier created between the "us" and the "tourists" is changing to a more sensory experience beyond material values.

Rejecting the classical version of tourism that was about going to one area and seeing things, hospitality exchange provides direct encounters with the locals and an insight into their private sphere.

The most common process followed on these websites is -

  • Join the club and write about yourself

Members and their profiles are what these sites are about. All of them function on the premise of reciprocity, where users gain access to other users’ information only by posting their own. Of course, more information included tends to improve the chances that someone will find them trustworthy enough to host or stay with while traveling.

  • Communicate and Meet people

Post to Groups, chat and message so you get to know more people. Most groups are interest based or location based. Either find people in your own area or the place you might want to travel to.

  • Participate or Volunteer

This can be done by either hosting or "surfing someone elses couch", hold a gathering to strenghten the local community, or volunteer your skills or whatever passions you feel might be useful to the site.

  • Refer and make friends

The safety and security of the virtual network depends on referrals and friendships, accessibility and trust.


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