Alright, hands up – who’s already thinking about their summer holidays? Me too. Everything’s back to normal now, after all, and we need to aspire beyond our punishing routines.
But to go, or not to go, all inclusive? To venture abroad, or settle for – dare I say it – a ‘staycation’? And just to confuse matters more, here’s another alternative to consider.
Enough of the questions, though. I’ll begin with an image of myself in a busy Brooklyn diner, the smell of fresh coffee and that feeling of nostalgia you get at the end of a trip. With my homeward flight still a few hours away, I’m reflecting back on an incredible adventure around North America.
Since it began three months ago, I’ve clocked up 12,000 miles and made some lasting memories. Yet here’s the thing – I’ve only spent £1,500. And that’s including all my travel, food and accommodation costs. I’d probably pay more than that just making ends meet back in the UK.
This modest expenditure has been achieved by my chosen method of getting around. Through online travel networks, I’ve found places to stay all over the US and Canada. People have offered me their sofas, spare beds and sleeping bags, and not once has any money changed hands.
It’s not like it was very complicated, either. See, by signing up to Couchsurfing.org, you’re able to view the personal profiles of its millions of registered users worldwide. The ones who’ve agreed to provide temporary lodgings for others are filtered by location, age and gender on the website’s search pages.
Between sending your first ‘couchsurfing request’ to waving goodbye to your ‘host’ after a stay, there are no nasty catches.
The Help Exchange (HelpX.net) is a similarly structured service, but geared towards volunteering. For a small fee, you join as a ‘helper’, decide where you’d like to go or what type of work you want to do, and arrange a stay someone from the given listings. Then, you just find your own way there.
For an average of four hours per day, you’re paid in food, accommodation, and the pleasure of living like a local for next to nothing. And as with Couchsurfing, you set your own boundaries.
But away from the clear financial savings on offer here are far richer rewards. From swilling cocktails in Florida to hiking in the Canadian Rockies, going on shooting trips in Colorado to watching street slam poetry in San Francisco, repairing fences on farms in Tennessee to fine dining in Manhattan, I’ve traded the familiarity of trying to seeing the world through tourist maps for the fulfilment of understanding it through the lives of its people.
Of course there’s a leap of faith involved. Essentially, you’re relying on the good nature of strangers to make your trip a pleasant one, but both of these websites provide some reassuring safeguards.
On the Help Exchange, for example, you are able to see reviews of members that have been left by other helpers and hosts. You can also note the precise location of each project before committing to it.
Furthermore, the extent to which users fill out personal information on their Couchsurfing profiles gives you a good idea of who you’re dealing with. If that’s not enough, members give one another references – a staggering 99.8% of which are classified as ‘positive’.
And it’s not just free-spirited youths who have confidence in online travel networks. On a goat farm in the south, I worked with Jim, a 67-year-old American who’d spent a surprising chunk of his retirement travelling in such a manner.
I can also speak of the insightful experiences had with the Amish, city bankers, artists, composers, scientists, ranchers and college sports stars on some of my Couchsurfing and Help Exchange stays around the continent.
Yet I regularly encountered individuals willing to go that extra mile. Earlier this month, American artist Josh Hailey set off on a mission to ‘couchsurf’ across each of the 50 US states. It will take him as many weeks to complete it.
You see, however crazy this idea seems, you can be sure that there’s someone else doing something far crazier. Yes, these web-connected communities operate on hospitality and trust, but think of it like this – if they weren’t safe, they wouldn’t be so popular.
So how will I be planning my summer holidays? Well, a year since I left that busy Brooklyn diner, and North America, I think I’ll log on and ponder my options once again. And if you were interested enough to read this far, I reckon you’ll probably check it out for yourself.
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