It was in a flight from Delhi to Chandigarh when I first came across the term hospitality exchange. There was a young British girl sitting next to me reading up about the city.
“Is this your first visit?’ I asked her.
“Yes, it is!” she smiled. “I’m following the Le Corbusier trail actually. I’ve been to France, Switzerland and the USA and am excited about finally visiting the city he designed.”
“Ah! That’s nice. Are you staying with friends then?”
She laughed “You could say that! I’m couchsurfing actually, with a host in Chandigarh.”
Couchsurfing? What is that?
And that’s when I was first introduced to the idea of hospitality exchange and discovered that are many sites such as the Couchsurfers. Bewelcome, AirBnB, Servas, Global Freeloaders, Hospitality Club, Warmshowers (specifically for cyclists), and so on. The concept is not a new one. For example, Servas has been around for as long as 1949 but with the globetrotting community becoming larger and the world becoming smaller, the hosex (hospitality exchange) communities are gaining more and more members. The Couchsurfers site announces that every year the Couchsurfing community internationally supports 4,00,000 hosts, four million surfers and 1,00,000 events!
Is it relevant to India? “Yes, it certainly is!” says Amit Jotwani, who has been using the services of the Couchsurfing Hosex, regularly. “In Delhi and Mumbai, there are 20,000 to 30,000 users.” Sites like Bewelcome have members in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Varanasi.
“I like to describe it as Facebook for travellers,” says Amit. “I first started using the service in 2012 when I was doing my MBA. The first time I used it was when I was travelling to France on a shoestring budget. Over the years, I’ve made so many friends from so many countries in many different places. It’s a community of travellers.”
“Look, it really doesn’t cost anything to offer a couch in your place. It is completely up to you if you also want to offer your time or a meal. In exchange, you get to hear so many stories and when you visit, it’s not as a tourist but almost as a local. The whole experience is so inclusive,” he adds.
Simply stated, the concept of hospitality exchange involves people opening up their homes to travellers. They facilitate travellers who are looking for fellow-travellers who are able to host each other. The idea is for these travellers to meet local people, enjoy the local activities and cuisine and get to know what’s going on in the city and its favourite hangouts to soak in the local flavours. These are places that the locals know well but the usual travel websites may not mention at all. While in Mumbai, for example, the locals may take you to see Dharavi slums or the dhobi ghats or the Vipassana Pagoda, in addition to the usual ‘must see’ places. The travellers thus enjoy the comfort of a home, usually for free and meet people outside their normal social network or activities. However, all hospitality networks are not free.
Sounds too good to be true? It’s not! There are several hospitality exchange sites that serve as a platform to connect the travellers and the host. So you could choose any destination in the world, check on these sites to see if there are suitable hosts in that city, see if what they have to offer suit your requirements and send them a request to be a guest.
Of course, you have to log in first with your credentials that will be checked — whether you want to be a guest or a host or both. Typically, they include your phone number, government identification and address and a verified payment method. Reviews by other guests play a big role in the verification process and the visitors and hosts are encouraged to share their experiences of the people they host or are guests of. Apart from that, you are required to list your interest, location and how much you are willing to offer in terms of hospitality. Is it a room, a couch, is food and a substantiated payment method included, etc.
While the comforts and freedoms may not be similar to those offered by hotels but travellers have the opportunity to stay in unique homes such as igloos, cabins, huts and even castles. So you can tie up with the locals of Kashmir to sleep in a houseboat on the Dal Lake or catch a game of cricket and a few beers in Sydney or go out for the best local pizza in Milan or go deep sea diving in Sri Lanka — to places loved by locals you may not have otherwise discovered. Global communities get formed and new cultures are explored. An unwritten expectation with hosex is that if you are unable to host people at present, you will, at some point when able, offer your home to travellers in exchange.
Safety, of course, is a big concern. Most of the established networks have their systems of safety and security checks and teams in place.
“Typically, a negative review would report the reneging from the promised space by the host or if the place offered did not turn out to be as promised or even some instances of misbehaviour,” says Amit.
Members are encouraged to check the profiles of prospective hosts (and guests) carefully, interact with them, set boundaries and follow up on references before teaming up. They are also encouraged to have an exit option and a backup plan in case there has been any misrepresentation and to report negative experiences to the hosex sites.
A few websites that can come in handy
- Bewelcome http://www.bewelcome.org/places/India/IN/page/2
- Couchsurfing https://www.couchsurfing.com/
- STAYDU (with the options of stay and help, stay and pay and stay for free) http://www.staydu.com/
- Hospitality Club http://www.hospitalityclub.org/
- Global Freeloaders http://globalfreeloaders.com/