Traveling via hostels or Couchsurfing?
This past week I had the pleasure of going on vacation to Michigan via Chicago to tick one more state off a bucket list my friend and I dreamed up to see all the continental United States by the time we’re 30. I’m just one year away and had 6 states to see, so I decided to visit Michigan. Since it’s way cheaper to fly to Chicago and then take the train over, and the last time I was in Chicago was only for a 3 hour visit–what I’ve done to get through as many states as I have–I decided to spend a few days there as well.
Now when I travel, I’m ABSOLUTELY about saving as much money as possible in order to cover more ground. This means buying food at the grocery store, going on foot or taking public transportation, and DEFINITLEY either couchsurfing or staying at a hostel. WAIT. I work at a hostel. Wouldn’t that be the only way to travel? Am I betraying my allegiance because every once in a while I decide to go the couchsurfing route? Not necessarily. There are pros and cons to each mode of accommodation, and the smart traveler knows when to use each to their advantage.
For those unfamiliar with Couchsurfing, it’s mission is to allow travelers “…to be like locals, stay in someone’s home and experience the world in a way money can’t buy” or for those who can’t travel to learn about the world by opening up their homes and thus creating understanding. Just like Facebook, each member has a profile with their likes and dislikes, photos, and friends. Also, both the guest and the host are encouraged to leave references for each other, so future guests/hosts can see if the profile they are looking at will jive with their personality. Once he or she has decided who they want to surf with, they can message the host with their travel plans and ask to stay. The host has the choice to accept or deny that person.
Most people are familiar with that aspect, associating couchsurfing with a free place to crash for a couple nights, but it is so much more that. Through the website a person can also get plugged into their community and participate in events. Couchsurfing is all about building community through the premise that the world gets smaller when we open our homes and our lives to each other. That’s why I love it, and chose to join it 7 years ago before I even knew what a hostel was. It allows a person to see the world in a way they might not be able to through a hotel or even a hostel. They get the insider perspective on the culture and people, where the locals hang, and the layout of a city or a town. When I travel, I want to find the insider spots. I want to go where a lot of people aren’t and find the hidden gems.
St. Joseph, Michigan was such a gem. Only people in the surrounding areas seem to be aware of its beauty. It’s a small vibrant town on the east side of Lake Michigan with only 15,000 people, but still enough going on to not make it claustrophobic. My host was so warm and gracious even in the midst of a personal crisis driving me to different places and showing me around. One day we went to the pier and sat out looking at the ocean. We became friendly with a fisherman and just shot the breeze. Both whipped out their left hands to show me where in Michigan they were from. Classic Michanders. 😉
But isn’t it unsafe to stay with someone you don’t know? Now you sound like my mother. Couchsurfing does have a bit of a trust factor built in, but this site has been around for a while and is very proactive in ensuring that its members are safe, providing tips for safe travels, like don’t stay with someone who doesn’t have their profiles fully filled out and always have a backup place to stay just in case you don’t get good vibes. But there is an inherent risk just like with anything.
On the downside, couchsurfing comes with a more restrictive sense of propriety. Some people may not want guests in their homes while they are away. You have to be a good guest and mind your manners. The beauty of a hostel is to be able to be completely anonymous if you choose to, engaging or disengaging with other guests as you will. Also, you are guaranteed staff who have some degree of knowledge of the city, and usually hostels are located at the cultural center of town, providing guests with easy access to transportation and attractions. At a couchsurfing host home, you are at the mercy of your location –unless you are already knowledgeable of a city and can get a host that is located fairly close into everything. If it wasn’t for the Hostelling International in Chicago, I would never heard of the tour of film locations in the Dark Knight or been as close to the Blues Fest downtown. I was able to cook and come and go as I pleased, whereas in Michigan I was dependent on the couchsurfing host I stayed with.
In terms of amenities, hostels tend to be more secure. You never know what you might get at a couchsurfer’s home, but at a hostel you are least guaranteed a bed and basics like breakfast and wifi or computer access
While you can be anonymous at a hostel, you also have a greater chance of making friends and lifelong ones at that. Though you may be from different parts of the world, you usually come from similar places in terms of ideas of comfort, openness, and generosity. You’re usually both new in a new city and eager to explore and learn, and if you are alone, you are more willing to do things with people you don’t know. In fact you are open, even expectant of it. You share experiences and look out for each other and in the end get the benefit of saving money and having companionship.
I’ve seen it time and again. Total strangers meeting at our dining table at this hostel, and given enough time, becoming tight friends. Sometimes groups bond and cook meals in our kitchen, sharing with the whole hostel–I’ve definitely benefited from these beautiful and generous friendships. It touches me everytime I experience it. It’s about more than just traveling, it’s a mindset that life is better shared and that can be had by putting yourself in different settings in order to be open to new people and different ideas.
Get the picture? Both can be beautiful places of community. You just get them in different venues. Neither is bad. Just different. That’s what I mean when I say a good traveler knows what they want or need and can thus make appropriate decisions. Want to be close to everything and just wander alone or with your traveling buddy? Stay at a hostel. Want to see where all the locals are and make a new friend in a new city? Couchsurfing could be a good bet. The beauty of traveling is you can have the best of both worlds and utilize each option to your advantage.