A hospitality exchange or home stay network is an organization that connects travelers with local residents in the cities they're visiting. If travelers can connect with the right people at the right time, they can get room and sometimes board in the place they're visiting for free or at a deep discount.
Home stays have advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious advantage is that accommodation costs are much lower (at most networks for free) than at hotels or even youth hostels. More important, though, is the opportunity to make a personal connection with someone from a different culture and social classes, you see the destination you're visiting from a local perspective. You have your own adventure and as a side effect, the goal from some networks, this can build and strengthen intercultural understanding and reduce prejudices and intolerance.
There are disadvantages, though. Home stays require some additional planning before travel, and courtesy requires sticking at least reasonably close to your schedule. There are usually strict limits on the length of stay and what you can do in the home. And the opportunity to make a personal connection has its flipside: awkwardness between host and guest can make a visit to an otherwise pleasant city unbearable.
There are a number of different networks that connect hosts and guests, with different requirements for participation, restrictions for guests and member number and geographical spreading. For many, joining just requires filling out a Web form; some offer and others require further verification. Usually a Web listing or printed book of available hosts is provided, sometimes with eBay like reviews by travellers (or vice versa). All listed networks operate worldwide.
Bootsnall.com is a travel guide and news Web site with information for travellers about different destinations and travel issues. In addition, Bootsnall members may invite other members for a homestay.
Bootsnall members are self-identified as longhairs (often offer homestay), short back and sides (occasionally offer homestay), and romper stompers (never offer homestay). Site members can contact others to find out about accommodations for particular destinations and times.
The CouchSurfing Project is a newer, USA-based non-profit hospitality exchange organization, founded in January 2004. As of December 2004, there are 3500 members in North America, and 2500 members in 108 other countries. Membership is free. It is possible to become "verified member" (US$25) to increase security and keep the project running. Extended Profiles are given and extended search is possible. After using the service, you can comment about your host or guest.
GlobalFreeloaders.com is an online hospitality network. As of September 2004, it has over 19,500 members. Australia is especially well represented.
Hospex is the first Internet based hospitality network. Started back in 1992, after several years it converted to Hospitality Club:
The Hospitality Club is the largest hospitality exchange organization, founded in July 2000. As of January 2005 there are over 37,000 members in 171 countries. Membership is free. After using the service, you can comment about your host or guest. There are also Wiki-like Travel Guide sections. The club is based on the work of hundreds of volunteers around the world who believe that by bringing people together they can increase intercultural understanding and peace.
The sole condition to become a member is to provide the administrators with one's real name and address, so as to prove that one is a real individual. Potential guests can either navigate the database of hosts geographically or use the advanced search feature. An internal message-sending mechanism is then used, allowing to keep email addresses confidential and to block spam thanks to checking by volunteers. The duration of the stay, whether food is provided for free, for a fee or not at all, and all other conditions are agreed on beforehand to the convenience of both parties.
The Pasporta Servo ("passport service") is a home stay network for speakers of Esperanto, an international auxiliary language. It's sponsored by TEJO, the World Organization of Young Esperantists, who publish a book each year listing thousands of hosts in 80 countries.
Travelers pay a fee for the yearly host list. Hosts ask no fee for rooms, but each sets their own requirements for duration, number of visitors, contact ahead of time, and whether or not food is offered. Some hosts ask for compensation for food. Hosts receive the host list for free.
All travelers are expected to communicate with their hosts in Esperanto. Coordination with the service is in Esperanto, and the host list is in Esperanto. If you don't speak Esperanto, aren't really interested, and can't see learning a new language just to get into a home stay network, Pasporta Servo is not for you.
Servas was created in 1949 by Bob Luitweiler, an American who lived in Denmark. The organization spread rapidly all over the world and has thousands of hosts and travellers in more than 120 countries. Servas is also recognized by the United Nations.
Servas recommends applying for the program at least 4 weeks in advance of travel. Participation in Servas requires paying a membership fee, which varies by country, and an interview with a local Servas coordinator. After the interview, the traveler gets a "letter of introduction" that's good for one year of travel, and a list of hosts in the countries they're visiting.
Travellers have to write letters to prospective hosts weeks in advance, giving estimated dates of travel, and they have to telephone one or two days in advance to confirm. They can stay with hosts for up to 3 days and 2 nights, and are encouraged to stay the full time to develop a deeper relationship with the host.
Hosts provide room and food and give advice for visiting the city or area.
At the end of their trip, the Servas traveller is expected to provide a report to the local coordinator with updates to host lists (change of address and phone number, for example) and any other information that may be useful.
TravelHoo is the one of the oldest web-based hospitality exchange organizations, operating since 1997. As of December 2004, there are over 5000 members in 114 countries, Eastern Europe and Asia being well represented. Membership is free, as the network in ran by a team of volunteers.