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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. Network size goes from a few thousands to a hundred thousands, and most networks are growing steadily.
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. There is currently one network with a membership above 100,000 (the Hospitality Club) and three networks with a membership between 10,000 and 100,000 (CouchSurfing, GlobalFreeLoader, and Servas). The real number of active members within the different networks is unknown.
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.
Although a slightly different concept, home exchange is closely related to hospitality exchange, and there are a number of other agencies specifically for those who are interested in swapping homes.
The CouchSurfing Project (http://www.couchsurfing.com) is a newer, USA-based non-profit hospitality exchange organization, founded in January 2004. As of December 2005, there are approx. 40,000 members all over the world. Membership is free. It is optional to become "verified member" (US$25 one-time fee) to increase security and keep the project running. Extended Profiles are given and extended search is possible. After using the service, you can comment ("leave a reference") about your host or guest. People with extremely bad references (like sexual harassment) are deleted from the site. It is possible to see if people are travelling themselves, and the percentage of messages responded to.
GlobalFreeloaders.com (http://www.globalfreeloaders.com) is an online hospitality network. As of December 2005, it has over 30,000 members. Australia is especially well represented.
Hospex (http://www.hospex.org/) is the first Internet based hospitality network. Started back in 1992, after several years it converted to Hospitality Club:
The Hospitality Club (http://www.hospitalityclub.org/) is the largest hospitality exchange organization, founded in July 2000. As of January 2006 there are approximately 100,000 members in 201 countries. (http://countries.hospitalityclub.org) Membership is free. After using the service, you can comment about your host or guest, even though accounts with bad comments are not systematically terminated. There are also Wiki-like Travel Guide sections, though they are hardly maintained. 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 (http://www.tejo.org/ps/) ("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 (http://www.servas.org) 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.
Stay4free (http://www.stay4free.com/) claims to be the first free accommodation network, but its webpage doesn't offer lots of information about the network and its goals. There is also no terms of services. It seems that the network allows members to publish their name, address, email address, and basic information about their interests, and to browse other members' profile geographically. The website seems to be ran by a Dutch Web hosting company, and may have been founded in 1998 or earlier. The amount of members is undisclosed.
TravelHoo (http://www.travelhoo.com/) is the one of the oldest web-based hospitality exchange organizations, operating since 1997. As of December 2005, there are about 6,000 members in 114 countries, Eastern Europe and Asia being well represented. Membership is free, as the network is run by a team of volunteers.