Would you welcome a traveler you’ve never met to come sleep on your couch for free? If you would, you’re not alone; CouchSurfing.com, a website devoted to connecting travelers with local hosts, has a network of some 12 million members, including Jamie Matczak.
Matczak lives with her chocolate lab in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and has been a Couchsurfing host for three years. She’s hosted guests from Hawaii, France, Denmark, Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Texas, Wisconsin and South Korea. “I look at it as a fellowship type of exchange,” says Matczak. “I am providing a room in exchange for a new friendship!”
We chatted with Matczak by email about why she’s chosen to host, whether she’s had any safety issues and how welcoming strangers into her home has changed the way she travels.
IndependentTraveler.com: What made you decide to start hosting?
Jamie Matczak: I had stayed with families on a trip to Australia and New Zealand in 2011 and was looking for a similar experience on a solo trip to Spain in 2012. I discovered the Couchsurfing site and loved the idea of offering travelers (surfers) a couch/room as they are traveling. I signed up, and even though I didn’t use it for my trip to Spain, I began to receive requests as a host. I had previously hosted women from France through a different program and enjoyed the experience.
IT.com: What are the biggest benefits of hosting?
JM: The biggest benefit is getting to know someone new, possibly someone from another country. As a traveler who has been to more than 30 countries, I enjoy hearing about life and cultures in other places. I want to have conversations and learn, and that occurs with all of my guests. I also like the opportunity to show some highlights of my city, Green Bay. Surfers arrive at my house as strangers but leave as friends.
IT.com: As a woman who lives alone, have you ever had any safety concerns about hosting strangers? How do you protect yourself?
JM: The site has verification checks, so you know if people are legit. Every profile also has a references area, so I can read what other hosts have said about a potential surfer. I typically don’t accept guests who don’t have any references, or if I feel something seems “off.” I tell friends or family when a surfer is arriving, just as a back-up. So far, I have not had any bad or unsafe experiences. I choose to believe that people on the site are using it for something positive.
IT.com: Why host people for free instead of charging a nightly fee with a service such as Airbnb?
JM: I have considered using a site such as Airbnb where a fee is charged, but I don’t think that would fit with my busier lifestyle. With Couchsurfing, I don’t feel as bad if I have to decline a request or turn off “hosting” if needed. Also, I think if I charged a fee, I would feel under more pressure for my home to be spotless and perfect. Most Couchsurfers are happy to have a bed and are easygoing if my home doesn’t look perfect. And it’s really not about the money. With Airbnb, I might gain more in my pocketbook, but not necessarily gain a richer experience.
IT.com: Who’s the most memorable guest you’ve ever had?
JM: EVERY guest has been memorable in their own way. As a few examples, I hosted two friends from Australia who were driving to all 50 states. I met two women from Wisconsin who were in Green Bay to volunteer for the weekend. I hosted a young woman from France who was studying for the semester at our local university, and when she arrived, her campus apartment was not available. In January, a father and son from Germany stayed with me because the father took his son to a Packers game as a high school graduation gift. Most recently, I hosted a young man from Korea who is walking across North America.
IT.com: Are you still in touch with folks you’ve hosted? Have you ever slept on their couches in return?
JM: Yes! Most of them are on Facebook, so that is a great way to stay in touch. I have not visited any of my guests, but I hope to in the future. I have tentative plans to visit the family of the German father and son, as well as a former surfer who is now in Taiwan.
IT.com: Has hosting people changed the way you travel? If so, how?
JM: Definitely. I lot of people ask me what I “get” out of hosting. It’s not just a new friendship, but I also feel like, as a solo traveler, I have been really fortunate on my trips. People have loaned me a cell phone to use or offered me rides when I’ve been lost. Of course, you have to be cautious and careful when traveling alone, especially as a female. But hosting people has made me more aware that most people in this world are good and want to do good things. They want to be helpful to other travelers, just as I do.
Flights to Cuba Are Officially On Sale — for Under $300
Conde Nast Traveler reports that commercial flights are now officially available on the American Airlines website starting at just $262 roundtrip. Havana flights haven’t yet been approved, but you can currently book a trip to cities such as Cienfuegos or Camaguey.
How to Survive Being an Airbnb Host
Being an experienced traveler doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a good Airbnb host, as this New York Times writer discovers when she’s given a disappointing three-star rating from her first guests.
Can You (Ethically) Go On Safari in 2016?
After spending part of his childhood in Africa, an AFAR writer returns to Kenya on safari, worrying that the experience will feel like a throwback to colonial hunting days.
Hotel Brands No Longer Sell Rooms. They Sell Experiences
CNN reports on the rising interest in “authenticity” and “something new” among travelers, particularly younger ones, and on how this is compelling hotels to change their offerings. Some are offering more communal spaces, while others are designing rooms that feature local artwork and other decor that evokes the destination where the hotel is located.
Why ‘Brexit’ Could Screw Up Your European Travel Plans
Britons vote today over whether to leave the European Union, and the ramifications of the decision could affect travelers, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Among the possible effects: Flying into London could turn into a massive headache, but Europe trips could be cheaper.
This Might Be the Best Thing to Happen to Airplane Seats
Popular Mechanics offers a look at a cool new design for business class, in which all passengers — even those in window seats — have access to the aisle. The seats will be used on United planes. (But can we get a design like this in cattle class?)
This week’s video highlights the best of Ljubljana, Slovenia’s under-the-radar capital city.
I arrived in Granada, Spain, during the height of tourist season and without a room reservation. After lugging my bag from hostel to hostel for four hours, I finally found a place with availability.
The only room left was a converted closet with a micro-bed. A single lightbulb dangled from the ceiling. To provide air, the proprietor had cut a “window” in the wall, which was covered in a shredded, rusty mesh screen. The window was opposite the shared bathroom, and it seemed like everyone who walked by poked their strange faces through my window, like Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny” scene in “The Shining.” I was up all night staring at that nightmarish hole.
If you travel independently, you have to expect a few worst-night sleeps like that. Frequent travelers shared with us some of the scariest, filthiest, coldest, loudest and weirdest nights they’ve ever had on the road.
A Fungus Among Us
During his first around-the-world trip, travel blogger Marek Bron of Indie Traveller found himself in Chiang Rai, Thailand, without a place to stay. “Everywhere was booked out. So I ended up in this obscure hostel that, to this day, remains the worst place I ever stayed,” he said. “It had the ambience of a World War II bunker. Concrete walls, metal lockers, no windows.”
The grimy shower hadn’t been cleaned in months (at least). Not only were there dozens of empty shampoo bottles in it in it, but an apple-sized mushroom was also growing in the corner.
“If you can’t be bothered to at least get rid of the giant mushroom in the shower, you truly don’t care,” Bron said.
Not a Lot of Sleep Happening Here
Writer Ethan Gelber of The Travel Word and his wife arrived by bus in town along the Zambia-Malawi border well after dark. Having little electricity, the unfamiliar town was pitch black. “We didn’t know how far we were from anywhere, so we went to the only place with lights and begged for a room,” Gelber said.
Turns out, it was a brothel.
A Tumble-Dry Night
Emily Harley-Reid of International Expeditions was on a primitive camping trip in the Australian Outback. One night it was so cold that she and her fellow campers relocated in the middle of the night to the campsite’s laundry room. They cuddled up together on the floor around dryers with the doors open.
“We pooled our change, feeding the dryers every hour to stay warm,” she said.
The story had a happy ending. “One guy actually married his sleeping bag buddy from that night. They have two kids now and live in Iowa.”
Adventurist Johnny Ward of One Step 4Ward was exhausted after traveling two straight days from Ethiopia to Khartoum, Sudan. He took a room in the first guesthouse he could find. Bad idea.
“It was FILTHY,” Ward wrote in an email. “We flipped the mattresses to see maggots crawling under the bed. Disgusting, but at 1 a.m. in Sudan, you’re happy to have a roof.”
The squirmy insects weren’t the only roommates Ward and his friend had that night. An hour later, they discovered a full-occupancy rats’ nest under the bed. “We managed to switch rooms, [had] the worst night’s sleep imaginable and checked out at 6 a.m,” Ward said.
Strange Noises in the Jungle
Travel blogger Caz Makepeace of Y Travel trekked all day through the Sumatran jungle to see orangutans. Nighttime was memorable, too, but for the wrong reasons: freezing temperatures despite being on the Equator and a tarp that dropped rain on her all night.
“To top it off, our guide told us stories of tiger encounters before we went to sleep,” Makepeace recalled. “During the night, we heard a gigantic crashing [sound] in the jungle, and our guide stayed up for the remainder of the night holding a big knife.”
Don’t Rock the Boat
Dutch blogger Maaike van Kuijk of Travellous World thought it would be an exceptional experience to sleep aboard a riverboat-based hotel in Maastricht, Netherlands. It was anything but, with partiers boarding at 3 a.m. and whooping it up until sunrise, not to mention the tiny bedrooms with dirty sheets, an unclean bathroom and a lousy breakfast.
“I learned my lesson back then: Always read the reviews before you decide on staying somewhere,” van Kuijk said.
Writer Dan Miller of Points with a Crew relayed this ominous tale from a trip to Mobile, Alabama: “The front desk agent behind a barred window told us he had no rooms left, despite our reservation. He told us that he could sell us, and I quote, ‘a room with something wrong with it.'”
Miller bravely took the room and found out that the tub “was completely covered in purple goo.” Needless to say, he skipped his morning shower.
The Worst Can Also Be the Best
Sustainable tourism expert Warren Green’s worst night of sleep was also one of his favorite travel experiences. While trying to cross a river in a remote region on the border of Tanzania and Kenya, his vehicle got lodged in mud up to the axles. A storm was coming, “and the roar of a lion reminded us that a walk … would be foolish,” Green said. He and his guide had no choice but to spend the night.
They gathered wood, siphoned a splash of fuel from the gas tank to start a fire and slept on the floor mats from the van. Lightning flashed in the sky.
“I lay awake drinking in this most uncomfortable night,” Green reminisced. “It was beautiful.”
What do you typically ask for when staying at a hotel — a few extra pillows? A toothbrush or phone charger if you left yours at home?
One traveler goes well beyond such reasonable requests on his business trips, asking for things like “a picture of a dog dressed as a boat captain” or “a fort [built] out of pillows,” reports the Daily Mail. He even asked the hotel staff to draw a picture of what they thought he looked like. The requests were all granted, and a friend of the businessman posted photos of the results in a thread on Imgur.
My first reaction was the same as that of several commenters on Imgur: Let’s hope this guy tips well! Because while many people seem to find the businessman’s behavior hilarious, I’m not sure I agree.
Sure, the requests are essentially harmless and might bring a smile to the face of a hotel staffer on a slow or tedious day. But do you feel comfortable imagining an underpaid, overworked housekeeper who only has 15 to 20 minutes to clean each room having to waste time building a pillow fort for a grown man for no reason other than the fact that he’s bored on a business trip? And don’t most concierges have better things to do than troll the Internet for pictures of the grandma from “Family Matters” or a dog in a boating costume?
While it seems to be meant in fun, it feels a little mean-spirited to make more work for other people just because you can.
Catch up on the travel news, photos and videos you might have missed this week.
14-Year-Old Girl to Be Youngest Person Taking on Massive Polar Expedition
We’ve got a new travel hero. Mashable profiles 14-year-old Jade Hameister, an Australian teenager who is hoping to complete a “Polar Hat Trick” involving expeditions to the North Pole, Greenland and the South Pole over the next couple of years. She’ll be accompanied by a master polar guide and by her father, who has climbed Mt. Everest. Check out Jade’s Instagram to keep tabs on her progress.
What Will Replace the Hated Hotel ‘Resort’ Fee? Maybe This
Consumer rights advocate Christopher Elliott has unearthed an obnoxious new fee to watch out for at hotels: a “hospitality surcharge.” A traveler who found this fee on his bill at a Hilton Garden Inn in New Mexico asked what it was, and got the following ridiculous answer: “The manager said it is for the TV monitor in the lobby displaying flight departure data and the lights in the hotel.” Seriously? What’s next, a charge for the front desk or the bathroom in your room?
This Is What Air Travel Will Actually Look Like in 100 Years
Travel + Leisure sat down with two Senior Technical Fellows at Boeing to find out what’s in store over the next several decades in the air travel industry. Their predictions blew our mind — including see-through planes, airport hotels in space and the ability to book flights via a chip implanted in your brain. Here’s hoping we live long enough to see some of these.
23 Incredible Pictures of Kenya
Rough Guides shows us the many sides of Kenya, from the cosmopolitan center of Nairobi to a camel derby in the hillside down of Maralal. Particularly striking are portraits of members of the Turkana, Samburu and Pokot tribes.
Why Are Americans So Afraid of Vacation?
The Boston Globe investigates a disturbing trend among Americans: not using all our vacation days. A couple of studies reveal that on average we give up four to five days a year. Even when we do take a trip, 61 percent of us still work at least a little bit during our vacation. But here’s why we shouldn’t: “Skipping vacation stifles creativity, creates health problems [and] leads to stress, depression, and less-than-ideal home lives,” says the Globe.
Airbnb to Purge Illegal Hotels from San Francisco Listings
For years Airbnb has faced legal challenges from cities concerned that the site’s hosts were violating their local short-term housing laws. Now the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the site is taking action against hosts who manage multiple listings in the City by the Bay. (San Francisco only allows residents to rent out space in their own home.)
Hamlet’s Kronborg Castle in Denmark Is on Airbnb for One Night Only to Mark Shakespeare Anniversary
Speaking of Airbnb, here’s a cool (and legal) listing: Hamlet’s castle. Lonely Planet reports that Kronborg Castle in Denmark will be open to two guests only on the night of April 23, the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Interested travelers must hit “contact host” on the Airbnb listing by April 13 and explain why they want to sleep in the castle. Included in your stay: a special banquet and breakfast in bed served by Hamlet’s friend Horatio.
Don’t miss this jaw-dropping timelapse video of the northern lights in Norway.
Check out the best travel content you might have missed this week.
How to Be the Kind of Tourist Tour Guides Love
This Washington Post story by a tour guide in Paris offers practical advice every traveler should know before joining a group tour. (Example: “Don’t distract your guide when she is doing something tricky, like negotiating a busy traffic intersection on a bicycle tour, or setting up safety lines during a rappelling excursion. Your safety may depend on her concentration.”)
Planning the Spontaneous
In an essay for Travel Weekly, legendary travel writer Paul Theroux reveals how he prepares for his trips, including how he chooses destinations, what he reads before he goes and how he answers the “occupation” question on visa applications. (Also worth a read: Theroux’s interview with Travel Weekly about his recent trip to the Deep South.)
Why Your Next Hotel Will Be Staffed by Robots
CNN reports on the growing trend of automation in the travel industry, from robots checking people into hotels to automated bartenders on Royal Caribbean cruise ships. The story explores how far the technology might go; could tour guides be replaced by machines? While we’re all for efficiency, we hope travel never loses its personal touch.
Why Is Traveling Alone Still Considered a Risky, Frivolous Pursuit for Women?
This provocative essay in the Guardian was sparked by the deaths of two young Argentinian women who were murdered during a backpacking trip in Ecuador. The writer questions why many people’s response to the tragedy was to ask why the women were traveling “alone” and examines the double standards that women travelers face.
After Brussels, Why Travel Is More Important Than Ever
The Editor-in-Chief of Travel + Leisure offers a compelling argument for why we should continue to travel in the face of ongoing terrorist attacks: “Travel fosters human understanding, and empathy for people whose lives are unlike your own. … Travelers are, ultimately, the enemies of terrorists, and what they believe works against terrorists’ aims, person by person and little by little.”
Warning: This week’s video might make you cry. It’s from Expedia, which is using virtual reality technology to bring the world to kids at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital who are too sick to travel.
Airline Complaints Spike Even as Service Improves
By many measures, the airlines are actually getting better these days (hard as it may be to believe). USA Today reports that more flights are arriving on time, with fewer lost bags and fewer passengers being bumped from full flights. Despite these improvements, however, passenger grievances are on the rise, particularly complaints from people with disabilities.
JetBlue Asks Flyers to ‘Reach Across the Aisle’ in Election-Year Stunt
As the 2016 U.S. presidential election gets increasingly contentious, JetBlue is attempting to bring us all together in the spirit of travel. Adweek highlights a recent publicity stunt, er, video, in which the airline gives away free tickets to an entire plane full of people, as long as they can make a unanimous choice about where to go. (Their eventual pick? Costa Rica.)
Comparing Airbnb and Hotel Rates Around the Globe
In case you’ve ever wondered whether booking a vacation rental would save you money over a hotel, the answer is yes — at least in some of the cities where Busbud compared rates. The site found that Airbnb could save you the most in London, where the average rental is more than $108 cheaper than the average hotel. At the other end of the spectrum is Barcelona, where hotels cost $139 less on average.
Read up on our favorite stories from the travel world this week.
The Italian Villages So Popular You Will Now Need a TICKET to Visit Them
The Daily Mail reports that Cinque Terre, a collection of five famously charming coastal villages in Italy, is so overwhelmed by travelers that it will be limiting them in 2016. This past year 2.5 million people visited the site, but the 2016 total will be capped at 1.5 million, with advance tickets sold online.
How to Avoid Getting Counterfeit Money When You Travel
Counterfeit money may not be something you usually worry about when you travel, but Forbes reports that it may be more common than you’d expect in some parts of the world. This comprehensive article advises travelers to get money from ATMs associated with banks (rather than those at shopping malls or in standalone locations) and to check for things like blurred ink or flimsy paper when receiving change.
Advice for Avoiding Costly Airline Fees for Changing Plans
If you’ve booked a nonrefundable plane ticket — as most of us do — you could pay up to $200 (plus fare differences) if you need to change your plans. The Associated Press offers a few tips to help you avoid change fees, including booking with one of the few airlines that don’t charge such fees.
Behind the Masks in West Africa
CNN offers a fascinating slideshow from a photo series called “Woongo, Behind the Masks,” in which Tunisian artist Selim Harbi took pictures of West African people wearing traditional masks in an attempt to provide a different perspective on the way Africa is typically represented in the media.
These German Vacationers Don’t Take Kindly to the Kinder
The Wall Street Journal reports on a new trend in German luxury hotels: banning children. The story quotes one traveler who says, “I feel annoyed by the mere presence of children. Their running around, their loudness, their parents — it creates a tense atmosphere.” Hotels have limited their guests to adults only in an attempt to create tranquility.
This week’s video needs a warning for excessive cuteness. Behold: a polar bear at the Toronto Zoo seeing snow for the first time.
No surprise: A real-life re-creation of Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting of his bedroom, which was listed for $10 a night on Airbnb, sold out for the first month within hours of its promotion.
The Art Institute of Chicago commissioned the creation of the one-room rental — modeled precisely after the trio of paintings the Dutch artist made in the late 1880s — to help promote its new exhibit “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms.” One of the bedroom scenes is in the Art Institute’s permanent collection, and the other two are on loan for an exhibit that runs through May 10. It’s the first time that all three paintings are on exhibit together in North America.
The tiny rental room is located in a historic building in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. “This room will make you feel like you’re living in a painting,” the Airbnb listing says. “It’s decorated in a Post-Impressionist style, reminiscent of Southern France and times gone by.”
Airbnb will accept bookings for March stays during the last week of February. Monitor the Art Institute’s Facebook page or Twitter feed to find out exactly when the rooms will open up. (We assume they’ll book speedily too.)
For those who couldn’t land a night in the twin bed with the thin red blanket, the Art Institute exhibit includes a life-size replica of the room, where you can listen to period music and snap selfies.
And if Chicago isn’t on your travel itinerary for now through May, you can have a similar experience at the 42-acre Grounds for Sculpture park in Hamilton, New Jersey. Not only can you go into a room modeled after the bedroom, but you can also step inside three-dimensional replicas of other famous paintings, including Pierre Auguste Renoir’s 19th-century “The Luncheon of the Boating Party” and Edouard Manet’s “Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe.”
It’s that time of the week! Catch up on all the great travel stories you may have missed over the past seven days.
Walking the Great Wall’s Wild Side
This engaging story from the Alaska Airlines blog details a hiking adventure along an unrestored section of the Great Wall of China. Along the way the writer befriends three local women and tests his own bravery in the face of narrow paths and precipitous ledges.
Air Emergencies: Are Airlines Telling You What You Need to Know?
Canada’s CBC News reports that many airline safety briefings leave out a key bit of information that could save your life in a crash. A safety researcher quoted in the article says that using the brace position (in which you stabilize your body by bending over with your head against the seat in front of you) can “reduce severity of injuries” and “reduce deaths.” The position is illustrated on the safety card in your seatback pocket but often not mentioned in safety videos or live demonstrations by flight attendants.
How Scientists Are ‘Hacking’ the Body to Override Jet Lag
Could flashing lights help cure jet lag? That’s the latest from Conde Nast Traveler, which reports on a new study that tested short flashes of light administered 10 seconds apart while study participants were sleeping. This treatment is believed to help the brain acclimate more quickly to time changes.
A Robot Butler Is Replacing Humans in Some California Hotels
The next time you ring the front desk staff to ask if they have a spare toothbrush, you might find the real-life equivalent of R2-D2 bringing it to your door. Business Insider reports on a growing trend of robots in hotels, with about a dozen properties now employing them in California.
This week’s video features droolworthy footage from the Norwegian fjords, where a dedicated young guitarist hauled his instrument up to a few of the region’s most spectacular overlooks.