Staying with strangers: what you need to know

Barcelona skyline
You could see a city like Barcelona in an entirely different light
“It represents a new way to travel that puts people at the centre"
  • | by Jon Severs

From the point you develop independent thought, it is drummed into you by schools, parents that "a stranger equals danger".

In theory, then, holiday websites that offer the chance to stay with strangers for a small fee, or even for nothing, should not work.

Yes, these websites enable you to holiday affordably in exotic locations and often in weird and wonderful properties, but our inbuilt fear of unfamiliar people should mean this intriguing opportunity is left untapped.

Interestingly, however, it seems we are actually happily unburdening ourselves of childhood fear-mongering and are taking up these opportunities to embrace strangers in our millions.

SURF'S UP

Gumtree has thousands of listings all over the world offering cheap beds for the night, while the two leading websites in the sector are doing impressive business: Couchsurfing.com has 5.5m members, while Airbnb operates in 192 countries, in over 35,000 cities and has over 300,000 listings worldwide.

The key to the appeal is obviously, first and foremost, cost – or rather the lack of cost. Couchsurfing.com offers beds for free, while Gumtree and AirBnb have some impressive deals on offer.

“For example, users can stay on a houseboat in central London from £60 a night and a room in an east London flat for £18 a night,” says an Airbnb spokesman.

Couchsurfing’s David Cumpston, though, says the social aspect is just as important for this type of holiday.

“Couchsurfing connects travellers and travel enthusiasts all over the world to create real-world experiences that range from hosting one another in their homes to sharing a beer, to becoming close friends and travel companions.”

MONEY, MONEY, MONEY

Some of the websites also offer a business opportunity.

While you won’t make any money on couchsurfing.com – though you might gain some good friends – on Airbnb and Gumtree offering your own spare bed could enable you to finance your trips abroad and even give you a bit of spending money (though you would have to notify your local HRMC branch of your second income – you will get fined if you do not disclose the earning).

You can begin to see, then, why fears of strangers have been brushed off and this type of holiday transaction embraced. It certainly offers a different option to your standard package deal with established tour operators. And yet there are obviously risks: the whole Stranger Danger campaign did not arise without just cause.

From the guest perspective, there is the danger of the property not being as advertised (you were expecting Buckingham Palace but you get a bedsit in Crystal Palace) or the host themselves being inappropriate or dangerous. The websites say this situation can be avoided by paying close attention to user feedback and user profiles. If a problem does occur, then couchsurfing.com and Airbnb both run a 24/7 helpline.

THE HOST WITH THE MOST?

As for being a host, well the risks are slightly more complicated. For starters, while a guest can simply leave if they feel uncomfortable, for a host, if a guest is inappropriate then shifting them may be an issue. Again the websites say to ring the helplines.

A further problem for hosts is damage to the property or even guests stealing your possessions. Standard home insurance policies may not cover you for this loss or damage as you invited the person into the home, so the websites advise checking with your insurance provider that you have the correct cover.

Airbnb do provide some protection themselves in the form of a £600,000 Host Guarantee to cover guest damages and an option for a separate security deposit to cover accidental damage and wear and tear, but still advise checking your own insurance policies.

The websites all stress, however, that incidents and issues are extremely rare and that with the right preparation and research, the websites are completely safe. Taking these trips with someone else can be a way of reducing the risk further, though, and contacting the guest or host first and having a chat with them can also ease worried minds on both sides of the transaction (see box for more tips).

Admittedly, even with these checks in place, this type of holiday is not going to be to everyone’s tastes. But for those that are struggling to finance holidays or who want a more social experience – or even just some local knowledge – from their break away, these websites are a great opportunity.

“It represents a new way to travel that puts people at the centre - people who connect with each other online for the purpose of connecting offline,” says Cumpston.

So, if you have always fancied a few days in Barcelona or a week or two in Buenos Aires but thought it would be out of your scope financially, then these websites may well be a decent option for either making the trip financially viable or, as a host, funding the trip as well. And even if money is not a problem, they could be a great way of seeing a destination in a different light.

There are risks, of course, but if you are sensible they do not have to be prohibitive to embracing a new way to travel. As Cumpston says: “You will most likely walk away with an unforgettable new experience - we highly recommend that people try it at least once!”

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