To hell with hostels: Airbnb and Couchsurfing in Europe

Now that university exams are over, students in Winnipeg will be flocking overseas to exotic and pretentious locales while overpaying for overrated hostels. Though I’m staying in town this spring, at this time last year I was in Germany with my girlfriend, where we would remain until the following September. And when we weren’t working in Bavaria, we were traveling through dozens of cities in 13 countries, staying in a variety of places and crapping in countless toilets. We did all this while happily avoiding hostels by utilizing Airbnb and CouchSurfing and I will now outline the subtleties of both services.

Airbnb is a well-maintained organization that relies on mostly private parties who make available their rooms, apartments and unused spaces for vacationers seeking short-term accommodation. Founded in 2008, it’s now a worldwide service: there are over 200,000 listings in over 31,000 cities and 192 countries. They have a great website and app (for iOS, can’t comment on the Android version) that makes it easy to find a place to stay that fits your budget and timeframe. You can book far in advance or at the last minute, which is really helpful if you’re backpacking and moving around a lot without a concrete itinerary.

You can set your preferences for finding a shared space, like renting a room in a shared apartment, or your own private flat somewhere for a few days. I stayed in both and would recommend either. In a shared space, you often have very helpful hosts who invite you places or give you ideas for what to do in town. In a private apartment/house, you have all the amenities to yourself (kitchen, bathroom etc.) and the knowledge that you have your own space to come back to after sightseeing all day.

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For booking, we exclusively used the Airbnb app which allows you to search by price, date and number of guests. You can also search for places by map if you have a general area you know you want to stay in or avoid. The app works really well and you can sync your credit card information to pay for your accommodation remotely, allowing you save your cash for whatever else. The proprietors are largely reliant on user reviews of their places and the testimonials are a good indicator of what the places are really like. On a budget, it’s pretty much always better than hostels and you’ll definitely have access to more services than you would in a hostel (TV, computer, washing, kitchen). While traveling with friends, we stuck to about 25€ per night, per person which got us everything from a regular room in a flat, a basement suite, and a room in a huge flat with our own, private living room with a balcony overlooking Barcelona’s Gothic quarter. We used Airbnb to stay in Athens, Santorini, Rome, Juan-les-Pins, Nice, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels and Barcelona without any regrets.

The downside to using Airbnb is mostly logistical; several times (Rome, Juan-les-Pins, Nice) we waited outside of apartment buildings while we tried to contact the owner/host to let us in. When you have heavy luggage and have been walking for kilometres to your rented place, it’s frustrating to arrive and not be able to get in. This is where Airbnb can’t compare to a hotel or hostel that’s open 24 hours a day and has someone there to let you in to your room at any hour. Often, the host or owner doesn’t live in the place you’re renting and must travel to the place to come let you in. When you don’t have access to a phone or are relying on wifi to communicate with your temporary landlord, you’re essentially hooped until someone comes.

The worst experience we had with this was in Juan-les-Pins, along the Côte d’Azur in the South of France. My girlfriend and I had arranged for a place to accommodate seven of us about a month in advance and we arrived to a lovely, modern and well-equipped apartment that we couldn’t get in to. We waited an entire afternoon outside the building while we emailed our host from neighbours’ wifi, trying to alert him to our situation. It turned out the owner lived in Poland and was using someone else to manage the rental space who arrived to let us in before we got there and didn’t come back for four hours while we sat twiddling our thumbs, drinking a bottle of wine on the apartment steps.

What’s frustrating about situations like this is you’re pretty much bound to your luggage if you can’t secure it somewhere; it’s not like you can stash your stuff in the hotel’s baggage holding room and go out sightseeing while your room is being prepared. So we were pretty disappointed to lose a whole afternoon while we were stuck waiting by our luggage outside the building. We expressed this to the woman who was managing the rental flat and she agreed to give us a late checkout on our last day there. That didn’t stop us from leaving an honest account of the incident in our review despite the owner’s pleas to take it down, lest he lose business. Tough titties, Tomek. Don’t keep us waiting for four hours next time.

The lesson to be learned from this is prior communication with proprietors is paramount when using Airbnb, especially when you don’t have a local cell phone. Make sure you establish a window of time you know you can arrive in and you should have multiple avenues for contact with the owner (email, phone number, Facebook etc.).

The same can be said for CouchSurfing.

CouchSurfing is similar to Airbnb in that they both utilize private parties who open their places for travellers seeking short-term accommodation. The difference between the two is CouchSurfing is free: no monetary compensation is required while staying in places through CouchSurfing. As of January 2012, there are 80,000 places represented on CouchSurfing. Apparently the place with the most registered CouchSurfers is Paris but we had absolutely no luck finding a place there.

How it works: you must first become a member of the site and make yourself a profile. Age, locations (ASL) and travel dates are the basics of your profile but you must go deeper than that if you want to be successful with CouchSurfing. People offering their places will make their decision on whether or not to let you stay with them based on your profile and the personality you’ve injected into it (your initial message to them is also important). You really have to have a good, wholesome photo of yourself, list your interests, educational background, travel goals, places visited, languages spoken etc. on your profile to let people know what kind of person you are and that you’d be a good guest. Like online dating, you have to sell yourself.

Once your profile is a polished gem with all your best traits and interests represented, you can search by location for potential hosts who have described their place, how many people it can accommodate and whether or not they have an opening for you. Hosts will, in turn, have a profile that describes them and ideally, you will find a host with similar interests and background. By posting your travel dates and locations, hosts can (in theory) beat you to the punch and offer their place to you, but that rarely happens (unless you’re a single woman, more on that later).

To secure a place on CouchSurfing, you definitely need to cast a wide net. There are no guarantees with CouchSurfing and you’re competing with a lot of other people for a place; you’ll often contact a dozen potential hosts with a warm, personable message requesting to stay with them and receive as many rejections. In this way, it can be time consuming and frustrating when you’re searching for hosts, making sure their place is available during your time frame, reading their reviews, going through their profiles to ensure you’d click with them etc. especially when you only get rejections in return.

Reading a potential host’s user rating is obviously very important as the reviews may contain pertinent information like whether or not the host tried to kill their guest, or promised smooth peanut butter when they only had crunchy. Another useful feature when searching for free lodging is the average reply time of hosts. If you need a place in three days and the host’s average reply time is nine days, chances are you won’t be staying with them.

Screenshot from CouchSurfing website featuring a (sexy!) user profile

We stayed with CouchSurfers in Berlin, Marseilles, Cologne, Munich and Prague. Some were better than others but they were all well worth it. Our amenities ranged from a pullout couch in a living room, air mattresses, our own private room and a pullout couch in a studio apartment (kind of weird). We had especially good experiences in Berlin, Cologne and Prague. In Berlin, we stayed with a 22-year-old woman who opened up her flat in the trendy Neukölln neighbourhood of the city and had a perfect couch/bed hybrid for us to sleep on. She met us at her metro stop, took us back to her place and in the evening, we went to a great restaurant and bar that we would never have known about otherwise. In Cologne, we stayed with a group of med students who lived in a huge flat, so we had our room to ourselves. They were extremely friendly and we get along really well. They had bikes for us, took us out during the day and invited their friends over at night to hang out with us. In Prague, we stayed with an American expat couple around our age who taught English there and had a big group of English-teacher friends. Every night that weekend, they took us out to their friends’ places and an awesome beer garden to hang out and meet their crew. We met a lot of cool people and went to some great places that weekend that we’d never have the chance to, otherwise.

One downside to CouchSurfing (aside from not always getting in easily, as outlined above with Airbnb) is having men solicite female travellers to meet them in their cities. When using CouchSurfing, we relied on my girlfriend’s profile and then messaged hosts seeking a place for her and I together. By listing our travel dates and locations on her profile, we opened ourselves up to dozens of messages from men seeking female companionship. If the messages seemed genuine about “hanging out” or “showing you the city” and not obviously about sex or whatever, we’d reply with “my boyfriend and I would love to hang out” and we’d never hear back from them after that.

Also, CouchSurfing’s app is not very good and you really need to use the site to navigate the service.

Both CouchSurfing and Airbnb are great resources for travellers and with a little practice with each service, you can confidently avoid hostels while gaining memorable experiences and meeting great people at the same time.

Palmer Fritschy likes One Direction more than the Wanted