I arrived in Spain back in early January of 2009. It was a mind blowing experience. I’d been couch surfing for several years but I arrived in Barcelona at the height of the platform being great. Barcelona was hosting a European Couchsurfing Meetup so there were hundreds of CSers and hosts were going all out to showcase their city.
I need to talk about what Couchsurfing was at that time for you to understand – there was no AirBnB and social media was still a toddler. Couchsurfing was a way for like minded global citizens to meet each other, share their cities and countries, and become friends. It was absolutely astounding. No one was charging for rooms and we hadn’t reached the point where baby boomers trying to save money on their travels were trying to use Couchsurfing as a way to get a cheap room. There was no such thing as a ‘global digital nomad’ and working remote was still a thing that was the exception rather than the rule. Only the oldest of millennials were on the road – this was mostly a young cohort of Gen X before marriage or startups slowed us down. Travel blogging was a thing – but it was a NEW thing and food blogging, mommy blogging, and those kind of niches weren’t around yet because we invented them later. There was no Instagram, Youtube was a real struggle on the road, and everyone carried an actual camera – digital, but not a phone – a camera.
So there I was – arriving in Spain, making new friends, and finding out that there was an entire world of people like me. It was exhilarating. I wish it could have lasted forever. Just a few years later – it was an experience that couldn’t happen again. Condenast and other Boomer travel magazines had found that Boomers could save a few bucks using CS. Date rapists and scammers had infiltrated the CS community and put everyone on edge. AirBnb came along and showed everyone that rather than giving their rooms away they could rent them out, and then the ‘boomer mini-me’ generation came of age and made everything that had been cheap more expensive as their digital nomad lifestyles, van lifestyles, and desire for foods that had been cheap (avocados, ramen, saracha, granola, brown bread etc) made those foods and experiences expensive. And of course, smart phones, Instagram and the other tech we take for granted today made a lot of what we did impractical or unnecessary. Back in those days hosts were guides, friends, ambassadors, and sometimes lovers – as were the other CSers we met. 2006 to 2011 were the glory days of Couchsurfing – if you missed it – well, maybe you can get a sense from this video.
Enjoying travel is easy. The hard part is making sure everything works.
In terms of accommodation, it comes down to 1) figuring out how to get where you want to go and 2) figuring out where to stay when you get there. Sure, there are other factors like finding the money to travel, what to eat, how to stay in your budget, and of course the biggest challenge for those not born with a magic ticket passport – getting the visas.
But, by and large I would say that transport and accommodation are the two biggest challenges. What are the relative merits of a few types of places you might consider staying.
First of all hostels – I’m not a huge fan of hostels now that I’m no longer in my twenties, but, for people who aren’t like me, there might actually be some very good reasons to stay in hostels. Here are just a few – hostels are great places to meet people, hostels are sometimes cheaper than a hotel (but not always), and hostels can be good places to find cheap tours, activities, etc. My personal recommendation is to avoid the dorms and get a private room – even if it means finding a new friend at the hostel and sharing a private the next days you are there. A private room at a hostel is probably the best value and you don’t have to deal with inconsiderate, crazy, or drunk dorm-mates. Here’s another but though- if you are going to get a private room at a hostel, have a look at hotels nearby because you have a pretty good chance of getting a more comfortable room for the same or less money at a one or two star hotel and sometimes even the three stars can surprise you. Don’t assume that hostels are the cheapest option because often they are more expensive than a nicer room somewhere else.
As far as hotels go – there are really a few different types of accommodation that fall under that category.
Bed and Breakfasts are essentially hostels for grown ups as they generally have common areas where guests can converge (for breakfast for example) and more personalized service than a hotel – this can, in some cases, be annoying if you just want to have a place to sleep and be left alone by other guests and staff but most people find it to be pretty nice. The staff and owners at good B&Bs are generally interested in who you are and getting to know you…if you don’t want that, just get a hotel.
Guesthouses are along the same lines but without the interest in you from staff. You may or may not have breakfast or common areas – these can range from a lakeside house in Koycegiez, Turkey to a Dar or Riad in the Fes Medina – to me, a guesthouse is characterized by a host who lives in the house or somewhere nearby and is available to answer questions or help arrange activities, transport etc.
Vacation rentals are a mixed bag. This could be an extra room in a family house or a whole property dedicated to being rented out on a short term basis. These days, you can find vacation rentals that fit with everything else that is described in this article from a spare couch or van parked in someone’s driveway to a luxury home with a butler and private chef.
Motels are places you can drive your car to and park. Motor + Hotel – In South Korea, they tend to be places where you can get some loving with a special someone (either that you just met or who you already know – up to you) and they also tend to be much cheaper than hotels. They call them Love Motels for a reason. In the USA, these are hotels that are along motorways, highways, and freeways. I grew up staying in motels since my dad was a musician early in my childhood..
Hotels are places generally in cities where visitors can stay. Service tends to be detached, professional, and standardized. A managerial staff usually runs the hotel rather than the owner of the property. This is your best bet for privacy, comfort, amenities, and location. Hotels are rated by stars, but there are many hotels that have never been rated that offer exceptional value. Many that have been rated degrade over time or fail to provide the standards you would expect. In general – no stars means it has not been rated, 1 star means basic room with toilet and shower, 2 star means the room has additional comfort features (like shower gel and soap, daily cleaning etc) and the property may offer food or drink, 3 stars means that there are additional features like telephone, television, hair dryer, extra pillows or blankets etc. It also means the hotel likely has a complaint system in place and works hard to make guests comfortable and happy. 4 stars brings you additional comforts like a bathrobe and slippers, minibar, room service, couch and/or upholstered chair, patios, cosmetic products, etc. And finally, the 5 stars (or five diamond) hotel brings you fresh flowers in the rooms, welcoming drinks, personalized service, shoe shining, ironing service and everything else you can imagine in terms of comfort and service.
Finally, a resort is a hotel in a specific setting usually with shops, restaurants, activities and much of what you could want on holiday all in one location. Examples would be Hilton Hawaiian Village on Oahu, Hawaii ; Disney Resorts; or Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore.
So, which is the best hotel? As with most things in life- it depends. The star or diamond system is a great general guide but in many cases hotels don’t live up to the stars they have or far exceed them. For my money, a three star hotel that aspires to four stars is the best thing going. Or – a hotel that hasn’t yet been rated that aspires to four or five stars. The worst? A four or five star hotel that is living on it’s reputation from long ago – these are the kinds of places that charge you for internet access or have terrible expensive restaurants in the lobby. If you are just looking for a bed and a place to stash your bag – a one or two star will usually give you the same or better accommodation and rates than a hostel private room. Even if they are one star, they value it and want to keep it- a hostel doesn’t have stars and won’t get them – although in some cities I’ve seen hostels that behave as if they are five stars while giving less than one star treatment.
A final note on what used to be my favorite means of making friends and learning about new places. Couchsurfing. For a while Couchsurfing was an amazing underground way of finding free accommodation and making new friends. Then it became more mainstream. Then it tried to monetize itself like AirBnB had done. Then it all fell apart. I’ve tried to use it over the last seven years and found it to be more trouble than it is worth. However, it may still be worth it if you can figure out how to make it work.
I need to emphasize this – you can’t really put couchsurfing on the same level as hotels, hostels, or motels. First of all, you aren’t paying with money. You are, however, paying with a guest/host relationship that has responsibilities. If you are going to couchsurf but don’t want to interact or spend time with the hosts – you shouldn’t couchsurf. Often, your hosts will provide you with experiences you wouldn’t find elsewhere, but never forget that couchsurfing is about friendship. Would you call your friend in a different city and say “I’ll be arriving on the 5th at 10 pm, please have my room ready. I’ll work all day the 6th so you won’t see me and then I’ll leave on the morning of hte 7th at 6 am. Can you arrange transport?”
If you would do that, I’m guessing you have no friends. I certainly don’t want a friend like that and neither do couchsurfing hosts. Couchsurfing can provide you with all kinds of levels of comfort from filthy, stinky, sketchy drug shacks to mansions and villas with private gyms and saunas. It depends on the host. The reason they are hosting is because they want to know you and become friends – if you don’t have the time or desire for that – don’t couchsurf.
I absolutely adore this place. It’s filled with funky bookshops, boats, quirky cafes, and plenty of people that fit into that scene. I arrived and met my couchsurfing host at the restaurant she works at “Sillys”. I had a very delicious Thai chicken pizza and then my lovely couchsurfing host Allison wouldn’t let me pay for it!
Frankfurt was beautiful, friendly, and fun. The German food was delicious. In particular I enjoyed the Currywurst and Pear Schnapps, the apple wine was a little like drinking pissy vinegar. Not a taste I loved.
I stayed with an incredibly nice girl named Josie. She introduced me to friends, took me to visit Goethe’s Tower in the forest and was an excellent host in every respect.
Frankfurt was another city which surprised me, mainly because I hadn’t learned anything about it before going there. I had expected to find ancient German buildings, but if I would have done a little bit of reading, I would have discovered that most of Frankfurt was destroyed by Allied fire bombing in World War II and so nearly everything had to be rebuilt afterwards.
Frankfurt is a modern European capital with sleek high rise buildings and every modern thing you could wish for not far away, but thanks to Josie, I was able to experience some true German culture, beautiful German scenery, and warm German hospitality.
I hadn’t planned on being in Frankfurt, it was a matter of catching a cheap Ryan Air flight and a cheap Ryan Air connection – a game of connect the interesting spots between my starting point and my destination in the most cost effective way. There is much more to see there…I will definitely go back someday.
Near the airport, I strolled through the beautiful rural countryside, took a nice nap in a quiet park, had a coffee in an empty cafe, and then after dark went back to the airport. There were probably 50 people overnighting in the airport. I was stoked to score the best sleeping spot on the longest of restaurant booth benches, but at midnight when the restaurant closed, I had to abandon it. And then I left Germany….
There are plenty of things that make Brussels a great place and it’s probably not those stuffy EU suits going about their dull business. Instead it’s the things you don’t have to avoid in the street. Belgian waffles, great beer, and of course, the beautiful comic art murals that grace the sides of buildings that are centuries old.
I love that Brussels is so proud of it’s comic heritage that intermingled with the ancient buildings are full scale murals of famous comic strips.
The Notre Dame church is the Belgian starting point for a very famous Vagabond/Pilgrim trail that runs all the way to Santiago Spain.
The route known as the Camino de Santiago is neither a road nor a highway. It’s a walkway trod by travelers of all kinds for more than 2,000 years. Christians have traveled it for nearly 1,300 years.
Much of the route described in a 900-year old guidebook is still in use today. Some of it wends its way over the remains of pavement laid down by the Romans two millennia ago. Its a route that writer James Michener no stranger to world travel”calls the finest journey in Spain, and one of two or three in the world. He did it three times and mentions passing through landscapes of exquisite beauty. The European Union has designated it a European Heritage Route.
Christians are attracted to this remote corner of Europe because of a legend that Santiago de Compostela is the burial place of the apostle James the Greater. As such, it ranks along with Rome and Jerusalem as one of Christendoms great pilgrim destinations.
The Camino de Santiago has its origins in pre-Christian times when people of the Celtic/Iberian tribes made their way from the interior to lands end on the Atlantic coast of Galicia. For them, watching the sun set over the endless waters was a spiritual experience. As part of their conquest of Europe, the Romans occupied Iberia by 200 B.C. They built infrastructure, including a road from Bordeaux in modern France to Astorga in northwest Spain, to mine the areas gold and silver. Some of the original road remains on todays Camino.
Exclusive for Vagobond by Jo Self
Living in Cusco I find myself constantly reminded of what a small world it is. Sitting on a bus waiting to leave Cusco for the weekend, I was pleased to hear the conversation behind turn to CouchSurfing. Talking up the merits of the CS experience, Marco was telling the young, French traveler to his left about all the great people he’s met and how much he enjoys the experience. As an active member of CouchSurfing over the last four years, and a regular attendee to the weekly meetings here in Cusco, I was thrilled to find that the groups in Peru are thriving.
CouchSurfing, for those who are unfamiliar, is an online organization that is set up as a hospitality exchange. The network provides travelers the opportunity to act as hosts, by showing others around the city, meeting for a coffee or actually housing travelers free of charge in their home.
However, this isn’t just a free room for the night. Most members take the project quite seriously and see it as a chance for true cultural exchange.
A friend of mine in Mexico told me about the project back in 2007 and I immediately became a member. There is no cost to join, unless you feel the desire to contribute. Every member is expected to fill out their profile thoroughly and each profile is then enhanced with references from friends as well as those travelers with whom one has surfed or hosted.
Upon arrival to Lima at the end of March, my first course of action was to see if there was a local meet-up happening while I was there, and with luck, there was.
I met Morgan, a fellow ex-pat living in Lima at Café Maquina for the weekly Friday language exchange. A fairly informal gathering of locals and CouchSurfers alike mingled and chatted, sharing their languages and cultures.
Here in Cusco there are two different weekly meetings, one on Wednesdays at Indigo, which is mostly just a social gathering, and then a weekly language exchange that meets on Fridays, which was recently started and is still looking for a permanent home. In Arequipa, there are frequent get-togethers to go out dancing or to enjoy a coffee or beer together, but at the moment, no regular weekly meetings are scheduled.
In addition to the meetings, members frequently use the online group forums to find travel partners, information on local events and tips for getting around the city. I’ve met some amazing people through the service.
While still living in the US, I hosted easily 8-10 people a month in my home and while the median age of CS members is 28, I hosted folks from 17-72 and am still in contact with more than half of them. The good news is, whenever and wherever I travel, I know I have a place to stay and a friendly face to welcome me – a small world indeed.
For more information on each of the groups in Peru, just do a search under the ‘Community’ tab and explore the options. If you’re staying in hotels during your trip but are still keen to mix some cultural exchange into your Peru travel experience, either talk to your operator about cultural tours or get in touch with the local CouchSurfing group.
As I’ve mentioned before, we had planned to use couchsurfing.com throughout our trip to Turkey in order to save money and more importantly in order to make new friends and learn about things from a local’s perspective. For two months prior to our departure, I was searching for hosts, emailing requests, and planning our trip around those who were able to host us. While we were excited about the places we would see, we were equally excited about the people we were going to meet. Since we’ve both hosted a lot of people, we had an expectation that those who agreed to host us would honor their commitments since we had planned our travel and time around them, but upon arriving in Istanbul, I found that one of our first hosts (whom we had planned to stay with in Istanbul’s Princes Islands had had to cancel due to illness), our itinerary was essentially this:
1) Day 1 – Hotel Ayasofya
2) Day 2, 3, 4- Couchsurf in Kadikoy
3) Day 5,6,7 – CS on Princes Islands
4) Day 8,9 CS in Bursa
5) Day 10 CS in Izmir
6) Day 11, 12, 13 – Hotels in Mediterrainian
7) Day 14 – Night bus to Cappodocia
8) Day 15, 16 – CS in Goreme
9) Day 17 – Nightbus to Istanbul
10) Day 18 – CS in Istanbul (different hosts)
11) Day 19 – Hotel Ayasofya
So, based on people agreeing to host us, we planned to spend only 5 nights in hotels and splurged to get the suite for our last night in Istanbul. Our first hosts, Alp and Serap were the only one’s that actually came through though so we ended up booking an additional nine nights of hotel accommodations and didn’t know it would happen until we arrived. Not ideal.
Hosts canceled due to illness, pregnancy, unexpected travel, and having just forgotten that they had agreed to host us. While we were sad to have to stay in hotels, mostly we were sad not to be able to experience Turkish life and make new Turkish freinds.
All of that will help explain why one of the highlights of our time in Turkey was getting the chance to become friends with Alp and Serap who were our first and only hosts in Turkey. Reading about the two of them was like reading a better written profile of ourselves and Alp was thorough in his communication as well as being funny. He suggested that we spend the day sightseeing on our own in Sultanahmet and then catch the 5:30 ferry to Kadikoy on the Asian side of the Bosporus to meet them. I called him as the ferry left and he and his wife Serap were already waiting for us.
They are an interesting and lovely couple. Alp almost didn’t let me pay for the taxi to their flat but when I said that I wouldn’t be able to sleep if he didn’t let me, he relented. During the three days we spent with them they provided us with suggestions, helpful advice, and showed us some places we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. One of them was the busy mezos bar area where we had dinner that night. After explaining three must-eat Turkish meals, Alp let us choose which sounded the most appealing to us. They were Turkish raviolli, Pide (Turkish Pizza), or Hamsi and Mezos which are Black Sea anchovies and tapas, Turkish style.
We chose the hamsi and mezos since it sounded like the most unique experience. Serap then told us that she had been hoping we would choose that one. Alp, like me is a freelance writer and Serap is a food engineer.
Alp has written a lot of the Couchsurfing guide to Istanbul and we found ourselves in excellent hands during our time with them. For dinner we had the fried anchovies, a variety of eggplant, a delicious salad, and I drank one of the local favorite beers, Efes. It turns out that in Turkey, I’m not alone in being a Muslim who likes to sometimes quaff a beer or two whereas in Morocco only the scum imbibe.
Hanane of course didn’t have any alcohol and put about six sugars in her Turkish tea to make it drinkable for her. Dinner was about 120 lira for the four of us. It included an amazing variety and amount of food. It was the most expensive dinner of our trip but well worth it.
After dinner we had a wonderful walk through Kadikoy and Hanane was barely able to restrain herself from spending all the money I’d given her for souvenirs and shopping but our ‘You have to carry your own bag’ rule kept her consumer impulses in check.
Returning to Alp and Serap’s apartment, Alp made us delicious Turkish coffee and then we all went to bed. They provided us with a room of our own and were the epitome of Turkish hospitality.
In the morning, we went back to Sultanahmet to see several sights they had recommended we not miss (The archeological museum and the Basillica Cistern) while they went to the Turkish Modern Art Museum. In the evening they took us to outlet malls because I had asked where I might be able to buy a cheap digital camera since mine was broken and Hanane’s isn’t of the best quality, but since I knew we had the extra expense of accommodation, I didn’t find one that was in our price range.
The next day,Alp took us for an abbreviated version of one of his favorite Kadikoy walks since we wanted to take a boat tour up the Bosporus and in the evening Hanane made a Moroccan meal for us all in their kitchen. Serap was astounded by Hanane’s kitchen skills and said that she might ask for her to come train some professional chefs at the institute where she works. It was a beautiful meal with great wine and gorgeous conversations. One of the highlights of our trip to Turkey for sure.
In the morning, Alp got us pointed in the right direction so we could catch the early ferry to Bursa. I’d decided that since our second hosts in Istanbul had cancelled, it would be better to start seeing more of Turkey sooner rather than later. I was also anxious to get to Manisa.
So, you might start to see that this trip was more than just a holiday, it was a mission to see if we would be able to make the jump from Morocco to Turkey. I’ll give you more on that later. We kept in touch with Alp and Serap throughout our trip and once again, through couchsurfing, we have made friends that will last a lifetime.