Strangers in our home. People unseen, unknown, unrecommended by anyone my husband or I knew.
Our friends thought we were nuts. My husband thought I was nuts.
Yet here we were, welcoming George and Lisa, late 40s, of Ohio, into a spare bedroom. Taking them for a Cuban dining/culture lesson at Versailles in Little Havana. Joining them for a dinner they'd cooked in our kitchen.
Credit Global Freeloaders (www.globalfreeloaders.com), one of several websites that matches an online community designed to match travelers with hosts worldwide who offer a free place to stay — a sofa bed, a spare room or just space on a dorm-room floor — and an insider's take on local culture.
Call us kindhearted, call us intrepid, call us fools: We're not alone.
Global Freeloaders, founded in 2000, has more than 28,000 members in 170 countries,said founder Adam Staines, 26, of Melbourne, Australia. Members range from college students to retirees, with a median age of about 35, Staines said.
Since its launch last year, Couch Surfing (www.couchsurfing.com) has signed up more than 25,000 members in 149 countries.
Hospitality Club (www.hospitalityclub.org) is growing by 150 members a day, says founder Veit Kuehne, 26, of Dresden, Germany. Since its inception in 2000, Hospitality Club has signed up 70,000 members in 190 countries.
Among them are Frank Munchow, 35, and Mandy Albert, 33, of Berlin. When they visited South Florida earlier this year, they didn't book a hotel room. Instead, they too relied on the kindness of a stranger.
They ended up with more than just a bed. Their host, Bernard Osorio, 41, a local teacher, played tour guide, taking them to Art Deco Weekend, Bayside Marketplace, Key Biscayne and other South Florida favorites.
Hospitality Club "is the best idea in the world," said Munchow, who works in information technology. "It's our first time in America. It is better to see the way people really live."
Hospitality Club grew out of Kuehne's experience as a teenage exchange student, when he lived with a family in North Carolina. "My hope is that if more people travel this way, they will understand better" other cultures — and make war and conflict less likely, he said. A business school graduate, he lives on savings and runs the site full time with the help of volunteers.
Couch Surfing, founded by Casey Fenton, 27, of Conway, N.H., has a similar goal. "I want to make the world a smaller place, where people feel they can trust people more often," Fenton said.
Global Freeloaders' genesis was a trip to a Moroccan music festival. Staines and a friend arrived to find accommodations sold out. A local man overheard them lamenting the situation in a cafe and offered them a room at his house. "We ended up staying with him about a week," said Staines, a computer programmer. "It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable weeks of my travels."
Members join each site by providing a profile that includes the city in which they live, accommodations they have to offer (spare room, sofa, space on floor), whether they prefer guests of a certain gender or age, whether there is public transportation nearby and restrictions on pets, smoking and drugs.
Other members can check out the profiles in the city they want to visit and send an e-mail to the prospective host, who can accept them, reject them or ask to know more about them. Some prospective hosts don't respond at all — a passive way of saying, "Not interested."
Some hosts offer only a place to sleep. Others, like Osorio, take time from their own lives to take visitors on tours.
It's a favor returned. "I went to Switzerland," Osorio said. "This wonderful guy picked me up; he belonged to the club. He spent the entire day with me. Afterward, I found out he was the owner of a company. He didn't work that day just to pick me up."
Osorio will attend the man's wedding later this year, when he'll also visit his current guests. But what about security? Does Osorio worry when he's going to a stranger's home, or hosting at his? He says no. "I have had so many good experiences I don't worry... . I make sure to exchange e-mails in advance." Munchow also talked with him by phone — to assuage his and Albert's own concerns.
All three exchange websites encourage members to write references about hosts and guests with whom they have had experience — the key to concerns about security. Unlike home exchanges, in which families trade houses simultaneously, these travelers stay with the host while he or she is home.
At Hospitality Club, volunteers vet prospective members to be sure that the names and addresses provided actually exist. Under club rules, members are required to provide their full name, passport number and club user name when they first contact a host, and to show their passport to the host on arrival.
At Couch Surfing, members can make a credit-card contribution to the site; the card is verified against the holder's information, earning that member a "verified" designation.
Global Freeloaders has no screening procedure but advises, "When first meeting other members, the checking of passports as identity verification is encouraged... . As a security precaution, hosting of domestic members (that is members from your country of residence) is discouraged."
"I can't guarantee security," Staines said. "Having said that, the site has been running now for four or five years. We haven't had any incidents. People don't travel to the other side of the world to make trouble."
That's not to say differences never occur. Staines recalls a couple in their 60s who were unhappy with 20-something guests who stayed out late and came back drunk. "The hosts needed to be a little more selective. And I try to tell people: Just think about who they are requesting from."
Admittedly, we felt a little strange when George and Lisa pulled up in their rental car. They did too, they said. It was their first time using Freeloaders, our first time hosting. Though we'd traded multiple e-mails prior to the visit, no one knew quite what to expect.
Their three-day visit turned out to be perfectly pleasant. We ate, we cooked, we cheered on Jack Bauer as he fought terrorists on the hit Fox series, "24."
We carefully stepped around politics and religion. Household members were warned to edit potentially offensive expressions during the visit.
That we needed to do so had not occurred to us until one of the pre-trip e-mail exchanges, when I realized that George and Lisa's views and my husband's might clash. We've since seen online profiles in which "freeloaders" spell out strongly held viewpoints, and we can see the wisdom in being clear upfront.
We've also changed our online profile to explain that while we can sometimes offer a bed, time constraints don't allow us to guide visitors. But to be neighborly, we've decided to put together a guest book with a list of our fave restaurants and things to do.
Because yes, we'll do it again. The e-mail from the executive on sabbatical who wanted to volunteer at the Nasdaq Tennis Tourney piqued our interest. (Too bad we were booked with other friends.) And the request last week from the 30-something, budget-bound couple coming in for a family wedding tugged at our hearts. We know all too well how strong the wanderlust, how short the bank account can be.
Accommodations exchange websites offer the following security features:
- Each offers online recommendations and reviews of travelers and hosts.
- Each suggests e-mailing and talking with prospective guests or hosts before the visit.
- Hospitality Club — www.hospitalityclub.org — vets all prospective members to see that the name and address they give actually exist. Club rules require travelers to fax hosts the first page of their passports and to present their passports on arrival.
- Couch Surfing — www.couchsurfing.com — verifies members against credit-card information for those who opt to donate $25 or more to the site by credit card.
- Global Freeloaders — www.globalfreeloaders.com — recommends hosting only people from other countries and says it knows of no unsafe experiences.