Where to sleep when you’re a stranger
Since I’ve been back, many people have asked me about my ability to find sleeping arrangements and accommodations while traveling abroad. The truth is that I originally planned my trip to Australia and New Zealand knowing not a soul in either of those countries and having no solid arrangements for places to stay along the way. With an incredibly meager budget to work with, considering how long I was going to be gone and how much I’d already spent on airfare, I knew I would have to reach out and connect to as many people, as many friends of friends, as many acquaintances and networks as I possibly could in order to get on.
Amazingly, out of the entire two months that I was abroad, I probably ended up spending money on a place to sleep and shower about seven nights in all. I’m absolutely astounded when I think about that. And I’m so immensely grateful for the kindness and hospitality of all the people who let me sleep on their air mattresses, their couches, their floors, their guest beds, their bunk beds, and in their guest cottages. I’m also grateful for having had the presence of mind to borrow a sleeping bag from my cousin in California at the start of my trip, since many of my sleeping situations wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.
I guess I should also say that I’m grateful to be the type of person who’s okay with sleeping almost anywhere, whether it’s in the back seat of my rental car, or on the floor of a living room, or on a thrift store air mattress that deflates throughout the night so that I’m back on the floor when I wake up in the morning. (Ok, that last one was in Auckland and though my back wasn’t particularly happy the next morning, I was still grateful to have friendly hosts and a safe, warm place to rest.) Maybe it’s the two years I spent traveling the US doing volunteer work, much of which was spent living on the road. Though I do enjoy creature comforts like anyone else, and I do work in the food and wine industry, so of course I appreciate some of the finer things in life, when it comes down to it, I’m just as used to living simply and being happy with the basics. If I’ve got a safe space, a clean blanket and a warm shower the next morning, I can make do with camping out almost anywhere. And besides, on this trip, what mattered the most to me was experiencing the true character of the places I visited — the geography, the culture, the wine, the cuisine, the people — not the softness of my pillows or comparing the amenities of corporate hotel chains. Turns out my two nights and three days on the Great Ocean Road ended giving me a bit of both.
While in Melbourne, I was incredibly fortunate in having been able to stay with Pete, a friend of a friend — both of whom are in the wine business, albeit on different sides of the world. Pete was more than kind in allowing me to sleep on his pull-out couch for the time I was in the city — a little over a week in all. In fact, between staying with my friends Jessica and Fabricio in Los Angeles, staying at Mieko-San’s apartment in Tokyo, and staying with Pete in Melbourne, I had a place to sleep every night up until my trip down the Great Ocean Road.
But for the nights outside of Melbourne, I was on my own. And so I used this chance to try out two different methods of finding accommodation, which I’d learned about before leaving the US. The first was Couch Surfing and the second was Air B n’ B.
Both of these networks are are brilliant ways for cost-conscious travelers to not only find accommodations all over the world, but also to experience the place they visit on a much more intimate and personal level. The first is free and thus requires a bit more leg work in terms of finding and contacting appropriate, legitimate, available and willing hosts. The second requires payment, like any Bed and Breakfast would. All location searches, reference reviews, reservations and payments are done online through the AirBnb.com website, and oftentimes the prices for cozy, character-filled rooms are much more affordable than hotels, motels or official Bed and Breakfasts.
I first learned about the worldwide Couchsurfing community from Lacey, a friend in the DC area who also works in the service industry and has made a point of visiting a new place in the US every month. Through Lacey, I learned that the Couchsurfing network extends all over the world and essentially consists of many open-minded people who
1): have a spare couch, bed, guest room, air mattress, or floor space, etc.
2): have been travelers themselves and understand the preciousness of a place to stay and a friendly local face, and believe in paying it forward (YES, people like this do actually exist in the world!)
3): want to show off their city/country/town to other travelers
4): are interested in intercultural exchanges and meeting and becoming friends with travelers from other (sometimes distant) parts of the world.
It is an idealistic and wonderful system, and when you use basic common sense and a well thought-out personal profile, read each host’s profile carefully and are courteous and thoughtful about the way you write a couch request, it is extremely rewarding. Often you end up making new friends in the process.
When Lacey first told me about Couchsurfing, she had just come back from a trip to Homer, Alaska, during which she had stayed with three or so different Couchsurfing hosts, all of whom were incredibly unique and who enabled her to experience Alaska in a highly personal and special way. She enthusiastically encouraged me to create a profile on Couchsurfing.com and begin to familiarize myself with the system so that I, too, could utilize it during my time abroad.
As it turned out, I had my first official Couchsurfing experience on my first night on the road in Apollo Bay. I had searched for hosts in Apollo Bay with an available “couch” while still in Melbourne, since I knew Apollo Bay was where I wanted to end my first day on the road. Given the tiny size of this beach town, I only two found two hosts who might be able to let me stay with them. I sent personal, detailed requests to both of them, and the person who responded was a young man named Heath.
Heath happened to be from Florida originally. He and his roommate Kevin (also originally from Florida) regularly host Couchsurfing travelers and have both traveled extensively themselves. In fact, after working as a fireman and serving in Iraq for a period of time, Heath spent a while living in Israel, traveled the world, and sailed on a tall ship from Fiji to Vanuatu before coming to Australia to work, explore and enjoy life by the Ocean before heading back out to experience more of the world.
When I got to town I met Heath where he was working at the hotel pub off the main street. Almost every official downtown “hotel,” in any Australian town, large or small, has a pub on its lower level, and this one had an adjacent drive-through “bottle shop” as well, which is where Heath was stationed that evening. Most bottle shops in Australia are glorified liquor stores, with the advantage of the outdoor ones being that people don’t even have to get out of their cars to grab a 24-pack of canned bourbon and ginger or a bottle of Peppertree Shiraz.
After chatting a bit at the chilly outdoor bottle shop counter, Heath closed up shop and we chatted and exchanged travel stories over a couple of Aussie beers. Brews like Carlton Draught and Lion are staples at many hotels and sports bars in Australia, so you’ll often see them at the tap. I tried a “pot” or half pint of the Carlton just for the sake of it, and as expected, it was much like any other mass-produced lager (though not nearly as refreshing as Asahi). Mainly it was crisp and malty, but barely, and that’s about as much as it had going for it. Best drunk icy cold. The second beer was one Heath presented: a bottle of Coopers Sparkling Ale. Coopers is Australia’s only Australian and family-owned large scale brewery, and the beers are mostly seen around South Australia and Victoria. The Sparkling Ale was an English Pale Ale style and had a good hoppy bite, while also being slightly yeasty and fruity in aroma and flavor, though I found the carbonation to be a little too aggressive and thus distracting. Speaking of distracting, I’ll get back to the point.
Heath ended up being a friendly and hospitable host, and though I decided to keep moving the next day due to limited time, he made sure to text me the next day and make sure all was well and to wish me safe travels. I was able to see a side of Apollo Bay that I might not otherwise have seen. Between chatting with Heath and comparing travel notes, learning about his experiences working in Australia and the challenges of a limited work visa, accompanying him to a bawdy live music night at the other local hotel pub, and being invited to a crazy house party before walking back to his and Kevin’s “flat,” I certainly experienced way more than I would have in a lonely disconnected motel room. And though perhaps the crowd was a little more party-hearty than I generally prefer, the experience seems perfectly appropriate for a beach town like Apollo Bay.
What’s more, not only did Heath leave me a wonderful reference for other prospective hosts to see on Couchsurfing.com, he also ended up connecting me to Karin, a friend of his who he met on the tall ship sailing to Vanuatu. Karin and her two friends Hannah and Mattilda, all three of whom are from Sweden, welcomed me into their cozy apartment in Auckland, where I stayed for three nights, despite their only having moved there three months previous. These girls were truly amazing hostesses and showed me more hospitality and friendship than I could have hoped for. And I never would have met them if it weren’t for my Couchsurfing experience in Apollo Bay. And so it went with so much of my trip. One new friend connected me to another friend, who put me in touch with another person, all of whom had a place for me to stay for one or multiple nights.
My second night on the road was not free and did not involve schmoozing with the locals, but was nonetheless memorable and kind of amazing in its own way.
Having not known exactly where I’d end up along the Great Ocean Road after Port Campbell, I hadn’t made any prior arrangements and I found myself in a bit of a bind as dusk approached and I still had hours to drive before getting to the large city of Geelong. Feeling rather desperate, and having called several hotels and hostels whose offices would already be closed by the time I got into town, I decided to try AirBnB, not thinking I had a great chance of anyone accepting a day-of stay request.
Not only does AirBnB allow you to search based on your GPS location and based on your specified price range, I discovered that the iPhone app also has a function that allows you to search for same day availability. Salvation! Well…at least it offered me some hope. I was beginning to prepare myself for the possibility of sleeping in the car.
I found a nice looking room in an old Victorian home in Geelong, one of the cheapest options I could find at $70 a night. This of course was far more than I would have normally been able to spend on a room, but I told myself it was just one night. Besides, the house looked very nice, and the reviews left from other visitors were all glowing.
To my amazement, I received a reply from the home owner, Polly, within an hour of my sending a request. Soon after, my payment had gone through, and I emailed Polly to make sure all was well, to give her my phone number and to let her know I was on my way.
When I heard back from Polly next, it was a phone call to tell me that she had read the date of my request wrong and had thought it was for the next month (December)! She was happy to let me stay anyway, but she apologized that she couldn’t be there herself to greet me, feed me, and chat with me. I’d have to let myself in with a key hidden by the door in a white sneaker, or “trainer,” as she called it, and I’d have the whole house to myself since she was out of town that night. I could help myself to any “breaky” (breakfast) foods I found and also to the wine in the fridge. Again, she apologized for not being able to be there to greet me, and she hoped I’d be comfortable in any case. Clean towels were in the laundry room.
And so, for the price of one room, I got a whole house to myself for an evening. With wine and breakfast, too. It was pretty much the exact opposite experience to the previous night sleeping on the top bunk of a bunk bed in Apollo Bay, and yet, I wasn’t in a hotel. The house I stayed in on a quiet side street of Geelong city had charm and history and elegance. I could see personal touches everywhere, such as in the quilted bedding and the framed family photos on the hall table. It was almost too surreal to take in, in fact. Having the entire lovely house to myself, I felt enormously spoiled.
This evening in Geelong turned out to be my only experience using AirBnb, and I never spent that much on a room for the rest of my time abroad, but for splurging the $70, it was quite an impressive return on investment.
For those of you not keen on the whole couchsurfing setup and who need more “traditional” accommodations, i.e. a private room and bed, as opposed to a couch, futon or whatever is available, and who like the bed and breakfast experience but are looking for a slightly more affordable and accessible option, I highly recommend checking out AirBnB.com. The site lists available guest rooms, guest cottages, and guest homes — even guest Air Streams and guest house boats! — in all different price ranges, all over the world, both in big cities as well as tiny towns in the middle of nowhere. The site is easy to use and most “hosts” have clearly posted reviews from previous visitors, which make it easy to separate the desirable hosts and homes from the less desirable ones. It’s a little like Craigslist for vacation rooms, but a thousand times better!
Even with setting my price limit at $80, I was able to find a gem. And if you’ve got a slightly more flexible budget, you’re definitely going to find something you love!
It was in large part the personal touches and the constant interaction with locals, the constant glimpse into everyday life and community cultures that made my travels so interesting and so memorable. Whether I was staying with a Buddhist friend’s mother, with the global marketing manager for a major winery, with with three Swedish girls new to the big city, with a fireman turned world traveling, surf-bumming bartender, with an “arbor activist,” or with the friend of a cousin of a cousin of a friend, it was always, always better than just finding a motel room. These are the experiences that make the best stories after a trip is over, and the experiences that have given me more new friends than I can count on both hands.