By Rick Steves
These days, when I travel to Europe, I usually sleep in hotel rooms or B&Bs. But in my early travel days, I routinely found places where I could sleep for free or very cheap. In Austria, I had “dear parents” who were actually the parents of my sister’s ski instructor. In London, my hosts were friends of my uncle. Neither relationship was terribly close — until I visited. Now we are friends for life.
There’s no better way to get to know a new country than to stay in a home. Whether paying a host for a spare room or crashing on your neighbor’s cousin’s couch, bunking with locals can provide some of the richest, most memorable travel experiences (and it’s cheap, to boot). For those aware of the trade-offs, it can be a great option.
You don’t actually need to know someone in Europe to stay at their home. Several services that mediate between travelers and hosts make it easy to find a free or cheap bed in virtually any corner of Europe.
Cheap Beds in Private Homes
Airbnb makes it reasonably easy to find a place to sleep in someone’s home; 9flats.com is a similar site also worth checking out. Beds range from air-mattress-in-living-room basic to plush-B&B-suite posh. Most listings offer at least a spare room to yourself, and many are for entire apartments. Some places even offer separate entrances for travelers who want more privacy and limited interaction with their hosts.
Airbnb’s listings have plenty of pictures, easy ways to sort your options according to your preferences, and feedback from previous travelers. All arrangements, including payment, are handled via their website, and safety is taken seriously. The site provides a round-the-clock emergency hotline and waits until after you’ve checked in to pay the host, giving you a chance to back out. Hosts tend to be convivial and accommodating, but are usually more interested in earning some money with their spare square footage than making new friends.
Couchsurfing is a vagabond’s alternative to Airbnb. This free-to-join network lists millions of outgoing members — more than 72,000 in Paris alone — who host fellow “surfers” in their homes for free. Most do this out of a sincere interest in meeting interesting people, and many are in it for the good karma, having couch-surfed themselves. This service is a boon for laid-back, budget-minded extroverts who aren’t too picky about where they rest their head. Most surfers are in their 20s and traveling solo, but plenty are a decade or two older, or traveling in small groups.
Travelers and hosts alike post profiles on the website, listing basic information (usually a photo, age, languages spoken, and interests). When seeking a “couch” (often precisely that, but can be anything from floor space to a spare room), travelers browse listings for the city they’re headed to and, based on a sense of compatibility, contact a potential host several days to several weeks in advance to confirm specifics. Once you’re in town, the host usually makes time to introduce you to the city, whether taking you on a walk past the big sights or out on the town to introduce you to friends (everyone pays their own way, though many surfers buy their host a thank-you drink or gelato). Most surfers will tell you that they enjoy the conviviality even more than the free accommodation.
Safety is a concern of any smart couch surfer. While the Couchsurfing site makes an effort toward this end (offering plenty of safety tips, listing references from travelers and hosts on member profiles, and allowing hosts to pay for name and address verification), travelers must still be on alert for creeps and scammers — they’re certainly out there. My best tip for crashing with strangers: Always arrive with a backup hostel, hotel, or Couchsurfing host in mind. If you don’t feel comfortable with your host, just leave (after all, it’s free). Don’t worry about hurting their feelings. Never let budget concerns take you outside your comfort zone.
Crashing with Friends and Family
Of course, there’s nothing more culturally intimate (or inexpensive) as staying with a friend, relative, or someone you have a connection with. They don’t need to be next-of-kin. If it’s the son of your aunt’s friend, that’s probably close enough. Email your potential hosts, tell them when you’ll arrive, and ask if they’re free to meet for dinner. It should be obvious from their response (or lack of one) if you’re invited to stop by and stay awhile.
Staying with a friend, relative, or friendly stranger not only stretches your budget (usually along with your belly), but your cultural horizons. And now that it’s so easy to connect and stay in touch online, travelers are finding more and more chances to crash with old or new friends.
Try and dig up some European relatives, friends, friends of relatives, or relatives of friends. No matter how far out on the family tree they are, unless you’re a real jerk, they’re tickled to have an American visitor in their nest. I email my potential host, telling them when I’ll arrive and asking if they’d be free to meet for dinner while I’m there. They answer with “Please come visit us” or “Have a good trip.” It’s obvious from their response (or lack of one) if I’m invited to stop by and stay awhile.
Especially if you’re traveling solo and reasonably extroverted, you’re likely to make new friends on the road. When people meet, they invite each other to visit. Exchanging email addresses or Facebook names is almost as common as a handshake in Europe. If you have a business or personal card, bring a pile. Some travelers even print up a batch of personal cards for their trip. Once invited to visit, I warn my new friends that I may very well show up some day at their house, whether it’s in Osaka, Auckland, Santa Fe, or Dublin. When I have, it’s been a good experience.
If you’re afraid of being perceived as a freeloader, remember that both parties benefit. A Greek family is just as curious about me as I am about them. Armed with pictures from home and a bag of goodies for the children, I make a point of giving as much from my culture as I am taking from theirs. I insist on no special treatment rather than to be treated simply as part of the family. If I ask for a favor, I make it as easy as possible for my host to say no. I try to help with the chores, I don’t wear out my welcome, and I follow up each visit with postcards or emails to share the rest of my trip. I reimburse my hosts for their hospitality with a bottle of wine, a bunch of flowers, or a thank-you letter from home, possibly with photos of all of us together.
More Tips for a Great Stay
Before you arrange to stay with someone in their house, be aware of the potential downsides. Consider what you may have to give up for your free or cheap bed. At a hotel, B&B, or hostel, you have no social obligations to your host. But if someone’s putting you up, it could be perceived as rude to return late at night and leave first thing in the morning. If your host invites you to dinner, do your best to accept — but remember to budget your sightseeing time accordingly. If you accept a bed from someone (especially if it’s free), it’s polite to give your hosts plenty of advance warning of your arrival and not flippantly change plans at the last minute.
If you’re sleeping where others live, there’s a decent chance you’ll find yourself in a workaday suburb, or at least far from old-town charm or sights you came to see. Thanks to Europe’s excellent public-transit network, you’ll probably be able to reach the city center on your own, but that commute will cost you time and money.
Being a guest in a European home isn’t all that different from being a guest in an American one. That said, clear communication and a focus on being considerate are even more critical when trying to bridge a linguistic or cultural divide. People who are OK with welcoming strangers in their home are usually friendly, interested in others, and eager to show off their town. You’ll likely be greeted with genuine enthusiasm, whether you’re paying a fee or staying for free. Many hosts happily provide maps, sightseeing and transit information, and advice on how to make the most of your time.
But some awkwardness is inevitable — expect to make a faux pas or two. Limit your embarrassing blunders by doing your cultural homework — ask around and look online for pointers on guest etiquette in the country you’re visiting. Follow your host’s lead — if they’re not wearing shoes in their house, leave yours at the door. Be aware of what makes for touchy conversation, and do your best to get squared away on geopolitical basics — e.g., Scotland isn’t in England, and Bratislava is no longer in “Czechoslovakia.” To bridge a wide language gap, try to learn the elements of that country’s nonverbal communication: What means “OK” in the US can mean something quite the opposite in some parts of Europe. Communicate your plans clearly: how long you expect to stay, whether you’ll be there for dinner in the evening, and where to leave the key in the morning.
I love the idea of creatively finding a free or cheap bed in Europe. And when I reread my trip journals, I'm reminded that the less I spend, the richer experience I have.