A hospitality exchange or home stay network is an organization that connects travelers with local residents in the cities they’re visiting. If travelers can connect with the right people at the right time, they can get room and sometimes board in the place they’re visiting for free or at a deep discount. Network size goes from a few thousands to a hundred thousands, and most networks are growing steadily.

Home stays have advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious advantage is that accommodation costs are much lower (at most networks for free) than at hotels or even youth hostels. More important, though, is the opportunity to make a personal connection with someone from a different culture and social classes, you see the destination you’re visiting from a local perspective. You have your own adventure and as a side effect, the goal from some networks, this can build and strengthen intercultural understanding and reduce prejudices and intolerance.

There are disadvantages, though. Home stays require some additional planning before travel, and courtesy requires sticking at least reasonably close to your schedule. There are usually strict limits on the length of stay and what you can do in the home. And the opportunity to make a personal connection has its flipside: awkwardness between host and guest can make a visit to an otherwise pleasant city unbearable.

There are a number of different networks that connect hosts and guests, with different requirements for participation, restrictions for guests and member number and geographical spreading. Hospitality Club and CouchSurfing are the biggest online organizations with over 300 thousand members. The number of active members within the different networks is unknown due to a lack of standard definition of what exactly constitutes an active member.

For many, joining just requires filling out a Web form; some offer and others require further verification. Usually a Web listing or printed book of available hosts is provided, sometimes with eBay like reviews by travellers (or vice versa). All listed networks operate worldwide.

CouchSurfing Project
The CouchSurfing Project is the largest, non-profit hospitality exchange organization, founded in January 2004. As of September 2007, there are over 370,000 members all over the world in 220 countries. Membership is free. It is optional to become “verified member” (US$25 one-time fee) to increase security and keep the project running. Another safety system like verifying is called vouching, in this system you can vouch for others you know and feel are trustworthy if you yourself have been vouched for by 3 other members. This system was started by allowing the founders and core admins to vouche for others from the start and it is spreading pretty well. You can use both vouching and verification but vouching is a good option for people who can’t afford or easily transfer the verification fee. Extended Profiles are given and extended search is possible. After using the service, you can comment (“leave a reference”) about your host or guest. People with extremely bad references (like sexual harassment) are deleted from the site. It is possible to see if people are traveling themselves, and the percentage of messages responded to. Despite a catastrophic system failure in June 2006, the majority of the data was eventually recovered, and the system restored to functionality. There is also a wiki on the site with helpful notes about couchsurfing, safety, countries, cities and other couchsurfing related topics.

Hospitality Club
The Hospitality Club is the big hospitality exchange website which was founded in July 2000. As of February 2008 there are over 386,000 members in 216 countries. Membership is free, and each member is verified by a volunteer team.

To register a member must provide their full name and address, which is verified by volunteers. Potential guests can either navigate the database of hosts geographically or use the advanced search feature. An internal message-sending mechanism is then used, allowing to keep email addresses confidential and to block spam thanks to checking by volunteers. Individuals are free to arrange their own conditions for the exchange within the rules of HC that include the hospitality exchange must be free, but allows for ancillary costs such as food and phone calls to be privately agreed between members.

After using the service you can leave a comment for a member which will be visible to all users. The site also includes very active forums, groups, and wiki style travel guides which members can update with local information. In addition, Hospitality Club has the most active group activities, with regular regional meetings and huge camps with sometimes over 400 members attending. The club is based on the work of volunteers around the world who believe that by bringing people together they can increase intercultural understanding and peace.

GlobalFreeloaders.com is an online hospitality network. As of December 2005, it has over 30,000 members. Australia is especially well represented.

Servas was created in 1949 by Bob Luitweiler, an American who lived in Denmark. The organization spread rapidly all over the world and has thousands of hosts and travellers in more than 120 countries. Servas is also recognized by the United Nations.

Servas recommends applying for the program at least 4 weeks in advance of travel. Participation in Servas requires 2 letters of reference and paying a membership fee, which varies by country, and a personal interview with a local Servas coordinator. After the interview, the traveler gets a “letter of introduction” that’s good for one year of travel, and a list of hosts in the countries they’re visiting.

Travellers contact prospective hosts in advance (lead time varies as defined by each host), giving estimated dates of travel, and they may be asked to reconfirm one or two days in advance of visit. They can stay with hosts for up to 3 days and 2 nights, and are encouraged to stay the full time to develop a deeper relationship with the host.

Hosts provide sleeping space, sometimes this may be a guest room. Meals may be provided as well as assistance in visiting the city or area.

At the end of their trip, the Servas traveller is expected to provide a report to the local coordinator with updates to host lists (change of address and phone number, for example) and any other information that may be useful.

Hospitality Exchange
Hospitality Exchange had its roots in the Travelers directory (now defunct) one ofthe originator’s ofthis concept over 40 years ago. Lower membership but passionate about its goals. Website, http://hospex.net, explains it all, allows members to search for other members. $20/year to defray expenses.

TravelHoo wasone of the oldest web-based hospitality exchange organizations, operating since 1997. In December 2005 there were more than 6,000 members in 114 countries, Eastern Europe and Asia being well represented.

Pasporta Servo
The Pasporta Servo (“passport service”) is a home stay network for speakers of Esperanto, an international auxiliary language. It’s sponsored by TEJO, the World Organization of Young Esperantists, who publish a book each year listing thousands of hosts in 80 countries.

Travelers pay a fee for the yearly host list. Hosts ask no fee for rooms, but each sets their own requirements for duration, number of visitors, contact ahead of time, and whether or not food is offered. Some hosts ask for compensation for food. Hosts receive the host list for free.

All travelers are expected to communicate with their hosts in Esperanto. Coordination with the service is in Esperanto, and the host list is in Esperanto. If you don’t speak Esperanto, aren’t really interested, and can’t see learning a new language just to get into a home stay network, Pasporta Servo is not for you.

BeWelcome is a one year old service founded in early 2007 by ex HC volunteers (also joined by several ex CS volunteers [1]) grouped in the non profit BeVolunteer organization[2]. It is based on the BW rox open source project[3]

Membership and all features are free. New members appliance is checked before approval to avoid duplicated subscriptions and obviously fake profiles.

Travellers can then contact each other for accommodation requests with the internal mail system which protect email privacy. Spammers are removed as soon as they are confirmed when more than one member complain.

People inside BeWelcome can add comments about other people they know or meet, bad comments are also allowed in case it can be useful for other members.

This website also include a forum and classical hospitality exchange features (contacts managment, google maps, sophisticated search for host, links between profile, groups). In addition a member can have several version of his profile translated in various languages which can help him to find a host in a foreign country.

Hospex was the first Internet based hospitality network. Started back in 1992, after several years it converted to Hospitality Club:

Although a slightly different concept, home exchange is closely related to hospitality exchange, and there are a number of other agencies specifically for those who are interested in swapping homes.