Some travelers choose strangers' houses over hotels

(Nate Williams for The Washington Post)
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By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2010

I thought I knew all I needed to know about my first potential houseguest from Facebook: her age, her religion, her relationship status. She also listed quite a few of her favorite things: favorite casino, favorite feeling, even favorite credit card.

But of course, I didn't really know her at all. And that was the problem.

She lived in New York and wanted to visit Washington to see the cherry blossoms, and she wanted to stay with me. We had both recently joined, a nearly year-old online community that links travelers looking for places to stay with people who have rooms to spare.

It's one of the newest twists in an ongoing travel trend: vacationers choosing the hospitality of strangers over the hospitality industry. But I wondered: Would we hit it off? As much as I studied New York Girl's Facebook page, could I really know what it would be like to have a stranger live with me for three days? And would I, in turn, feel comfortable being a stranger in someone else's home?

To make trips more affordable -- or even possible -- in today's economy, lots of budget-conscious travelers seem to have no problem staying in nearly random people's guest rooms, surfing on their couches or swapping houses with people they've never met. Home exchange -- a straight you-stay-in-my-place-while-I-stay-in-yours trade -- is still the most popular option, and nowadays, it's on the upswing. Home-swapping site has seen its membership rise by about 20 percent each year since it was started in 1999, to about 3,000 now., which is 18 years old, is getting about 2,000 to 3,000 new listings a month and has a total of 36,000 around the world. "When the economy tanked, people realized that this is a great way to continue going on vacations without cutting into their budgets," said Ed Kushins, the Web site's president.

Casa Casa, by contrast, bills itself as a budget B&B. Members are asked to play host in their homes and provide breakfast for their guests. For $20 a year, you get access to the online profiles of potential hosts and guests. You can contact as many members as you want and request a stay. They reserve the right to turn you down for any reason. But each member has to agree to be willing to play host at least once a year, and each guest pays a daily $15 to $20 "gratuity" for clean sheets and breakfast. Since its creation last August, Casa Casa has attracted 180 members.

Lauren Braden, a 35-year-old communications director in Seattle, got the idea for the Web site from the Affordable Travel Club, a similar online community her mother manages that's limited to people 40 and older. Braden saw a market for travelers in their 20s and 30s. "They're on a budget, but they're past where they'd be staying in a hostel," she said.

Just like me, I thought. Still, there's that matter of living with strangers. Or turning your house over to them. Is it better to have a stranger in your house while you're there, or while you're away?

To check out all the possibilities, I took the plunge and tried both Casa Casa and a home exchange. Over the course of several months, I stayed with a family in Toronto and rattled around a big house in Denver. My Adams Morgan apartment, in turn, housed a mother and daughter from Charlottesville, a self-described slacker from New York and a spunky former journalist from the West.

Everyone was lovely, and we all tried hard. But some arrangements worked out better than others.

First impressions

One of her personal goals in creating Casa Casa, Braden told me, "was to create friendships, to create really personal connections through travel."

That sounds commendable. Making new friends is a good thing. But just having somebody stay in your house for a few nights isn't going to make that happen if the chemistry isn't there, however much host or guest might want it.

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