Some travelers choose strangers' houses over hotels

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2010; F01

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.

To join Casa Casa, I had to fill out a detailed online profile and provide a picture of my home -- and one of me. The personal photo bothered me a little. Was I joining a dating Web site?

But I uploaded a picture, plus snapshots of my one-bedroom apartment. "The apartment has charming features such as chandeliers and tall ceilings," I wrote. I pushed my neighborhood, Adams Morgan, equally hard.

Two weeks later, New York Girl e-mailed me. "I am clean, conscientious, independent, curious, and laid back," she wrote. "I try to be as little trouble as possible and like making new friends through my travels."

On her Casa Casa page, she listed her occupation as "slacker." She was actually a paralegal, but I took it as a sign that she had a good sense of humor. Despite my earlier huffiness at having to upload a photo, I found myself carefully studying hers. She looked sweet.

I agreed to let her stay for three nights in early April. Braden asks that members have a guest room or at least a den with a pullout couch or futon. I had neither, but my friend Daphne offered to house me upstairs in her spare room while my Casa Casa guest took over my place. In preparation for the visit, I cleaned my apartment, bought breakfast items including cereal and eggs, and laid out a clean towel and toiletries.

The day of New York Girl's scheduled arrival rolled around. I waited all day to hear from her, but no word. Was she standing me up? She finally called before getting on a bus at 6:30 p.m.

She arrived close to 1 a.m. and immediately asked to use my laptop. I waited around till she finished, even though it delayed my getting to bed. To my dismay, she texted to let me know she was up around 7 the next morning -- a Saturday, no less. She declined my elaborate breakfast and opted for a banana instead.

As we sat in my living room, she peppered me with questions. Did I have siblings? Did I want to have kids someday? Did I want to buy a house? It was too early in the morning for me to think about those things.

I didn't think we were clicking, but as she headed out the door to sightsee, she asked what I was doing that evening.

I told her I had dinner plans with Daphne. "Let me know where you're going," she said, to my surprise.

Daphne agreed to let her crash our girls' night out. It was a warm evening, and the outdoor patios beckoned. A table was available outside a Latin restaurant, and Daphne and I were eager to grab it, but my houseguest balked. "I get cold easily," she said. Our plans to dine alfresco scuttled, we ate indoors, struggling to make conversation.

The next morning, I needed a change of clothes but realized that I'd left my keys in my apartment. New York Girl didn't open the door when I knocked, so I asked a neighbor who kept my spare key to let me in. She asked how things were going.

They were a bit awkward, I said, just as the door to my bedroom opened.

I pretended that nothing was amiss, as did my guest. That night, we dined separately.

On her final morning at my place, she walked me to the bus stop and hugged me when my bus arrived. "Thanks so much," she said. "I'll buy you a drink in New York."

That was nice, but somehow, I didn't think it would happen.

All in the family

Toronto Mom agreed to take me in when I e-mailed her through Casa Casa. In our many exchanges before my visit, she seemed eager to help me with my trip to her town, offering sightseeing tips.

I arrived after 11 on a Monday night, bearing a bouquet I'd bought at the airport as an apology for getting there so late. "You didn't have to do that," Toronto Mom said.

She led me into the kitchen and told me to help myself to anything, anytime. Then she handed me a map of the subway system, which she had marked up to show me where we were. When I asked her where I could go for a run the next morning, she eagerly mapped out the four-mile route she runs herself.

"Will you be home for supper tomorrow?" she asked. I said no; not wanting to be a burden on the family, I'd already made evening plans. But maybe that had been a faux pas. My host didn't seem offended, but I could tell she wanted to get to know me better.

She handed me a glass of water and led me upstairs to my room. I would share the bathroom with her 5-year-old daughter, she told me. I didn't mind that so much, but I did sort of mind when she added that the child might sneak into my room at night because she was used to having her grandmother stay there.

I had no night visitor, though, and the next morning, the little girl was already at school by the time I got up. I had a banana and cranberry juice for breakfast and went for a run. Then I headed downtown, which was a little more time-consuming than I'd thought it would be. The house was several blocks from a train station and a 20-minute ride into the city. That night, I lingered too long at a dinner party and had to take an expensive cab back to the house. I tiptoed to my room.

The next day was my final one. While I was taking a walking tour of downtown, my host e-mailed me, asking again whether I'd be "home" for dinner. Her daughter really wanted to meet me, she wrote. I'd already agreed to have dinner with a friend, but I didn't want to insult my hosts, so I delayed my dinner and made a detour back to the house.

I sat with the family as they ate. After dinner, Toronto Mom asked me to help her daughter with her homework.

I'm not especially good with children, but of course I wanted to be a good guest. I was bonding well with the child for a few minutes, but when she accidentally scratched her finger and started to cry, I didn't know how to make her stop. When her mother whisked her off to watch TV, I escaped, gratefully, to my dinner.

The next day, I woke up really early to catch my flight. Toronto Mom gave me granola bars for the road, and I handed her 20 Canadian dollars. She looked uncomfortable but accepted the money. "Only because it's part of the deal," she said.

Independent living

My second Casa Casa houseguest didn't seem to want a personal connection with me. And I was just fine with that.

She was a 48-year-old mother of two from Charlottesville. I'm a 33-year-old single woman with no kids. You might think that perhaps we weren't the best match, based on the advice of Nicole Frank of, which consolidates several house-swapping Web sites and has more than 15,000 members. Sometimes, she said, it helps to host or exchange with people in your own demographic. "If you have small children, you're going to feel more comfortable with people who have kids," she said.

But this visitor's stay at my apartment went quite smoothly. She e-mailed me in late March and asked whether she and her teenage daughter could spend a Friday night at my place in mid-April to go to the ballet. Mother and daughter arrived after 7 p.m. They were in a hurry to get to the theater and barely had time to let me show them around.

The next morning, I got a text message from the mom at 10. When I got to my apartment, they were dressed and packed.

"Thank you so much. You have a lovely home and you live in a great neighborhood," the mother said. "I left something for you on the bed, and we only used one towel."

On my bed was an envelope. Tucked inside were a thank-you note and $20, and they hadn't even eaten breakfast.

Fair exchange

It took months to get anyone interested in exchanging homes with me. I told myself that was because I had signed up in the middle of winter.

Sure enough, once the weather improved, I got a couple of exchange requests. One e-mailer offered me her second home in Denver and asked to spend 10 days at my place to visit her son when he received his graduate degree. Too long, I replied. Over several months, we e-mailed back and forth to come up with an arrangement that suited us both.

We decided that I would spend three nights in her condo in mid-May, and she would spend six nights at my apartment at the end of May, when I planned to be away.

I arrived in Denver on a Friday afternoon. The two-bedroom condo I'd swapped for was farther away from downtown than I had anticipated. And it was more house than condo: much more space than I needed.

It turns out that, admirably, the owner rents the house to families with children getting treatment at a nearby medical center. That explained the stack of board games, puzzles and children's books next to the door and the boxes of apple juice in the refrigerator.

The house was clean and had everything I needed -- a coffee maker, a TV, working appliances -- but I longed for a hotel. This was a bit too much independence for me. The neighborhood was too suburban. I even had to drive to Starbucks. When I told a Denver friend where I was staying, he laughed. "That's barely Denver," he said.

The other end of my home exchange went slightly awry when my plan to go to the Catskills while Denver Lady used my place fell through.

When she arrived, I was there to let her into my apartment and planned to go to Daphne's right afterward. But she said she wanted to get to know me, and she was so charming that I couldn't say no.

We chatted until close to midnight. Denver Lady was nearly 60 but looked as though she was in her 40s. She had curly reddish hair, wore long beads and had something to say about everything.

But she wasn't clingy. She had relatives to visit and activities scheduled. She didn't need my company, and I didn't want to have to babysit anyone.

I did, however, need a place to stay, since Daphne couldn't accommodate me for all of Denver Lady's stay, and this was a home exchange, after all. The second night, I packed my overnight bag and stayed with a friend in Logan Circle. Saturday, I packed up again and went to dog-sit for another friend in Dupont Circle. "You look like a bag lady," said a friend I ran into as I was carrying my belongings between apartments.

Before she left on Memorial Day, Denver Lady suggested brunch. Over bloody marys, she told me about the many lifelong friends she has made through home exchanges. "You get to experience where you are the way the locals experience it rather than floating on the surface of the hotel life," she said.

I knew that was true, and for lots of people it's the only way to travel. But as for me, I had just about concluded that I prefer the escapism of a hotel. Even if I have to pay for it.

After Denver Lady left, I found sunflowers and a piece of brioche in a plastic-foam box in my apartment.

"Thanks for everything," she'd written on the box. "I hope to see you at a barbecue."

Somehow, I thought that might actually happen.

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