Frugal travelers may save a bundle on lodging by joining hospitality exchange clubs.
Enrollees pay an annual fee (often around $60) and enjoy the privilege of staying in other members' homes when traveling. In return, they must be willing to offer an extra room in their own homes to fellow travel-club members.
Nancy Stein is one such frugal traveler. With her husband, Fred, Stein has traveled around the country and to Europe while staying in guest bedrooms she found through three hospitality exchange club memberships.
"The clubs make travel reasonable," Stein says.
The Steins host about 50 visitors a year at their Maine home. They have used the club to stay in fellow members' homes on a cross-country U.S. tour and as far away as the Czech Republic.
"We couldn't have done what we've done without a club," Stein says.
Members of hospitality exchange clubs typically are out and about during the day and return to the host home at night. Stays generally do not exceed two or three days.
Hosts often provide sightseeing tips, a good breakfast and companionship in a new destination -- all for much less than the cost of a hotel room.
Ancient Times to Today
The three clubs the Steins have used -- Servas, Evergreen Club and Affordable Travel Club -- work similarly.
Evergreen is open to individuals over 50, while Affordable Travel Club, or AFC, welcomes those age 40 and over. The peace-focused Servas is open to all ages, but members must submit to interviews and meet multiple requirements.
Suzanne Miller has run ATC for 17 years. In 1997, Maria Braden was hired to help manage daily operations; her husband, Gary Braden, created the club's website and online member directory.
Their daughter, Lauren Braden, was so inspired by her parents' stories of camaraderie and cost-cutting that she started her own all-ages club -- Casa Casa -- in 2009.
Lauren Braden says hospitality exchange clubs have their roots in longstanding travel traditions. From ancient times until today, guesthouses inexpensively put up travelers in simple, homey rooms.
"This kind of travel is as old as leisure travel," Lauren Braden says.
For the $20 annual membership fee, Casa Casa offers a password-protected online member directory. Browsers can list an extra bedroom, view other members' available rooms, find out whether the stay is child-friendly and discover the host's hobbies and interests.
Travelers contact the host directly to arrange a stay. It's always up to the host whether to accept or decline the request. But members must agree to host travelers at least two or three times per year.
After a night's stay (which includes breakfast), visitors at Casa Casa leave a gratuity of $15 to $30 to cover the cost of breakfast and linens.
"It's like saying 'We know we put you out a little bit, so take yourself out to breakfast,'" Lauren Braden says.
Evergreen and Affordable Travel Club also ask members to leave a small gratuity to thank hosts for effort and time.
Casa Casa is the new kid on the hospitality-exchange block and has 165 members in 14 countries. By contrast, Evergreen Club has more than 4,000 members, while ATC has 2,000 members.
All organizations vet members the same way -- through yearly fees and member feedback. Although rare, complaints about boorish guests and uncomfortable rooms are taken seriously at each organization.
"In my personal experience, the worst feedback I've received about a member is that they arrived a few hours later than planned," Braden says.
These cheap sleeps aren't for every traveler. Those who aren't comfortable with the thought of a bed-and-breakfast stay won't enjoy a hospitality exchange. Visitors may have to share a bathroom and probably won't dry off with spa-like hotel towels.
"Sometimes a host is more chatty than their guest, or a guest is a night owl and keeps up the host," Braden says.
Club members can set expectations in the flurry of e-mails and phone calls that precede a stay, like "I'm a early riser!" or "I love my late-night 'Letterman'" Braden says.
Nancy Stein says that some people have expressed concern that they let strangers into their home, as part of the hospitality exchange.
"But they really aren't strangers," Stein says. "They're in the directory and we all have something in common. We all love to travel."
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