Travel

How I Decided to Travel for Free and Why I’ll Never Do It Again

This summer, I dared to fulfill the most adventurous journey of my life — my friend and I decided to repeat the alpine trips of various travel bloggers from Instagram. We got a bunch of pieces of paper and markers for hitchhiking, got in touch with the residents of the nearby Alpine cities on the site CouchSurfing (this service helps to get free lodging when abroad and to provide free shelter for travelers in your hometown), packed our backpacks, and rushed to climb mountains. It was my first experience of traveling for free and I confess that it was the last one. Read on to find out why!

Today I’m going to tell to readers what one should expect from such free entertainment. Also, I’d like to bust or confirm some myths about CouchSurfing and hitchhiking. Let’s get started!

A quick note: our 5-day route went along the Eastern Alps, starting in Munich and finishing in Graz (Austria). Every night, we stayed at the places of hosts from CouchSurfing, we used buses for short and complex distances and covered long distances by hitchhiking.

 

Myth #1: CouchSurfing is an obvious analog of a dating site and it can be dangerous.

It’s a very popular myth among those who have never used this service. I should admit that I used to have the same opinion but, eventually, we ended up staying with the nicest people in the world: a German BMW engineer, an Italian architect, an Austrian post-graduate student of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and a French engine designer. All these guys were older than 30, single, smart, they have traveled a lot, know many languages and keep exploring the world with the help of CouchSurfing. We didn’t come across any sort of ambiguous hints or uncomfortable moments. Everything was perfect until the moment we reached our last host in Graz, Austria — this is where my suspicion turned into reality and we bumped into a pervert!

He had very good reviews on the site and he promised to show us the city and to arrange a party for us. But when we arrived, this host stretched out on the sofa in his underwear smoking a rolled cigarette and said that he was feeling lazy and that we were not going anywhere. After realizing that there was nothing to talk to him about other than clubs, we discovered his real plan. At this moment, as if reading our thoughts, he started the most awkward and unpleasant dialogue of my life. To cut the story short, we barely managed to calm this guy down. In response, he got angry at us and stopped the communication — a true gentleman!

After all these emotions, I was left with a very bad impression about CouchSurfing in Austria. But my friend who has much more experience using CouchSurfing admitted that it was the first time that she faced such a situation. Therefore, we can say that this service is 98% safe. We didn’t leave any negative feedback about this Austrian host on the site because we thought that he could also write something bad about us and thus decrease the rating of our profile (therefore, in many cases negative reviews are simply not left on the site. This is something to keep in mind when using the services of similar sites.

In order not to finish this paragraph on a negative note, look at this adorable sleeping cat that belongs to the nicest hosts from Innsbruck.

 

Myth # 2: Thanks to CouchSurfing, you learn the country from within.

That’s true because local people will tell you much more than you can read in guidebooks or travel forums. But if you stay in some place for one night, which is what often happens, chances are that you won’t be able to see anything: you’ll only hear stories about those unique places.

This is all because CouchSurfing doesn’t only mean free shelter, but a cultural exchange, as well. If you come to a foreigner as a guest, he will perceive you as a person who should keep him engaged and entertained and not just simply use his free room. That’s why on one hand, it’s a cool service, but on the other hand, you’ll have to spend more time getting to know the hosts instead of exploring the city itself. However, different people have different interests and for some, it can be quite a fascinating experience.

If you ask what is better for me, I’ll simply offer you to look at the following collage:

On the left, there is a place that I wanted to visit in Munich. On the right, it’s a place where I spent most of my time in this city. I think you get the idea.

Myth # 3: Guys host only girls, while girls host only guys.

It’s partially true. When my friend announced to me that all our hosts will be guys, I got a little bit worried and started to Google something about the gender theory of CouchSurfing. I didn’t find anything on this topic and decided to create the theory myself based on the Reddit forum and the experience of my friends. Guys host girls or mixed companies because they feel more comfortable being in a female or mixed company rather than among men only. Girls generally host less and base their choices not according to the gender but the reviews and first impressions.

Myth # 4: You don’t spend any money with CouchSurfing and hitchhiking.

There are bloggers who claim that one doesn’t need money to travel — all they need is to have a big wish and that all the limits exist in their own heads. I don’t agree with such statements because you still need money to travel.

CouchSurfing is, of course, a budget version but I still spent about €200 during my “free” trip. This money was spent on the following:

  • Food — Despite staying at the hosts’ places for free, we had to buy groceries for dinner.
  • Cocktails and other beverages in bars and while walking — Very often we had to pay for the beverages of our hosts too. However, it is optional.
  • Souvenirs for our hosts because I can’t visit someone without bringing them a present. An interesting note: it’s only Russians and Poles who stick to this philosophy, according to the stories of our hosts. People of other nationalities usually come without any gifts.
  • Travel — As I have already mentioned, we used the bus for short distances because it could take much more time to be standing at the curb with an uplifted arm trying to hitchhike.

One more note about bloggers: compare the photos they posted with the reality that we saw:

Of course, most of the pictures get Photoshopped but I would like to outline that it’s not only photos that get edited, but also the trips in general — stories about adventures, recommendations and inspirational words about how easy traveling is. So the next time you come across someone’s unbelievable travel stories and photos, don’t blindly believe them and don’t envy the lives of travel-bloggers.

Myth # 5: Thanks to CouchSurfing, you get many new friends around the world.

This is true if you are an extrovert. You’ll have many friends abroad if you’re comfortable speaking to strangers and spending a lot of time with people you barely know.

But the situation is different if you are an introvert. I would even say that CouchSurfing is not meant for us. Just imagine — a hard day, several flights, many different types of experiences, and at the end of the day, you reach your host’s place and you have to spend the whole evening talking to them. And if you’re staying for longer than one night, then you may have to spend a lot of time with your host. This can be a serious issue for people who don’t feel comfortable around strangers all the time.

I was lucky to have an extroverted friend with me. She likes to share her energy with new people, while I was just helping my friend when the conversation came to a dead end due to the lack of common topics with hosts and we had to sit in silence listening to crickets singing. But my true wish at that moment was to just sit with my phone in silence. Within 5 days, we visited 5 different hosts and my desperate need for an emotional break overshadowed my wish to make new friends.

Myth # 6: Hitchhiking is a Russian roulette.

When we were drawing pictures with the names of our destination point in some alpine toilet suspecting that hitchhiking is not a common practice in the Alps, I was feeling scared.

The fact that we were wearing short skirts/shorts due to the unbearable heat added more danger to our situation. But adventure is adventure and there was no way back.

 

Eventually, very unexpected people gave us a lift: an Italian girl with her mother, an Austrian girl, a Slovenian hippie lady, and 2 Georgian men. They all were extremely kind and interesting people. The Georgian men were initially intending to pass by our destination point, which was Budapest and wasn’t a part of our Alpine route, but ended up giving us a lift till the very flat we were supposed to stay at. Moreover, they had to spend 40 extra minutes in a traffic jam in the downtown area. We were feeling very awkward for such kindness but they said that there is no other way that real gentlemen should act.

The Italian girl told us that hitchhiking is really a very rare thing in the Alps because there are various available services like Blablacar, car sharing, and car rentals. The Slovenian lady said that she hitchhiked a lot in her youth and gave us a lift in solidarity. She also confirmed the fact that this type of activity is rare in the mountains nowadays. Funny enough, but when saying good-bye she shouted to us, “And keep in mind that we are doing it for ourselves!” and looked at us mysteriously with some strange gleam in her eyes. We decided that she was a little mad but were still very grateful.

 

Therefore, hitchhiking exceeded our expectations. It is not popular and that’s why there are no “maniacs” in this area, at least in Europe. You can use it without any fears. Moreover, it is beautiful.

A small reminder: before getting into a car, you need to stand at the curb for an unknown period of time with the feeling of complete helplessness.

Should anyone repeat my experience?

  • As I already said, if you are an introvert and are not ready to give a part of yourself to a cultural exchange, think twice before starting such a journey. As a solution, you can take turns and stay one day at some CouchSurfing host’s place, then at a hotel, or at a hostel. It will give you an opportunity to get emotional rest.
  • If you want to save money, then such a trip will help. But still, it’s impossible to not spend any money at all. Don’t believe online travelers that keep motivating their readers to take free journeys.
  • Now it’s time for my very personal opinion: despite the fact that our trip turned out to be incredible, there is one thing I understood — all these methods to get a free ride, to live, and to eat for free are quite humiliating for me. Perhaps others will disagree with me but I’d better spend more money, travel less, and not see half of the world, but with the company I like, according to my travel plan, and at a pace that is comfortable for me. That’s the journey that will give me satisfaction.

Have you ever traveled on a tight budget? Do you have your own experience of using the services of CouchSurfing? We would be glad to read your stories in the comments!

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