Monday, 29 December 2008

Hostels vs hotels vs couchsurfing

We Don't Speak The Language is a series of video travel blogs "for the young and the broke". It's the work of Sean Blanda and Chris Wink, freelance journalists from Philadelphia, who recently completed a three-month trip around Europe. Unfortunately, the series has come to end now the guys are back home, but check out this episode below, offering lots of good tips in the pros and cons of backpacking accommodation options: hostels, hotels and couchsurfing.

It's a two-parter and the couchsurfing tips follow in the second video. They're spot on about making couchsurfing requests personal to increase your chances of finding a suitable and willing host. Cut-and-paste efforts are instantly recognisable, expose you as having made no effort to read the person's profile and are not likely to elicit a response. Watch on for more advice...

Part one: hostels

Part two: hotels and couchsurfing

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Local travel: future trends

Geographical magazine coined all sorts of new buzzwords for their December “future of tourism” issue. Most include the prefix “geo” as a subtle reminder of where you heard it first.

First up is the “geotourist”. According to the term’s inventor, Jonathan Tourtellot of National Geographic Traveler, this is someone who “gets off a cruise ship and discovers an interesting town, then decides to come back and explore it another time”.

Tourists who like places and aren’t satisfied with a couple of hours docking in a cruise port? This didn’t strike me as anything new, but, reading on, the underlying point gets more interesting.

Geotourists are those who look beyond just ticking places off a list and want to build connections with the destinations and their people. Their aim is to "sustain or enhance the geographical character of a place: the environment, heritage, aesthetics, culture and well-being of its residents”.

Sustainable, or conscious, tourism may not be a brand new concept, but here's hoping Geographical are right and it will continue to spread. After all, something's got to give.
Tourtellot points out there could be seven billion tourists rooming our planet in next decade and “if four billion people decide to see the Mona Lisa, it would take 309 years, even with groups of 25 viewing it for one minute, 24 hours a day”.

So what else does the future hold? According to Geographical, travel by 2020 will also be “geo-local”. Basically, this means holidaymakers will travel closer to home. "We'll begin to travel more within our own countries and continents, and less frequently beyond them. A British family might head to Cornwall to stay in a locally run Cornish cottage, shop for Cornish crafts and enjoy a cream tea.”

Perhaps. Although, as the economic crisis takes hold, I’d say people aren’t going to wait until 2020 until they start holidaying closer to home.

So, it's buzzword number three that is arguably the most innovative of the lot: hyper-local sourcing. "
By 2020, we'll also see the majority of hotels getting their produce, employees, materials, services and the like from sources within their immediate vicinity," they say. They also predict a new type of hotel - 'the ten-kilometre hotel' - for which all food and materials will have been sourced from within a ten-kilometre radius. Hotels will offer energy and water for guests on a metered system, and there will be discounts for visitors who keep their consumption below average.

For me, "geotourism" and "geo local" travel are already in full swing, but I'll be interested to see if the "hyper local" prediction comes true. I can see the potential. My first, and only, such experience was when
received a discount for arriving by public transport at a tree-climbing centre on the Isle of Wight.

The hotel or excursion bill of the future ('s mock-up is pictured), which offers discounts rather than just piling on unexpected extras would certainly make a welcome change.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Local tips on trekking in Peru

Picture the scene: you’re high in the Peruvian Andes. It’s 5,000 metres above sea level, the air is thin, and you’re doing your best to keep altitude sickness at bay. You’re surrounded by snow-capped mountains and the rain is relentless.

This is when you happen upon a teary eyed backpacker, who has been separated from the rest of her group. She’s wearing cotton trousers, two T-shirts and a jacket that isn’t waterproof. She’s so cold that she’s verging on hypothermia and she’s even started to hallucinate.

This is what my group came across a few weeks ago on the week-long Salkantay trek through Peru’s sacred valley.

Fortunately, we were able to take her to a nearby lodge, where we dried her off the best we could, and gave her some hot food and dry clothes. Finally, her exceedingly casual guide showed up, accompanied by her shivering friend, who was similarly under-prepared with plastic bags on her feet to combat leaking boots.

This article isn’t meant to scare people out of trekking in Peru. The point is just because so many people are doing it (up to 500 people a day embark on the famed Inca Trail), it doesn’t make it a walk in the park. Altitude and weather conditions can make it tough, so preparation is essential.

I’ve been speaking to the experts (namely Jose from, Dameiro from Mountain Lodges of Peru and Jose at and getting their tips on what people should know before starting their big Peruvian trek.

If you’ve been trekking in Peru, feel free to add your own.

To combat altitude sickness
Keep hydrated by drinking lots and lots of water.
Don’t drink alcohol or caffeine.
Do drink coca tea - locals swear by it.
Go to bed early, as your sleep will be interrupted at high altitude.

What to pack
Decent trekking boots (fully broken in and making sure toes don’t touch the end)
Sock liners to go inside trekking socks to prevent blister-inducing friction (available from outdoor shops, or ordinary thin socks should do)
Blister plasters
Insect repellent
A warm hat
A sunhat/cap
Longsleeved T-shirt (to protect against insects/sunburn)
Waterproof jacket and trousers
Non-cotton trekking clothes (they dry faster)
Sleeping bag suitable for the season (or you can often hire one)
Consider taking or hiring walking poles, which, according to Cusco Guides, "reduce up to 30% off your legs' effort and also give more confidence when you walk downhill".

Book ahead if you want to do the Inka Trail
(at least six weeks). The trail is closed in February, which is the height of the rainy season. It’s not all about the Inka Trail though. Consider taking an alternative and less busy route. The Salkantay - which traverses nine bio zones and gives an unusual, distant view of Machu Picchu - is highly recommended.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Going local with the lingo

I've just spent a week in Santiago, living with a friend of mine, hanging out with her mates and generally getting a feel for Chilean life. People would pay a lot of money for that sort of language immersion. But for me, it was free. Xili was a contact from

Xili (pictured far right) and I met earlier in the year when was visiting her hometown, Panama City. She had listed herself on Couchsurfing as willing to show travellers around town and her profile carried an abundance of glowing references. We ended up spending the best part of two weeks together and got along so well that we vowed to meet up again in Santiago, where she was heading to study.

Our reunion was a testament to how travel-networking can accelerate language learning. The first time we met, back in March, we spoke almost entirely in English. This time, the tables had turned. I'd been travelling across South America pretty much ever since, hanging out with locals, and generally doing my best to get off the standard Gringo trail. All the while, my confidence and vocab have been growing.

For the past week, we have conversed entirely in Spanish, which is hugely exciting progress for me. This doesn't mean Xili's English isn't still far superior to my faltering efforts in her language. For example, I still have a tendency to speak in uncertain, approval-seeking questions when using the past tense - ie "I saw? the film", "I had? lunch already". However, ever-patient, she gave nods of encouragement where appropriate and ensured I retained confidence not to give up.

What I love most about learning Spanish in Latin America is that people are delighted when you have a go and are ultra patient, even when you make a mess of it. I remember it being rather different when I lived in France, where I'd often get "Quoi?" barked back at me, accompanied by a semi-disgusted wrinkling of the nose. I'm a big fan of French people, but it was tough at times and it took much longer to feel comfortable communicating. Although, the fact that I was a self-conscious 18-year-old may have been a factor too.

Spending the best part of this year hanging out - and, in some cases, living - with locals has worked wonders for my Spanish. It goes without saying that it's far better than learning it from a book or even in classroom setting - where, as soon as you get into the "real world", you often seize up. Or at least I do. When I first arrived in France - after seven years of lessons - I may have been able to discuss the films of François Truffaut but I didn't have a clue how to say "You're welcome".

I'd highly recommend travel-networking sites to keen linguists as a way to learn how a language is used on a real, day-to-day basis., for example, clearly shows you which languages members speak and many specifically use it to get extra practice with native speakers. So, you might find yourself in Milan, speaking Italian with your host over your morning cappuccino and then switching to English when you take an impromptu shopping tour.

My only criticism is that insists on dividing competence levels into just three categories: beginner, intermediate, or expert. I'd argue there's a big leap between the upper two levels. Could they not slot "fluent" in between? Fluent is a much better description for those who can communicate effectively, but would never claim perfection.

There are a range of travel-networking sites you can use to meet local hosts. Or, if you're rooted to the spot, why not have people come to you? When in London, my Couchsurfing profile specifically states that "patient French and Spanish speakers are particularly welcome". Alternatively, if you're feeling particularly shy, you can do it all via your computer with sites such as, and (incorporating what was Friends Abroad). Many of these also offer "voice chat", providing invaluable conversation practice.

You could also meet with a group of other enthusiasts through (Michael Muszlak runs a great Anglo-Franco get-together in Paris every Saturday night.) Or you could try a skill exchange via community sites such as Last year, Luz Marina became my Spanish teacher in London, thanks to Gumtree; this year, I visited her in her native Bogota.

Recently, in a gringo-friendly cafe in Sucre, Bolivia, I saw a good-old fashioned noticeboard request. "Looking for someone to practice English with. Nothing weird. I'm just planning to move to the US." My Couchsurfing contact in the town, Laura, noticed it too. "I used to do that," she said. "Until I discovered Couchsurfing."

I think I might try the old-fashioned note in a cafe when I get to Buenos Aires, or I'll revisit the local Couchsurfing group. I'm also hoping Xili will come and visit me while I'm there. That way I can finally return some of her hugely appreciated hospitality.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Paris Hilton is not your friend

What happens to members of elite travel-networking site that break the strict rules of conduct? Those, for example, who after gaining much sought-after membership simply can't restrain themselves from sending a wishful friend request to the site's celebrity contingency, such as Paris Hilton or Naomi Campbell?

Immediate expulsion followed by profile deletion was the worst I imagined. But no, it's much more humiliating than that.

ASW wrong-doers get relegated to a purgatory otherwise know as A Big World. Next time they log in, they find the normally blue welcome screen has turned a shameful green, access to the forums and other profiles is denied, and all they can read are the "what did I do wrong?" lamentations from other ejectees.

An old article from Wired details an anecdote from one reluctant Big World member: a 20-something
from Geneva called Talal bin Laden, who admits he's "distantly, distantly related to that guy no one likes".

"One guy posted some anti-Arab racist slurs, and I responded with a polite deconstruction of why I felt that was inappropriate," says bin Laden. "For that, I was evicted to hell."

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Tourists in Japan must dance to a different tuna

It was Tokyo's ultimate local travel experience: get up early and head to the world's biggest fish market, Tsukiji. See the giant tuna roll in, catch the auction action, and try some of the freshest sushi in town. It was a everyday life that few tourists had seen before. Until, that is, everyone caught on to the idea...

When 200 and 300 people started packing into the auction area, it became too much. Earlier this year authorities called for tourists to show voluntary restraint and stay away, but, of course, that was never going to work. So now the ban is complete. For at least a month.

As soon as tourism becomes a mass activity, problems usually follow. The main issue with "must sees" is that people usually go through the motions and forget their common sense - especially, perhaps inevitably, when getting up at 4am. There have been reports of tourists obscuring auction hand signals with flash photography, walking around in high heels and compromising hygiene by prodding the fish.

However, couldn't such stupidity be avoided without a total ban? Tsukiji's restaurants and shops must surely hope so.

"As far as sushi restaurants are concerned, I think more than 50 percent of their customers are [outsiders] on weekdays. On Saturdays, they probably account for more than 90 percent," Susumu Isono, director of local sushi chain Isonoya, told the Japan Times.

So is this just a clever PR scam? If the authorities create a storm of publicity by making such a drastic move, guidebooks and tour operators will be obliged to change their info. "Arrive at 5am to catch the action," says Lonely Planet. Expect an update soon.

Photograph: Derek Mawhinney/ Wikipedia images

Wanted: a friendly Parisian

Parisians rude and unfriendly? No, you´ve got it all wrong. In fact, to prove it, Paris Greeters will get a extra-friendly resident to give you a free city tour. Or, at least, that´s the theory. In reality, it seems all 11 million of them are a little busy right now. One will get back to you though. Maybe. If you´re very persistent.

Journalist Agnès Poirier waited six weeks to get a response - and only then after tipping them off that she was journalist. She wrote an entertaining blog about it over at Guardian Travel.

But friendly Parisians can´t be in that short supply, can they? My recent trip there showed that the best way to get behind closed doors - literally and metaphorically - is to stay with a local via a B&B network, such as or Alcôve & Algapes. Pictured left is my host, Françoise - a professional laughter coach living in the eastern suburb of Vincennes - with the equally friendly Jenny Johnson from 2binParis.

Or you could try meeting a Couchsurfer. Paris is the world´s largest Couchsurfing city, with over 15,000 local members.

And before you despair in all greeter schemes. Check out this follow-up blog, Pleased to Greet You, which covers more successful greeting experiences in Jamaica and Argentina, among others.

I'll add links to these greeter sites to the Going Local Travel sidebar. And thanks to Stephen Chapman of MakeTravelFair for making me aware of many of them.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

London shopping: keeping it local

Wards Corner is the latest London market to come under threat. The Latin American enclave in Tottenham is the being earmarked for "development".

Londoners have already lost a large chunk of Spitalfields and Camden´s future has been looking dubious for sometime. And what have we gained in their place? That monstrous shrine to excessive consumerism: the Westfield Centre.

But all hope is not yet lost. Big up to the site that celebrates London´s independent traders: Good luck to them and their New York branch.

And "suerte" to the Wards Corner community. If you´re in London, show your support at their Christmas party on Dec 5.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Koalas in Bolivia?

What do you do when you get off a night bus in a chilly Bolivian city at 5am when there are no couchsurfers in town? You rely on your guidebook and book into the only place that it says isn't freezing at night: the Koala Den.

Despite my fear of the cold and the den's billing as "warm and cosy", this was not an exciting prospect. I was in Potosi, a traditional Bolivian mining town that claims to be the highest city in the world, and yet was checking into a clearly Aussie-owned place called the Koala Den. Could this be the furthest thing from going local? I was disappointed with the Lonely Planet for writing off everywhere else in town and I was disappointed at myself for falling for it.

But I was wrong. On one count, at least. Sure, the hostal was full of travellers, with a DVD library of American blockbusters and a fair few Australians, but, to my surprise, it was Bolivian-owned and staffed entirely by locals.

Why the name? "Because," explained the receptionist, "the miners here are famed for chewing coca leaves. Just as koalas chew eucalyptus."

Ah ha. Proof that you should never jump to conclusions.

In fairness, it turned out to be a very sweet place: cheap and friendly. The Aussies were ok too.

I'm only kidding. Aussie travellers are always fun. I'm not avoiding other travellers because I don't like them, I just hate being trapped in bubble, which is how it can feel in many of the hostels out here. There are less travel networkers in Bolivia and I am struggling to get off the gringo trail.

Here's hoping I'll have more luck in Sucre, the nation's capital, where I'll be meeting a Couchsurfer called Laura. Her profile pics is nothing more than a rather seductive pair of lips, so I'm rather intrigued...

Friday, 21 November 2008

Back to the future with MeetURPlanet

I've discovered a new hospitality network. Well, new to me. has actually been going since 2001 - three years before It turns out the founder, Jeff Mitchell, was quite the pioneer in the field, completing a world tour through members homes in Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, France, England, US and Australia back in the site's inaugural year.

Shame, then, to see it’s been left to go a little stagnant since then. I wanted to try and give it a whirl here in Bolivia, but there’s only one member in the entire country and he last logged in 2001.

I have been a little lazy with the site in the last year or two,” said Jeff when I emailed him. Come on Jeff, now’s not the time to be lazy. Hospitality tourism is storming forward and you should be leading the field, not playing catch up. Time to get back on it, or else you’ll certainly need to change the “the future of travel is now” tagline.

In the meantime, I’ll try that Bolivian. You never know…

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

PickUpPal picks up the bill

Bad news for carsharing site PickUpPal: they lost their Ontario hearing and now have to pay an C$11,ooo fine. The charge, which I reported on for the Guardian (Would you stick your cyber thumb out for a lift? Oct 4), followed a complaint by a local bus company that such car-sharing schemes were illegal in the Canadian province.

An antiquated law means PickUpPal users are expected to follow a bizarre series of rules, such only arranging a liftshare if you are travelling between home and work, riding with the same driver each day, and paying the driver on a weekly, not daily, basis. If you want to step outside of these rules - and, say, ask your friend for a fiver for petrol or arrange a cross-country roadtrip – the authorities demand you obtain a license first.

The ruling proved to be a shock for co-founder Eric Dewhirst, who had been confident in the run-up. Yet he's remaining optimistic.
"Because we made a case out of it and received a lot of media attention we were able to put enough pressure on the government to change the laws. Two weeks ago they introduced an amendment to the current legislation that would essentially allow us to operate. The laws still has to pass but we are hopeful," he says.

"We are disappointed at losing at the hearing, however we're thrilled that we got the attention of the government and they are moving forward on changing the laws."

With over 100,000 members, it will take more than this to keep PickUpPal down. While technicalities are being sorted out, Ontario members are being asked to abide by the local law.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Traveller´s Tree goes couchsurfing

It wasn´t easy arranging the interview from a small radio station in Cusco, but we got there in the end. Here´s a link to Traveller´s Tree´s virtual travel special, broadcast on Radio 4 earlier today. I spoke on travel networking and couchsurfing. Who knows, perhaps I have tempted presenter Katie Derham into giving it a go. She was very surprised to hear the sites are open to families too.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Adios to Friends Abroad is no more. The website that enabled users to practise languages with native speakers has become a part of The FriendsAbroad site will be closing soon, but all profiles are being automatically migrated over to Babbel (pictured).

I first wrote about FriendsAbroad for The Linguist magazine back in 2006. The site was established by Simon Murdoch, one of the early internet entrepreneurs, who after selling his online company Booksellers to Amazon for a hefty £5million, went on to run

For nostalgia's sake, here's an extract from my piece from The Linguist. I like to think my Spanish has improved somewhat since then. Meanwhile, for other sites that link you with language learners overseas, you can also try or

"''Hi. My name is Vicky. I am English and live in London. Je parle Français. Hablo Espanol tambien, pero solo un poco.’ My introductory post is short and to the point, and yet a couple of days later I start to get a series of messages. Many are in Spanish, which could be a bit of a challenge, but there’s a translation aid on the site if I get stuck. There’s also no hunting around your keyboard for the special characters menu, as accented letters are easily accessible onscreen.

Most of the messages come from men - which makes me wonder if some are using it as a dating service - but as long as you don’t give out any personal information, you’re safe. Members, I am told, tend to police the site themselves and report anyone who arouses suspicions.

The introductions keep coming. “Hello,” says Ange, a 29-year-old engineer. “I’m from Paris. I can help you with french and hope to learn from you english ... Are you OK?” A quick ‘hola’ from a 17-year-old Spanish schoolgirl follows.

When I was doing my A-levels, the latter would have been an ideal correspondent. These days, I doubt we’d have much in common. To find someone with your own interests you have to search around instead of letting people come to you - but there is certainly no shortage of people to choose from."

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Hello stranger

Not feeling up to boarding a place by yourself and taking the leap into travel networking with the locals? The first step could be finding travel companion that can head out there with you. Read my article in today's Guardian for all you need to know and an account of my recent trip to Barcelona, with friends met through

I'll meet you in the plaza...

When I first started out on my travel-networking experiment, a reader emailed me to tell me about his own adventures across South America using "Let's see how many times have you found yourself meeting someone at the main plaza, in front of the cathedral," he joked.

It's true that this seems to be the meeting place of choice in this part of the world and it still amazes me when it works out.

Yesterday evening, I phoned a Couchsurfer called Jose when I arrived in Cusco. "Meet me in the Plaza d'Armes [ie the main plaza] at 6pm," he said. "But where? It's a big plaza," I asked. "By the water fountain. Ok chau. Hasta luego," he said and promptly hung up.

A couple of hours later, I was found myself trying to make eye contact with every single guy in the radius of the said fountain. Not ideal, but fortunately, at ten past, up bobbed Jose with a big grin on his face.

Some travel networkers grow on you over time, but Jose was an instant hit. He seemed highly amused by the lost look on my face and we've been laughing pretty much ever since.

Since our plaza meet, he's taken me to the local market where we've chatted with some of the traders; he's guided me on an informal walking tour around the lanes of the San Blas barrio (and to a lookout point that I probably wouldn't have found myself); he's introduced me to local delicacies such as "te pitedo" (hot tea with pisco) and tamal (moulded maize, wrapped in maize leaves, resembling a banana); and he seems to be constantly waving to people he knows, which, somehow rubs off on me, making me feel more at home.

But, best of all, he got me out of my hostal. I made the mistake of checking into one of those sprawling great place that feels like a university campus. It's nice enough (clean, hot water, good facilities), but I don't think there's a Peruvian in the place, Arctic Monkeys CDs are playing in the bar, and English echoes off all walls, whether with an Aussie, Irish or Euro twang. With the in-house pyjama party last night, I felt like a gatecrasher at Freshers' Week.

All good fun perhaps, but no different from any other huge hostal around the world, which is the main reason I turned to travel networking in the first place. If ever I was glad of a local contact, it was last night. Gracias Jose!

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Couchsurfing and the importance of keeping in touch

“It’s tiring being a host,” sighed Thomas. As an active member of and, he has put numerous travellers up, for free, at his home near the French Guianan capital of Cayenne.

“I enjoy it,” he continued, “but you put so much effort into creating these friendships and then you never hear from the person again.”

He’s not the only host I’ve heard voice such an opinion. Felicia, a member of, who I visited in her home within a downtrodden barrio of Caracas, Venezuela also told me that “most foreigners come, and then disappear”.

With these conversations in mind, I´m trying my best not to do a disappearing act. It’s particularly important to keep in touch with the hosts who aren’t travellers themselves, but are putting people up purely because they want to meet people and make friends across the world.

Admittedly, Felicia’s emails, filled with stream-of-consciousness, punctuation-free slang, push my Spanish beyond its limits, but we’re getting by. In general, MSN and Facebook make it a lot easier and, of course, all travel-networking hosts are, by definition, often online. A short email or a round robin is often all it takes to show you haven’t forgotten a person.

I can’t claim to be an angel when it comes to keeping in touch with everyone I’ve met through travel networking. I have a backlog of people I need to drop a line and one slightly intense Colombian contact is constantly telling me off from sporadic contact. (A little unfairly, I feel. The understanding needs to go both ways.)

However, I’m doing my best and what I like about couchsurfing is the connection it enables you to build with the places you visit. Usually when backpacking, you only make friends with other backpackers. You might become good friends and stay in contact for years, but what becomes of the place? Once you all move on, it is little more than a shell for your memories from that one period of time.

The advantage of staying with locals is you keep in touch with the places as well as the people. Life goes on there; you receive the updates, you can picture it moving on; and, as many hosts repeat, the door is always open for your return.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

My city secret: Lima

After I posted on Benji Lanaydo´s best of the local blogs earlier this week, he alerted me to a blog chain he´s started, encouraging writers to share a city secret on their blog, call it ´My city secret´, and then post a link over at

"Could a ´My city secret´ post be part of the Going Local remit?" he asked. Well, it can be if I get a local to pass on their top tips instead.

I asked my newfound Peruvian friend, Claire Jaureguy, a journalist who also works for the Peruvian tourist board, if she had any tips on her hometown, Lima. Knowing she usually has her iPod glued to her ears and is more up-to-date on the London bands than I am, I asked if she had a tip for catching up-and-coming Peruvian bands when in the country´s immense capital.

Here are her suggestions. I´m not sure how secret they are, but I´d certainly trust her enough to consider them well worth checking out.

"Sargento Pimienta (Sgt. Pepper) is the rock bar in Barranco, the bohemian part of the city. Also El Dragón and Barrancois Discoteca Voce are musts for live music."

She also mentioned Juanito en la Plaza de Barranco "for something more traditional". When I Googled "Juanito, Lima", it lead me this interesting Peru-based blog,

Thus, Benji proved his rabbit-warren theory once again. I´ll let the Cool Peru guys know and maybe they can post a city secret too.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Going local in Paris, part one

Also in Sat’s locals special in the Guardian was my account of a recent B&B visit in Paris. It follows below and is part of a larger piece on tips on where to stay around the world.

Françoise was a fun host and I was impressed with the agency, While I was in town I also meet with one of their representatives, Jenny Johnson. It is part of her job to visit all the hosts, to personally vet the accommodation, and make sure they fully understand what their role involves.

Here’s my review. And stay tuned for part two of the Going Local Paris experience, when things got even more interesting and I met one of the city’s greatest local legends.

The Parisian B&B

Françoise Rousse answers the door with a big welcoming smile. Well, smiles are to be expected given that she is a professional laughter coach and the founder of the French University of Laughter. This weekend, this flame-haired sixtysomething is also my host. She has established her own Parisian B&B, offering her spare bedroom to travellers looking to get a more personal perspective on this vast, enigmatic city.

B&Bs are currently enjoying a resurgence in Paris. For proof, thumb through the newly released Chambres d'Hôtes à Paris, a pictorial guide of the city's 100 best (Hachette, €16). You don't have to be able to read the French text to have your imagination captured by images of Le Bateau Johanna (, a houseboat moored by the Musée d'Orsay, or Chez Bertrand, where the bed is fashioned out of an old 2CV (

According to Jenny Johnson of B&B specialists, Parisians are signing up to the idea in order to "meet more people and earn a little extra money". The plus points are just as obvious for the tourists: B&Bs offer the chance to tap into some local knowledge and are also a welcome alternative to overpriced tourist hotels.

Françoise's 1930s apartment block is just off a tourist-free road in the eastern suburb of Vincennes. Inside, the homely decor is just as cheerful as the owner. Its bijoux dimensions are enhanced by a wall of mirrors and a bouquet of lilies; wooden furniture is painted in primary colours; and my bedroom is pastel purples and greens.

I nearly backed out when told me I'd be staying in Vincennes, which looked far from central on my map. But it turned out to be just a 15-minute metro ride from the fashionable Marais district, on numerous handy bus routes (the number 29 takes you straight to St Lazare, for shopping at La Fayette), and there is even a Vélib stop so you can use Paris's hugely successful public bike scheme.

But, best of all, Françoise alerts me to the nearby Promenade Plantée, a green-fringed footpath (cyclists and skaters welcome) that follows an old railway line and takes you all the way to the Bastille.

There are some drawbacks to staying in such a small B&B: you are constantly aware that you are a guest in someone's home and you have to stick to a specified arrival time. However, it's certainly a more personal and insightful experience.

As for me, I still have some way to go before I get fully under Paris's skin, but I'd be happy to make my way through the 100 best B&Bs to get there.

• Françoise's apartment, Courteline, costs €34.22pp per night through (+1 47 34 01 50). There are around 120 B&Bs on the site, from €35-€100pp pn. Sister company has over 4,000 B&Bs across Italy. Eurostar ( runs from St Pancras, Ebbsfleet and Ashford to Paris from £59 return.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Going loco for locals

If you missed the Guardian´s local travel special, you can catch up online. Being out of the country, that´s what I´m planning to do. I´m particularly looking forward to reading Benji Lanyado´s piece on the best of local blogs. But, as Benji always says, entering the blogosphere is like falling into a rabbit warren, one good link always leads to another, so I need to set aside a decent amount of time. Right now I´ve got to dash back to my host family here in Peru. Lunch is on the table and we have a local fiesta to go to. More on that to come...

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Surfing sofa - the gay way

Everyone is looking to ride's wave. The latest in a long line of copycats is, a gay and lesbian site of Spanish origins. 

You don't have to be gay to register on Surfing Sofa, according to the FAQ page. "Surfing Sofa is hetero-friendly," it says.

There's certainly a gap in the market for the site, with LGHEI (the Lesbian and Gay Hospitality Exchange) having failed to have seized its position as one of the hospitality movement's originators. LGHEI, pronounced El Gay, now looks seriously dated and a membership of just a few hundred makes its future look dubious.

The bare torso on Surfing Sofa's current homepage certainly gives the site more of a dating-site feel than Couchsurfing. "Do I have to have a fling with my host?" is another FAQ. No, there's absolutely no obligation - is the answer. Although there's a clear subtext that they expect a whole of that to be going on.

Nonetheless, it's a slick looking site. We'll have to see how it fares.

Perhaps their oddest decision is choosing to call their ambassadors "slaters". The site's explaination: "The name is making reference to Kelly Slater the number one surfer in the world." I guess it must have seemed like a clever idea at the time.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Tripwiser: Roll up, roll up, get your clone holidays

Cloning sounds like something best left to Photoshop users, Dolly the sheep's creators, and the dark forces in Star Wars. Yet travel-networking site is currently celebrating the launch of their new cloning tool: something that enables users to copy other members' trip and itineraries.

I've just had a quick scout around the site and I'm not sure I'd want to clone any of these trips. For the most part, they look rather unimaginative. Itineraries for Paris, for example, make groundbreaking suggestions such as "Don't miss the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre".

I use the internet to plan holidays that escape the bog-standard, cookie-cutter experiences and try, instead, to get the inside track. I'm far from keen on wading through reams of clueless recommendations that would be too basic for a standard guidebook. Even if I can now have the convenience of accessing these via Facebook.

Sites like this will soon become victim of their own success. They may build up an initial following from people wanting to announce to the world that they've been somewhere, but more discerning travellers will soon end up giving them a wide berth.

Much better advice can be found over at ever-growing, which enables you to leave your own tips, but also specifically selects knowledgeable local experts. Or possibly TripTips, which allows you to build a network based on people you know and trust.

This is what I want. Not having to wade through a million and one opinions on Tripwiser. Or Tripadvisor. Or TripTie.

And, good grief, a bit more imagination with site names wouldn't go a miss either.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The rise of cyber-hitching

"In these uncertain financial times, more and more people are turning to cyber-hitching - car pooling via the internet. Would you get into a car with a stranger?"

This was the question I asked on the Guardian travel site this weekend. So far, there have been some interesting responses. Read them here.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Local travel means cheaper travel

Here are a few tips I've written for the Guardian's money-saving special this weekend.

Learn to share

Want to take a trip, save some cash, decrease your carbon footprint and a possibly make a new friend en route? Liftsharing can tick all these boxes. Carpooling website has seen sign-up rates double in the last month, meaning they are now racking up 5,000 new members a week. "Our members are looking at ways to weather this economic storm," says co-founder Eric Dewhirst. He describes the site as "like eBay for transportation": you say where you want to go and drivers suggest a fee for taking you there. Since launching in January, the site has accrued 100,000 members worldwide. It's free to join and they have now scrapped the original 7% commission charge.

Find a city B&B

Now that all small hotels are labelling themselves "boutique" and using this as green light to raise prices, it's time to revert to the good old-fashioned B&B. When in Rome, stay with the Romans via Sleeping Rome (0039 068 620 9286,, from £20pp). In Paris, try Alcôve & Agapes, which offers full profiles on each host to ensure a truly personal experience (, double rooms from £60: note that the office is shut until Oct 14.)

House swapping

Nicole Feist, the blogger behind the hugely informative Home Exchange Travels (, says she's been inundated with enquiries about this money-saving mode of travel. She points out that home exchanges are not just for long-haul, long-term trips to places such as Australia. "We love doing exchanges over long weekends, and, in Europe, budget airlines make it even easier," she says. For good European coverage, Nicole recommends Dutch site, or try the Guardian's own home-exchange service, Both cost around £35 for one year's online listing.

More money-saving tips for European travel here.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Breaking news: house swapping exists

"Budget travel have found a new way to travel for free," announces CNN. What's new? Home exchanging, apparently.

Somehow I doubt Budget Travel magazine, who run a hugely informative, on-the-ball website, are under the impression they've "discovered" this mode of travel. The travel press have been covering it for years. However, as I mentioned last week, it seems to be entering a resurgence due to tough economic times.

You can read Budget Travel's honest and entertaining account on the secrets of happy house swapping here, while the CNN interview (above), although nothing enlightening for experiences swappers, is still worth a watch.

In the meantime, watch out for more articles about this "brand new trend". The same description is often given to, even though it's been going since 2004.

Going solo: propping up female confidence

When I was travelling around South and Central America for the Guardian earlier this year, I received lots of emails from female travellers looking for advice.

"All my friends travel with their boyfriends. I'm not sure if I can do it alone" was a line that sticks in my mind.

Of course, I encouraged her and everyone else debating taking the leap. Solo travel is great for boosting confidence and, in my experience, you are never on your own for long.

Journalist Fiona Cullinan contacted me last week when she was researching this What's stopping you? piece for

Of course, I'd recommend travel networking for meeting new people, but I appreciate that for inexperienced travellers the concept of meeting strangers online can be even more scary than the idea of being all alone. So I'd suggest, as a starting point, organising a group tour or staying in a hostel. It won't immerse you in local life, but it will ease you in gently and help you get used to the travellers' mentality.

Fiona has lots of other tips in her piece. One that caught my eye was the idea of travelling with a prop as a talking point. I emailed Fiona to find out more and she told me she travelled with a small guitar with stickers from each country she visited. "After three years, it was covered and people would come up and ask to photograph it, " she says.

Now this, I can understand. A beloved object with a purpose, one she could use to keep herself, and others, entertained. Good on you, Fiona. But the Glaswegian travelling with a monster-tyre? Did he also introduce himself by saying "all my mates think I'm well mad"? Sorry, I'm not convinced.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Globetrotters in Harlem:
the case of 'ghetto' tourism

Do tourists visit Harlem merely to gawp at poor, black people? The following is an extract from an article on the Guardian's Comment is Free site by a Harlem resident, Lola Adesioye.
"I'm still struggling to get to grips with tourists' fascination with coming into a poor area, one still considered by many to be a "ghetto", just to watch black people eat, worship and generally go about their daily lives - as if deprivation is somehow interesting and the way in which black people socialise really is so different from other Americans."
Just as India has "slum tours", Brazil offers the "favela experience" and South Africa serves up township "poorism", now Harlem is the must-see place to get down with, and get photos of, people less privileged than yourself.

Or is it?

As some of the blog respondents point out, isn't the Afro-American heritage likely to be more of a draw than poverty? I think many residents would be rather unhappy slotting modern Harlem into the slum/favela/township category.

One blog respondent, Raz, says:
I intend to visit Harlem on my next visit to NYC. Not to gawp at poor people but because it's another part of the jigsaw of a fascinating city. I'm not sure that you can live in an historical neighborhood and not expect tourists. Lola, I'm sure you've visited Chinatown. How did you feel about that?
I'd have to agree with Raz. As a home of jazz music, soul-food restaurants, gospel churches, historical sites and hip-hop, Harlem has all the hallmarks of a tourist attraction.

Two years ago, I went on a hip-hop tour of Harlem (tour guide Grandmaster Caz, pictured above). Admittedly, it was a group tour on bus, which is never my favourite form of tourism, but I did it to get to know another one of the city's neighbourhoods and learn about the origins of a genre of music that became part of my own youth on the other side of the Atlantic. I certainly didn't do it to get my fix of "deprivation"; my motivations were no different from doing a Bob Dylan tour of Greenwich Village.

Back to the idea of poorism or favela tourism, it's never going to be simple right/wrong, black/white case. Each experience depends on the individual tourist's attitude, as Lola concedes. If the alternative is to visit all other neighbourhoods and ignore the so-called "black areas", I can't see that this would be preferable.

Admittedly, bus tours aren't ideal and seem to jar with something as personal as church worship (Harlem church trips are very popular among tourists), but it is up to the congregations to decide whether to accept this or not. Meanwhile, tour guides are in the ideal position to breakdown inevitable preconceptions.

The best advice from Lola comes in her parting words. "I'd encourage anyone coming to Harlem to get off the bus, sit in a bar or café and talk to some locals." Travel networking anyone?

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Credit crunched? Try a home exchange

In times of hefty morgage payments, rising fuel bills and general financial doom, the Daily Telegraph has offered a solution: make your home your passport. Home exchanges are nothing new, but, as the credit crunch takes hold, the idea of living abroad rent-free has never been more appealing.

Last month, the Observer also renewed interested in such schemes with an entertaining account of a London-NYC home swap.

Juliet Kinsman writes:
Our introduction to the immediate neighbours was a hello over the fence - followed by the offer of a paddling pool loan. To parents of an infant in the sweltering city heat, this ranks with a private hotel infinity pool. Imagine our delight when they reappeared brandishing guests passes to MoMA, a mountain of toys and fresh-from-the-oven New York Times recipe cookies. We hadn't been there 48 hours and they'd already made our holiday.

It was a lovely piece and a huge success in terms of online page views. Well, who wouldn't be tempted to click on headline reading 'New York for a month without spending a dime'? (Even if this did seem to overlook living expenses and flights.)

The Daily Mail's money section has also been enthusing about home-swapping this week, while the Guardian launched its own home-exchange service, powered by Home Base Holidays, in January.

In general, as listing sites get more sophisticated, it's becoming even easier to arrange a house exchange. Although that doesn't mean swappers aren't thinking ahead: according to the Travel the Home Exchange Way blog, exchange plans are already underway for the London 2012 Olympics. Time to get on your marks? Here are the Telegraph's home-exchange tips:

  • Register with an agency, which will cost from £40 to £250, to display your home details on a professional website and give you access to details about other homes
  • Describe your home thoroughly with plenty of digital pictures, and remember that American and Australasian visitors love history
  • To start making a swap, either wait for another client to contact you or identify a place and home you like, and email the owners
  • Most agencies have checklists of details to discuss with your exchangee – cars, pets, wear-and-tear and breakages, insurance, and what’s out of bounds
  • Some agencies have pro forma contracts which can be exchanged between the two sets of home owners

  • Further advice on house exchanges on the Which website.

    Sunday, 21 September 2008

    Couch surfer: the song

    Proof that the word "couchsurfer" was around before 2004-established Here's an extract from Couch surfer, a Bran Van 3000 song released on their 1998 album, Glee. The band come from Montreal, which is the third most active city in the network.

    Alongside a refrain of "I'm couch surfing, I'm a couch surfer", choice lyrics include:

    "Can I crash at your place again?
    Just one more night?"

    Plus a finale where the couchsurfer appears to have overstayed his welcome.

    "Mind if I eat those chips?
    Oh that's okay,
    I don't like salt and vinegar anyways.
    No no no, I didn't use pay-per-view.
    I figured it was free.

    Yeah, I'm going.
    I'm a couch surfer, couch surfing "

    Full lyrics here.

    Friday, 19 September 2008

    Is Couchsurfing the new Google?

    Is Couchsurfing the new Google? Not literally of course, that’d never work.

    What I mean is the word “couchsurfing” seems to have become a catch-all term for the whole hospitality movement. Today people refer to “going couchsurfing” when they may be sourcing hosts through multiple sites, while newspapers write on the “new trend of couchsurfing” when really it goes much broader than just (For proof, just see the list of links on the right of the Going Local Travel homepage.) can’t take credit for inventing the word, it has been in the lexicon a good few before the site was established in 2004. However, Casey Fenton and co did make a very savvy move by opting for a site name that, like Google, also works as a verb (I couchsurf, you couchsurf, we all couchsurf).

    It’s certainly one of the key factors that has enabled to pick up so much media coverage and leave its rivals in the dust. The rival conjugations don't exactly roll off your tongue: I BeWelcomed today, we are going Servasing, he has been Hospitality Clubbing.

    However, there’s one difference between Couchsurfing and Google – ok, there’s more than one, but here’s one worth noting for this discussion - whereas has made no official statement on its service-marked buzzword, the search-engine giant has made it perfectly clear that it will sue your ass if you don’t refer to it with a capital letter (eg "I Googled it").

    In fact, the "what you are not allowed to do" section on Google's extensive permissions page is quite hilarious - in a threatening sort of way. I quote (and therefore hope not to be sued): "you can't mess around with our marks. Only we get to do that. Don’t remove, distort or alter any element of a Google Brand Feature. That includes modifying a Google trademark, for example ... Googliscious, Googlyoogly, GaGooglemania."

    Meanwhile, have registered their term as a service mark, but don't seem to be strictly policing it. Their exclusivity rights are no doubt somewhat different as they didn't invent the name.

    The most public current use of the couchsurfing phrase includes the recent T-Mobile ad. One seemingly in-the-know member on the forum says (and this has not been confirmed):

    "Although T-mobile contacted CouchSurfers before the commercial aired, they refused to work with us before the commercial aired (...) The first thing that pops up when you google [sic] the term CouchSurfer is CS, so in the end we are still getting new members from the commercial."

    It's true that the "couchsurfer" in the advert makes no reference to using the internet to find his hosts and appears to be relying on a network of friends he contacts through his trusty mobile phone.

    Currently, there are references to couchsurfing on online dictionaries, but there’s no entry in that true bastion of language, the OED. Surely it won't be long...

    Monday, 15 September 2008

    Staying with weirdos and murderers

    Couchsurfing: an idea for weirdos and full of potential axe murderers. Discuss.

    This was basically the tone of the Richard Bacon Show on Radio Five Live, which I appeared on as a guest on Thursday night.

    It wasn't the approach I was expecting, or could have predicted following chats with enthusiastic researchers who had heard I was speaking about Couchsurfing across South America at the TNT Winter Travel Show. But that's tabloid radio, I guess. They were bound to be provocative.

    "I'm not offering my house to anyone!" cried out a melodramatic Bacon (pictured above) within seconds.

    "I'm sensing the plot of a very scary slasher movie," added comedian Steve Punt, a fellow guest on the show.

    I gave them both a telling off for being such cynics and, by the end, I think they were coming round to the idea.

    "Actually, I can see that having a personal introduction to a strange city would be good," said Punt. "You know how in a hotel reception, you go to the concierge and it all feels really impersonal? I really like the idea of having someone who knows the place being able to show you around."

    "I'm warming to it," admitted Bacon finally.

    It was a pity that such an interesting debate had to be condensed to such as short segement, but we had to make way for the breaking news of the XL travel collapse.

    Given more time I would have shared a recommendation with Punt, who mentioned he'd draw the line if his 18-year-old daughter wanted to go and stay with "complete strangers" on her gap year.

    The Punts should try, a site that, for a small fee, could put their daughter in touch with an in-country contact who has been fully vetted and could be on-hand if she had any problems. Not only that, she'd also have her first "friend" already set up in advance. Surely any father would be happier with this than knowing she was boarding a plane to a place where she didn't know a soul, as many gappers do.

    "Really, it's a terrible comment on the world that we both heard this idea and thought 'serial killers'," said Punt to Bacon at one point. And, on this, I couldn't agree more.

    Wednesday, 10 September 2008

    Unlit on the road

    The Unlit boys have gone up in the world. No crashing on couches for them anymore. They've bagged themselves a spanking new tour bus.

    With T-Mobile having pounced on Couchsurfing, it seems mobile companies can't get enough of hip, new social-networking projects. Orange are the latest to jump aboard, sponsoring the new Unlit tour round the UK.

    Nonetheless, the lads' concept remains as down to earth as ever. They travel around, putting on gigs in the homes of people they've found online, mainly through MySpace and, this time, through the Orange website.

    At the helm of the online series are two of my superbly talented friends Jont (singer-songwriter) and Dave Depares (filmmaker). They first took the road together back in 2006, travelling across the US and creating a series of films en route.

    Catch them if you can, or catch up with the movies online.

    Couchsurfing goes mainstream

    Wanna Couchsurf? You'll be "outta luck" without a mobile phone.

    Says who?

    Says mobile phone giant T-Mobile, which has used the concept in its recent US ad campaign.

    "Guess it was just a matter of time before mainstream marketers hitched to the buzz and good will of Couchsurfing," sighs World Hum.

    The girl who filmed this rather shaky YouTube clip is far more impressed. "Oh my God, that is like the coolest thing I have seen all week," she gushes.

    Go local, get laid

    “Meet the locals, get laid,” announces a Sydney Morning Herald travel blog about Couchsurfing.

    "Mate, it's sensational," Brian, an Aussie enthusiast, told the blogger. "It's a shag-fest. I stayed with this French girl in Paris, and she barely let me put down my pack before she jumped me. I'm doing it every time I travel now. You should get on there."

    Is Brian really that irresistible? Probably not, but that’s why Couchsurfing dating appeals. Suddenly - much to his own surprise - average old Brian has morphed into a exotic foreigner with a sexy accent and no strings attached. Let’s face it with all these random encounters (646,877 at last count) – sex is going to happen.

    “Couchsurfing is not a dating agency,” the site insists. However, what annoyed devotees most about the SMH blog (and caused them to complain in droves) was not that they implied sex happens, but the implication that this should be the predominant reason for joining.

    As an India-based member of the Couchsurfing forum explains: “We were pissed off by … the insinuation that CS has no other dimensions than young people hooking up for sex... The piece says clearly that no one but single people who do this... which in itself was quite a strong and untrue judgement.”

    Indeed, families and couples are just as likely to be Couchsurfing these days.

    The question is: can all these different groups coexist on one site?

    Monday, 8 September 2008

    Travel networking: the rules

    Want to start surfing couches round the world? Here are some tips on how to do it the right way.

    Keep it personal
    Contacting someone saying simply "Hello. Can I stay at your house for a week?" is unlikely to elicit a positive response. Introduce yourself and your plans. Where possible make the person feel you've chosen them for a reason.

    Always reply
    If you request to meet someone and they send a personal response to say they won't be able to make it, return the courtesy with a reply rather than just moving straight on to the next person.

    Keep to your plans. Don't leave your host waiting for you. Don't pull out at the last minute.

    Give a little
    If you're staying at someone's house, bring a gift (maybe something typical from your own country). If they're showing you around town, buy lunch or drinks if you can, and always pay your way. Many guests offer to cook their hosts dinner; cleaning up after yourself should go without saying.

    Be courteous
    If staying at someone's home, do not use it as a base to party with other people. Fit in with host's schedule. Don't sleep in for hours. Don't overstay your welcome.

    Make sure you spend time getting to know your host. If you're just after free accommodation or a tour guide, you've got the wrong idea.

    Consider a skill swap
    One way to give something back is through a skill exchange. Offering a dance lesson or DIY expertise can enhance the travel-networking experience and increase the chances of being hosted.

    Keep in touch
    Lots of hosts don't travel themselves, but open their homes in order to make friends around the world. Don't disappear off into the sunset when you leave. Drop an email every now and again. If they've got on a travel-networking site, it's highly likely they're on Facebook, MySpace or the like.

    Sunday, 7 September 2008

    Is sofa surfing safe?

    Safety. It’s everyone’s first thought when you mention couchsurfing. And rightly so. No one should enter into meeting “strangers” completely blindly.

    However, blind panic isn’t the answer either.

    A while ago I was contacted by a journalist from Sky News who was writing a piece about the safety issues of travel networking and staying at the homes of people you have met through websites.

    Oddly the readers’ comments don’t seem to be visible anymore, but here’s one I made a note of at the time. "Stupidest thing I have heard of,” it began. “I am a young male and I wouldn’t risk it, especially in places like South America and most certainly not in Austria. Imagine couch surfing at the Fritzl household. There is no level of safety you can maintain when you are sound asleep in a stranger’s house."

    Now, although I totally understand people concerns, and would always advise employing caution before embarking on any face-to-face meets, this view seems extreme, close-minded and rather sad. He appears to be writing off an entire country (a nation of Fritzls) and one of the world’s biggest continents (just full of drug dealers and pickpockets, right?)

    People have much more control over the risks they take through these sites than they think. After all, you could meet someone for a coffee in a public place in the middle of the day.

    As I said in my first Going Local column, any sort of independent travel relies on the kindness of strangers and you often find yourself hanging out with people you don't know, even if it's just another backpacker in a bar.

    Neither travel networking or straightforward backpacking ever 100% guarantees your safety, but I for one wouldn't pick the alternative: staying at home.

    Here are my tips for staying safe when travel networking:

    · Take advantage of the sites' own safety precautions. offers members a security grading — from 0 (ie anyone who signs up) to 3 (name and address verified by a small credit card payment) — along with the chance to be vouched for by a high-level, "trusted" member. Other sites, such as and, require users to exchange passport numbers and advise people to check identity documents when they meet. Most sites also store all email exchanges for at least a year.

    · Always meet in a public place and tell people who you are meeting.

    · Check references left by other travellers. Most social network profiles include testimonials from people who have previously met the person via the site.

    · Attend an event in your hometown first ( has loads). Get to meet some active members and they can recommend some of hosts/guests that they know personally. This way it is more of a friend-of-a-friend situation rather than complete strangers.

    · Suggest talking on the phone or via Skype or instant messenger before you meet up. Perhaps check out their MySpace, Facebook or Bebo page. If it’s your first time, tell the person. They’ll understand your nerves.

    · Consider parting with a small amount of cash to use vetted contacts who have undergone police checks and provide official references, like those on or Servas.

    · Don't be afraid to pull out of a meeting if it doesn't feel right and, above all, use common sense.

    Saturday, 6 September 2008

    It’s not such A Small World after all

    Is it the end of This week the Guardian predicted the demise of the exclusive, invite-only travel networking site. "Did you manage to get into the site?” sneered a well-to-do member at the reporter, as if this illustrated its downfall.

    I'm sure the same member would turn his nose up at me. Not typically moving in the same circles as other members, which include Naomi Campbell and Ivana Trump, I managed to wangle an invite to ASW through a very vague contact.

    I've dipped in from time to time, curious to how travel networking functions at the other end of the spectrum. However, when I mentioned the site within my weekly travel-networking column in the Guardian, it sparked a couple of reader emails.

    One wanted to know if I could hook him up. (Sadly no, I'm a low-level member without invite privileges). Another said it was wrong of me to include it when it was clear out of bounds to most readers. (Although perhaps not anymore, if this week's article is anything to go by.)

    I'd argue that ASW - even if you can't or won't join - is fascinating. Not just because of the outlandish snobery found in its forums, but it is also an interesting illustration of how the travel-networking movement is forming "niche" offshoots and how it is motivated by the idea of “belonging” to a likeminded group. Whether you’re a member of ASW or, people trust each other based on a presumed mutual understanding.

    The Guardian has recently reported on how the future of social networks lies in niche sites. I also predicted this when I started out on my trip.

    However, achieving a small-club feel on worldwide web must have its limits. Have some already reached their peak? ASW has now grown to 325,000 users. Far behind Facebook’s 90 million, but almost matching the 328,000 of Hospitality Club, a site that is open to all and sundry.

    I've always thought that ASW and HospitalityClub/Couchsurfing – although based on the same principles of bringing travellers together – share no overlap. But it seems this is changing too. One of the other big hitters in the ASW forum recently was a thread suggesting ASW members start accommodating each other in their own homes ("Couchsurfing on ASW" was its heading).

    What surprised me the most was finding there is already such a big cross over of members from the two sites. It seems many ASW members are also part of the exceedingly down-to-earth and non-elitist It’s something that must horrify the core elite. An old-school member (since 2004) replied to say he didn't believe the two networks are compatible: "Everyone is satisfyingly rich on aSmallWorld. Every ASW member I know stays in the Belle Etoile Suite at Le Meurice when they visit me.” He was soon shot down by the Small World Couchsurfers for totally missing the point.

    It seems ASWers aren’t as likeminded as they once were. Perhaps the original members will set up their own offshoot where people have to provide proof-of-funds before signing up.

    Meanwhile, the ‘Death of ASW’ thread (9,000 views) is nothing if not entertaining. One London member said the day they knew it really was all over was when a Foxtons estate agent told him he’d “discovered cool new website for chatting up girls and all his mates were on it”.

    A London/Dubai member added: "This used to be a playground for the jet set, the good looking, the creative and business powers that be. now i feel like a slimebag when i log in." Something tells me his inner slimebag has been waiting to get out for sometime.

    Tuesday, 19 August 2008

    Going local

    Well, I'm back. Home in London after four months travelling around South and Central America testing travel-networking sites for the Guardian newspaper. What an eye-opener it was. And my timing couldn't have been better.

    Hospitality tourism has just begun to break away from its cult roots and become a worldwide phenomenon. It is on track to be the biggest travel trend of 2009.

    It’s certainly an travel trend to watch and that’s exactly what I intend to do with this blog. I’m going to use to comment on news stories and issues related to "local travel", "hospitality tourism" and "travel networking".

    What defines local travel? That’s a post for the future…