Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Surfing sofa - the gay way

Everyone is looking to ride Couchsurfing.com's wave. The latest in a long line of copycats is SurfingSofa.es, 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 Tripwiser.com 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 PlanetEye.com, 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 PickUpPal.com 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, sleepingrome.com, from £20pp). In Paris, try Alcôve & Agapes, which offers full profiles on each host to ensure a truly personal experience (bed-and-breakfast-in-paris.com, 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 (homeexchanger.blogspot.com), 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 homeforexchange.com, or try the Guardian's own home-exchange service, guardianhomeexchange.co.uk. 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 Couchsurfing.com, 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 AllAboutYou.com.

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.