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Travel The World Longer: Couchsurfing

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Travel the world longer through Couchsurfing

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You don’t need a trustfund and rich parents to travel the world. One of the best ways to cut down on costs on the road is via Couchsurfing.

Most people have heard of it by now but in case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t yet…

Couchsurfing is a website designed to help you find a free place to stay while traveling (or offer up free accommodations if you want to host).

It’s simple: all you have to do is sign up for an account, get verified, punch in where you want to go and start scrolling through the couches on offer and start messaging away (or where you live and what accommodations you have to offer if you’re looking to host).

Couchsurfing

I’ve Couchsurfed a number of times as well as have hosted travelers from all over the world (back when I owned my own house). There is quite a bit of negative press out there on it, but I have not yet had a single bad experience.

More so than the free accommodations my favorite thing Couchsurfing offers up is the chance to meet people who have local insights on the place you’re visiting. Not to mention the countless friends I have made over the years hosting and surfing all over the world. Also if I’m on a budget, I’d prefer to spend money on activities than on hotel rooms. Plus, hotel rooms can get a bit lonesome.

While Couchsurfing in Moldova I met so many people through my host that I couldn’t walk the streets of Chisinau without running into someone who I had met through her and being invited in for a coffee. I was invited to surf with a couple in Odessa, one of which worked in Alaska the year prior and couldn’t wait to host someone from the place she grew to love. And even one of my surfers has become a close friend that I’ve traveled to Juneau, Alaska and clear to Palau to visit. And these are just a few of the cases and well I still keep in contact with all of them!

Couchsurfing Odessa. Odessa Ukraine

Galya and I, my host in Odessa.

You don’t need tons of money to travel the world, so what’re you waiting for?

sign up now!

Need more convincing? Read my post on Couchsurfing safely.

 

Safe Couchsurfing

Your Guide To Safe Couchsurfing.

Safe Couchsurfing

It’s sad to read about the couchsurfer in Nepal that was murdered.

A lot of people are out there saying it’s not safe, but the thing to take away here is that nothing in life is safe.

She could’ve been murdered in a 5* resort, at a hostel, on a bus…. You can’t just blame Couchsurfing.

I’ve seen a lot of “that’s why you should stay with an Airbnb” comments lately since the couchsurfers death in Nepal.  I got news for you guys: Airbnb isn’t any more or less safe.

The most important thing when Couchsurfing is to do your research, trust your gut and do everything possible to ensure your own safety.  This isn’t saying that the couchsurfer was being irresponsible.  Remember: being alive on planet Earth in general is a risk for death by murder.

Here is what I followed when selecting a Couchsurfing host:

Only sent requests to other female couchsurfers, or a couple if that was the next best option. 

*This mostly applies if you’re a female.

I’m a female.  I’m not assuming every male out there is a rapist or that females aren’t capable of horrific things.  I went with the notion that I was lowering the rape chances by staying with another female.

I don’t know how men can ensure their own safety with this.  I have hosted a few men when I had my own house and had couchsurfed through Europe and felt comfortable with it.  I had positive references and so did they.  I met them, they seemed normal and they were.

Only Couchsurf with verified hosts.

Couchsurfing.org gives you the option to become verified.  Not that slapping down a credit card number to verify you are who you say you are is ensuring safety.  But common sense tells me that if someone wanted to murder and or rape me, they probably wouldn’t verify who they are.

Meet your host/s, preferably in public .

This is a no brainer.  But if you get a bad feeling about them, bail.  There’s always a hotel or hostel somewhere around where you’re at.  Better safe than sorry, right?

Check your host’s reviews and references.

Yes Couchsurfing has a review section for each account.  Guests can write about their experience. Generally it’s a good sign if there are good reviews.  Other people have stayed with this person and departed alive.

Message back and forth with them for a little bit.

Find out a little about who they are before you stay with them. Ask questions, get to know them.

Get their phone number before.

In case you get lost in their city.

Tell friends or people back home where and who you are staying with.

Hell I hardly leave my house without telling someone where I’m going.

Have a backup plan.

Have a bad gut feeling about the potential host? They start making odd requests? Stay somewhere else.  Be prepared to sleep in a hostel or hotel.

Couchsurfing Odessa

In July 2012 I set off on my first solo trip.  It took me through Moldova (and it’s separatist neighb: Transnistria), Ukraine, Latvia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Germany.

couchsurfing odessa

Potemkin Steps
Photo cred: Bev Sykes via http://bit.ly/1VIcE3p

Couchsurfing Odessa.

I arrived in Odessa after a few days over in neighboring Moldova.  I took the train from Chisinau, with a stop in Tiraspolcouchsurfing odessa

I got to Odessa a day before I was supposed to and had to grab a hotel for a night before I could begin my stint couchsurfing Odessa.

I was run around and ripped off by a taxi driver.  He drove about 10 laps around the train station and dropped me off at a place called Tokyo Star that was literally across the street from the Odessa train station.  I just decided what-the-fuck-ever and gave him his 330 Hyrivnia.  I considered it my punishment for being ill-prepared.

couchsurfing odessa

My room at Tokyo Star. Yup that is it.
And don’t mind my undies hanging up there.

The next day I met Max and Galya, my couchsufing hosts at a cafe.  Galya had contacted me online after she saw my post on couchsurfing.org.  Galya had lived in Valdez, Alaska the past summer while working at Silver Bay Seafoods at their cannery.

Couchsurfin Odessa

Galya and I

Galya was completely fluent in English, which was helpful because I only new the bare bones basics in Ukrainian and Russian.  Max only spoke Russian, but was very willing to try to communicate.

When they had asked where I stayed the night before I told them the Tokyo Star Hotel.  They both about shit themselves.  They said it was a bad place and that there’s lots off hookers that frequent the place and that murders go down there.

Great.

I told them about how I had to blare Russian music videos loudly to muffle the sounds of angry-prostistue-sex going on roughly 4 inches from me on the other side of that paper thin wall.  They thought it was hilarious.

Odessa. Ukraine

WWII Memorial, Shevchenko Park

The next few days I spent seeing the sights of Odessa.  Max and Galya worked during the days, but I would get to hang out with them in the evenings.  We’d usually cook dinner together.  Max and Galya would even try to teach me Russian.  I was butchering words left and right.  But hey, I learned something and it stuck.

Max and Galya even had a couple pets: a cat and a chameleon.  And those were their names Cat and Chameleon. Keepin it simple.

couchsurfing odessa

Chameleon going for a hike up the wall.

Odessa offers a lot to do and I would definitely take a few days to settle in and see the city. There are a number of beaches to go see. Odessa is also loaded with parks and monuments to go check out.

The Colonnade of Vorontsov's Palace

The Colonnade of Vorontsov’s Palace

For a couple of  nights Max and Galya also hosted two girls from Russia.  They’re names were Ekatarina and Natasha.  They had both just finished university and rode their bikes down from Moscow.

Preobrazhensky Cathedral

Preobrazhensky Cathedral

The days I spent with Ekatarina and Natasha were mostly spent at the beach drinking Kvas and eating ice cream.

It was very hot in Odessa while I was there, but the Black Sea was ice cold. That didn’t exactly stop us from hopping in.

Lazheron beach

Lazheron beach

They even took me to a lunch and had me try some borscht and okroshka.  Okroshka is a cold soup commonly eaten in Ukraine.  I make it at home sometimes.

couchsurfing odessa

Okroshka
Photo Cred: Food Leaders via http://bit.ly/1D1dO4b

After a couple days the girls were headed off towards Yalta to continue their bike journey to the ‘wild beaches’ of Ukraine.   I had one night left after the girls departed.couchsurfing odessa

On my final night Max and Galya planned a nice dinner of Russian porridge, wine, vodka and hookah.  I still love to make Russian porridge at home a lot.

I had to be at the airport at 7am.  We didn’t even go to bed that night we were having so much fun.  We drank vodka until I had to stagger myself out to my cab to the airport.

couchsurfing Odessa

Hello? Hey man, whats up? Oh, I’m just walking my falcon up the Potemkim Steps.

My overall experience couchsurfing Odessa was great.  I’m so glad I met Max and Galya.  I really hope to see them again soon.

couchsurfing odessa. odessa ukraine

Max and Galya

I still keep in contact with Max and Galya.  They got married not long after I visited them and they moved up to Kiev. Since the annexation of the Crimea and the subsequent upheaval in Ukraine, Galya took a job over in China teaching English.  They are still in China right now, and it sounds like they love it.

couchsurfing odessa

Just a wiener dog day at a Black Sea beach

If you would like more information about Odessa, visit my Odessa travel guide page!

 

 

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Must Be Nice.. How Do You Afford To Travel?

So I’m gonna start this off with a three word sentence.

 It ain’t glamorous.

That is how you afford to travel (unless you’re rich, which in that case you most likely wouldn’t be reading this.)

afford to travel. washes hair in sink

Overnight trains for days? Just wash your hair in a sink.

I’ve slept on train station floors, been covered in hundreds of flea bites, awoke to a hermit crab under my blanket, shit my pants, slept on stranger’s couches, hell, I’ve even gotten my very own pee in my very own eye while using a squat toilet in Kosovo.   Point here is: it’s not all unicorns shitting rainbows while I’m on the road.  And this is just the shitty parts while traveling.

afford to travel

It’s free to annoy your pets.

My life while at home and not traveling isn’t all that glamorous either.  I don’t live in a big extravagant house, I don’t eat every meal at a restaurant, I don’t have designer clothes and I don’t have a fancy car.  I pass up a lot in order to live far below my means.

I also don’t come from money.  My parents: not rich.  I also was blessed with having parents that the other snots at school said were “mean” cause they didn’t pay my car insurance, or for a cell phone (however, my Dad did purchase me car, for $4,700.  Then Informed me I owed him $4,700).

afford to travel

Oh college days.

I’ve worked plenty of shit jobs, I’ve even had multiple jobs at a time (merchandiser, gymnastics coach, college chemistry tutor, and candy maker, all while a full time college student).  I paid my way through college (albeit having to pull out a student loan to pay my last three semesters). I’ve tried to be in little debt (or no debt) as possible.
 Now, let’s focus on the things that have made it easy.  I do not have kids (travel with kids is not impossible, but let’s face it: kids are not cheap little trinkets, it’s also frowned upon to force them into child labor to pay their own way ).  I have a very good paying job (was not always the case).  I currently have NO DEBT! I went into a career where I can work as little or as much as I want (this took careful research to come by).  I have a pretty sweet rent situation right now (I rent my boyfriend’s Mom’s old house).  And I did own a house in the past, did some work, flipped it and made a sizable profit from it.

So without further rambling: I give you my list of crap..er..advice on how to afford to travel.

1.  Have more money coming in than going out.afford to travel

I made minimum wage for a long time.  I still have this mindset that I only make $7.75 an hour.  I try not to spend money on stupid bullshit.  I usually assess things as do I need this, or do I just want it?

I used to meticulously track every penny I had going in and coming out.  I would grab a stack of check registers from the bank and keep track of all my spending.  This is something I haven’t done in a very long time because living below my means is something I’ve been doing for so long I don’t think about it anymore.  I also make a lot more than I did just over 4 years ago.

 Also another thing that I’ve always done that’s not a bad idea: have a bank account where you “hide” money from yourself.  This is also where I would stuff my money when I was in college in order to pay for school.  It actually was a savings account my parents had started when I was a kid.  I kept my Mom’s name as well as mine on it for years, therefore; if I needed money out, my Mom had to be present at the bank for me to withdraw money.  My Mom’s name has been off of it for years now, but there is no card for the account, and I have to physically go to the bank to take money out, and I’m a lazy person, so this works wonders for me.

If you’re traveling long term you can sell all your worldly possessions before leaving home.  I’ve never done this.  I have sold belongings I no longer needed to travel.  Like clothes and whatnot.  The first time I went to Europe I sold clothes, perfume, wallets, old snowboard gear, etc on eBay.  I made about $500 off all this junk that was just taking up space.

The moral of the story here is stuff away as much as you can, and don’t blow it on stupid shit, which is a perfect time to transition into:

2.  Don’t buy stupid shit.

Most of my most treasured belongings have been bought at a thrift store.  There’s nothing wrong with used shit.  My favorite sweatshirt that I always have with me was a goodwill gem.  Some of my scrubs I wear to work even come from the thrift store, along with numerous kitchen items I own.

afford to travel

my favorite sweat shirt

Ok, so not every single thing I own is used.  I wait for the end of season sale at stores online and buy them if I need something new.

I DO NOT GO TO THE MALL OFTEN: Yes, you read that right.  I rarely go to the mall, or mall-like places.  

I may go 2-3 times in a year and usually because I need something very specific and I need it now.  Malls are just money sucks.  You may turn up there just to “have a look” and then make an impulse purchase.  Just stay away. Oh, and ps… I am very aware that I am not a standard female with this next statement: I HATE SHOPPING. I don’t find it relaxing or fun.  It stresses me the fuck out.

You can also eliminate a lot of unnecessary costs like getting your nails done or your hair did.  You won’t die being low maintenance.

If you want to afford to do cool things, you probably will have to cut back on the material items.

And hey, I keep seeing that article claiming those of us that spend money on experiences rather than material items are generally happier people.  I don’t know if this has been scientifically studied… But hey, I’ll take it.

3.  Just because it’s more expensive, doesn’t make it better.

 Don’t buy brand name designer crap.  It’s a waste.

Now I’m not saying that going and buying the cheapest version of whatever on the market is always the smartest choice, sometimes the cheapest is a POS and will break almost immediately.  Just look at some reviews of things.

There’s even some items that are manufactured and produced by and at the same place as the brand name version, just have a generic label slapped on it and are sold at a fraction of the price.

4.  Pick an airline credit card, use it wisely.

You heard that right giraffe family, I got here. FO FREE

Want free plane tickets?  Start researching credit cards.  Or cut out the research and go visit the Points Guy.  The Points Guy gives some good pros and cons about different cards and what benefits you’ll score.

What do I use?  I got the US Airways dividend  miles card years ago. (It’s now become the American Airlines Advantage card). I put everything on it.  I’d put a semester of school on that bad boy, and I’d pay the entire balance at the end of the month.  I used miles on this account to get me to Africa for free last year (plus some taxes and fees).   I also use the Alaska Airlines card for domestic travel, it benefits me due to the fact that I live in Alaska.

 The big thing to take away here is: PAY OFF THE ENTIRE BALANCE EVERY MONTH.  Do not get caught up in debt with these cards!  Their interest rates will eat you alive.  If you can’t handle yourself with a credit card, don’t even bother getting into this sticky game.

5.  Learn to cook, or just eat at home if that’s too daunting of a task.

afford to travel

I even grew the basil!

I like eating at a restaurant, it’s fun.  I love food.  But eating out frequently can add up.  I, through many trials, errors, fails and successes have figured out how to cook.

I do go out eat.  It’s more of a social thing for me, I like to go with friends.  However, when I was a broke ass college student and couldn’t afford to replace my radio that was stolen from my car (and drove around with a 90’s boombox in the passenger seat for several months) but wanted to see the world and didn’t make shit for money I almost never got to go out to eat.  These friends, are called priorities.   I don’t go through the drive thru often.   But I love Taco Bell when I’m drunk, you just gotta splurge sometimes.

Now on to the fun part where I tell you how to travel on a budget.

IMG_0014.JPG

6.  Price out airline tickets.

I like the ITA matrix.  It gives you plenty to play with to accommodate your needs.  Do you want to find the cheapest ticket possible? Are you on a tight schedule? This will help you,  There are also numerous other sites to check out to aid you in this process.  Key thing to remember here:

Convenience will cost you.

7.  Read up on your destination(s)

Figure out what other travelers are saying about day to day costs.  Google my friends, Google your little hearts out.  Know what you want: type of accommodation, types of meals, what activities you plan to partake in.  This will begin to give you a framework.

 Another big one here: not all destinations are created equal.  You will spend a lot more in Europe, vs Southeast Asia.  In some places traveling off the beaten track is vastly cheaper than going to tourist hotspots, while in other places the opposite is true.  So crack open that Lonely Planet, read Wikitravel till your eyes bleed and ask a zillion questions on the forums of Virtual Tourist.  And don’t forget all the lovely travel bloggers out there that give out useful information.

8.  Accommodation options.

Train nap.

Train naps for days.

Where are you willing to sleep?  Can you handle sleeping among a room full of strangers in a hostel?  Would you fathom staying in a guesthouse?  Ever consider staying with welcoming strangers and couchsurfing? After all it is free.  Tent camping? Would you knock out two birds with one stone and take an overnight train somewhere?  Or is this all too crazy to you, you need your damn privacy and your own toilet to survive.

 I’ve done it all, none are beneath me.   All have positives and negatives.  Weigh them out and decide.  Just know that with some budgets, you may have to step out of your comfort zone.

9. Concoct an idea of total cost.  Throw in some extra money for the oh, shit fund.  Have some extra money to get on your feet when you get home.  

 Make a rough list and always round up! It’s better to be over prepared.  Accommodation cost, ticket cost, transportation, food, communication… The list can go on for days.

I always tell people to have $2000 beyond their trip cost and oh, shit fund.  That’s the money to help pay for your things that you need to do after arriving home .  Food, rent, gas money.  I know it sounds like overkill to most people, but it’s a good idea.

*this is more geared towards slightly longer travel, like a month+ of traveling.  I wouldn’t suggest this much cushion for a shorter, say 1 or 2 week vacation.

And always have an oh, shit fund, these come in handy for when your life gets flipped upside down in general.

10. What do you plan on doing there?

sandboarding namibia

Sandboarding while in the Namib desert?

What kinds of activities do you plan to do there?  I’m more the type that I look at things and think, I may never get another chance to come back here.  I’d have more regrets not doing an activity somewhere I would in the end never make it back to, than saving myself $100 by not doing it.  For example: when I went to Livingstone in Zambia, I shelled out the $90 to do the Devil’s Pool up on the edge of Victoria Falls.  Don’t know if or when I’ll make it back, do I regret spending $90? FUCK NO! 

devil's pool. zambia

Livin’ on the edge.

 11. Consider transportation options.

Ok, if your on a shorter trip that covers long distances, yes you will pay for the convenience of flying.  But let’s say you’re on a tight budget and backpacking an area for 3 months, take local transport.  Go on buses and trains.  Hitchhiking is a common way to get around in some parts.

Or a tuk-tuk?

Buses and trains can be painfully slow. But just remember, convenience costs money.

12.  Food.

Real gelato in Italy? YES.

Back when I did my first backpacking trip, I went to Europe with a childhood friend for one month.  We paid $800 for a RT ticket from Anchorage to Frankfurt, under $600 for a Eurail pass. And then we both traveled all over Europe and both spent far under our $1,000  each on-the-ground budgets.  *Europe, especially Western Europe is not cheap!

We didn’t eat.

I think we ate at restaurants about 3 times on the trip.  Most food we did eat came out of a vending machine or a market.  A lot of the time we just went without.

 Consider how important food is to your overall enjoyment on your trip.  These days I plan to eat tons on a trip.  It’s something I love about travel.  But if your young and broke and your priority is seeing the world, then you may opt to be hungry a little more often.

 Another big consideration: Alcohol.  Do you have to have a drink with every meal? Do you plan to be white girl wasted the entirety of your travels? Do you not drink at all? Do you plan to buy your own bottle and daydrink at the beach, or do you prefer the bar wench to mix your super fancy with an extra shot of coconut rum drink? This can all change your food cost dramatically.   Personally I’m a social drinker.  If I’m traveling with friends or meet others on the road I’ll have a drink with dinner.  I like to occasionally daydrink on the beach.  I’m a life in moderation type.

13.  Travel is not a cheap hobby.

I love doing it, but it’s a money suck.  If you budget carefully you can do it for cheaper.

You read about some people online who travel the world for a year and only spend $15,000, while others come in at $40,000+.  It just depends on your needs/wants/expectations/destination choice.

And remember it’s not easy to save up the quantities of money to travel, especially for longer periods.  Especially when you really don’t make much money, or any number of other variables out there.  I’ve been there.  Now that I’m almost a real adult and make more than back in my college days, it is much much easier.  I saved for years.

When I was 18-22, I didn’t get to travel to wild places, I only did the track of where I had family that would give me a place to stay because that’s all I could afford, but I kept saving and was able to do my first big international trip.

Home.

Another thing to think about if you’re not yet to the savings you need to do that big trip.  Explore where you live.  I have the luxury of living in Alaska which is on a lot of bucketlists.  I try to get out and see one new part of my state every year.  You can travel without going far.

Puffin at the Sealife Center in Seward, Alaska.

Puffin at the Sealife Center in Seward, Alaska.

 People are going to judge you.

Your parents (if you are young) will think your an unloyal, Millennial asshole.  Your friends (not all) will think you’re a spoiled asshole who’s parents are funding this.  Your brother who is always borrowing money, has an illegitimate child and is always in a bind will call you an irresponsible asshole.  People will say you must hate America (or fill in the blank for wherever you’re from) because why on earth would you leave the greatest country on Earth? And then you’ll get the snarky “must be nice”.  Just remember one day your parents will accept your nomadic ways, your brother will finally see the light and those must-be-nicers will tell you they live vicariously through you.  And let’s not forget, your Grandma, the baddest bitch you know who has been egging on your interest in travel this whole time, she still will be behind you 100% saying just GO!

My parents love that dog more than me.

But  if this is something you really want to do, just keep in mind: money comes and money goes.  You don’t know when you’ll drop dead.  I’ve heard so many “my friend and his wife saved their whole lives to travel the world and two days after retirement, one drops dead”  which is a valid point that if you can and you want to, you should do it.   I’m not saying go out and blow it all like you’re gonna die tomorrow, but don’t put it off too long, cause remember:

none of us will make it out alive.