Take your pick... 'CouchSurfing', 'HelpXing', 'WWOOFing'; three web-based cheap travel networks, rapidly gaining in popularity. Three systems, broadly similar principles - two key parts of the operation. The traveller.... and the new ingredient, the non-commercial host. And no financial payment involved for services rendered on either side.
CouchSurfing might seem rather passé, going by the name alone... conjuring up images of the 60s/70s, with today's young explorers crashing on mattresses on the floors of aging former hippies, turned guilty, middle-class, property-owning capitalists. Except that the current crop of twenty-something travellers is more likely to ask if the guest room has an ensuite bathroom, and is there wifi for their iPhone/iPad? Ok that's a slight exaggeration, but you know, "young people today, yada yada...."
But the couchsurfing system seems to work well. Unlike the more rural and isolated locations for the HelpX and WWOOFING hosts, couch owners are mostly based in towns and cities, ideal for those travellers looking to 'do' a country such as France as represented by the Rive Gauche in Paris, rather than a remote smallholding in the Provençal backwaters, a good hour's ride by goat to the nearest outpost of civilisation.
"WWOOFERS" on the other hand head for the latter, especially the bio, 'compost toilet' variety. In exchange for lodgings, organically grown salads and recycled urine, they work a few hours a day.
HelpX has a broader appeal; even if most properties are based out of town, it is far less picky about a host's ability to grow a phosphate-free lettuce. Which is rather fortunate for me, as my eco-credentials are still at the 'vague-good-intentions' stage. So, since my enforced return to France (much as I remain quite fond of the place I can't wait to escape the zoo and head back to the greener jungle on the Thai side of the fence) ... I've been a regular host for all manner of aliens from around the world, otherwise known as 'HelpXers'. Despite initial reservations, a year into the experiment, it's a thumbs-up from me.
There have been a few 'interesting experiences' along the way. Not least, the Brit with psychopathic tendencies who had threatened his previous host and family at the dinner table, waving a kitchen knife around as he ranted about the gun he kept in his cab. We were the next lucky recipient of his charms, getting phone calls late at night threatening to kill us all after he had been asked to leave for grabbing a (female) helper by the throat, and throwing her around.
... Or 'John', the spaced-out English guy who would begin a task, and an hour later could be found in precisely the same position as you left him, oblivious to the passage of time. Cannabis plants from dropped seeds later sprouted all over the place. Stoned crickets committed suicide in the pool. The dog ate one, and spent half the night howling at the moon. 'John' recently asked to come back. We declined...
Or the well-intentioned French girl, tasked with digging over a flower bed, who later came back for instructions on how to use a garden fork - she hadn't realised that you couldn't force it into the rather stony ground using the strength of arm muscles alone, that a strategically placed foot was needed. On the other hand, she was excellent at adorning the sun loungers by the swimming pool...
Overall though, a big majority of HelpXers have been great workers, excellent company, both useful and fun to have around. Although a majority are in their 20s, there's a not insignificant number of travellers of retirement age who, despite advancing years, are generally knowledgeable, hard-working and efficient. Which is more than can be said for a big percentage of the 20-somethings, sadly. Not through lack of enthusiasm by any means; the problem is they simply lack, in many cases, the know-how. Or any know-how, come to that. Including knowing how to wash up, or clean their rooms and bed linen before they move on. Ah, kids today...
Another group might be termed the 'mid-life crisis' travellers. No stereotype is possible for these HelpXers; you simply never know quite what to expect. And not knowing what to expect is perhaps the major problem with all such travel systems. Despite some in-built safeguards, there are ways to circumvent these, both for the less desirable and even occasionally dangerous traveller, and the unscrupulous host, determined to milk the system for all it's worth, to the point of exploitation. Both are in a very small minority, but they nonetheless exist. Stories are not exactly rare of hosts, with or without partners, trying to persuade the mainly female travellers into carrying out more personal tasks around the property... in the laundry room, barn; they're not usually too fussy. A recent piece of gossip around the dinner table was about two swinger hosts, who dedicated far more time and energy to the attempt to persuade visiting couples into the hot tub, rather than repairing their dilapidated home and overgrown gardens. Or the Dutch château-owners, where the husband regaled the captive audience with his constantly evolving list of conspiracy theories, mainly linked to the activities of the aliens apparently hiding out at the centre of the Earth. That wouldn't be so bad, if he didn't also promise HelpXers prior to their arrival, enticed by the charms of a mediaeval French castle, a room in the château; when in fact all they got was a shared tent in a field, a cold water shower, and nothing but soup to eat every day. Our latest guests here at L'Eau Salée even tried walking to the nearest village 12 kilometres away during their stay at the château to supplement their diet, only to be berated by the lady of the house on their return for their ungrateful attitude. Escape from the French equivalent of Colditz was the sole option, with an early morning unannounced departure via an expensive taxi drive to the nearest station.
Still, it would be unfair to leave you with the wrong impression. Most travellers - and hosts - sing its praises. Most of the young and old seeing the world via HelpX - even if a few of the former are more of a hindrance than a help! - are delightful, open-minded people, sociable, and pleasant to have around.
Is it a truly worldwide organisation, as claimed? While most hosts are based in the English-speaking West, there are stays available pretty much anywhere in Europe, and a growing number of hosts in countries across all the continents such as Moldova, Fiji, El Salvador, even Jordon (sic). Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand, for fans of South-East Asia, are also on the list. China has thirteen.
So if that travel bug hits you, and funds are short, or the idea of staying with local people with real knowledge of their country or adopted home appeals to you... this is a serious alternative - and it works.