Scrolling though the profiles of people signed onto the home-hospitality organization, Couchsurfing.org, itâ€™s easy to get the impression that all the hosts are single 20-somethings and all the guests are backpackers looking for free places to stay.
Michalis Mathioulakis and Pernille Busborg, both professionals in their 40s, donâ€™t fit the typical profile for hosts.
Yet within minutes of arriving at their apartment in Thessaloniki, Greece, my husband, Tom, and I, who long ago traded in our backpacks for rolling carry-ons, were relaxing together on their porch, sharing stories and talking as if we were old friends.
So much for stereotypes. Couchsurfing and other types of alternatives to traditional hotel stays are for travelers of any age.
Donâ€™t like the idea of sleeping on someoneâ€™s sofa? No worries. The â€œcouchâ€™â€™ part is mostly a figure of speech. Our Greek hosts offered us a comfortable guest room in their roomy condo. We shared meals, met the neighbors, and when it was time to leave, Michalis drove us to the airport.
Thereâ€™s no charge, or obligation to host. Like a type of pay-it-forward blind date, the understanding is that youâ€™ll find a way down the line to repay the hospitality you receive, perhaps by inviting someone to stay with you, or just meeting for coffee and conversation.
â€œPeople are always surprised at whatâ€™s out there for older travelers,â€™â€™ says Joyce Major, the Seattle author of â€œSmiling at the World,â€™â€™ an account of a year she spent as a traveling volunteer.
Major, 65, hosts travelers in her Capitol Hill apartment, and â€œsurfsâ€™â€™ whenever she can, most recently on a 10-day trip to the East Coast.
Filtering the listings for people who have spare rooms, with real beds, not just couches, she looks for hosts with interests that match hers.
â€œEveryone was 40 and up, and in all the places, I had my own bedroom. People insisted on making me dinner and making me breakfast, and just having these wonderful conversations.â€
With more than 6 million members worldwide and a large â€œFifty-Plusâ€™â€™ contingent, Couchsurfing is the biggest and loosest (anyone can join) hospitality exchange network, but other organizations offer similar ways for travelers to connect.
Servas International (servas.org), operating since 1949, is more structured, requiring hosts and travelers to be approved after personal interviews, and to agree to stays of at least two days.
Locally, the Affordable Travel Club (affordabletravelclub.net), based in Gig Harbor, has been at this since 1992. The club offers people over age 40 private home hospitality in the United States and 50 other countries, including many options in Washington, Oregon and Vancouver, B.C. Members pay annual dues of $65-$75, plus a nightly gratuity of $15 to $20.
Many hostels have deleted the word â€œyouthâ€™â€™ from their names and added private rooms, making it easier for older travelers to enjoy the camaraderie without having to sleep in a dorm.
Close to home, the Northwest Portland Hostel (nwportlandhostel.com) offers private rooms and an apartment in two historic houses in Portlandâ€™s Nob Hill neighborhood.
Halfway around the world, in the Balkan country of Montenegro, my husband and I paid $60 a night in the town of Kotor for a newly renovated private room with a kitchen and bathroom in a hostel within the walls of the Old Town.
We had our privacy plus all the benefits that come with a hostel stay â€” in this case, travel tips shared by young, English-speaking managers over shots of homemade plum brandy.
Carol Pucci is a Seattle freelance writer. Contact her at email@example.com. Web/blog: carolpucci.com. Twitter: @carolpucci.