London for a week on $200


You would have thought it was impossible, but I made it work! I will admit this week spent in London wasn’t even planned, but that may make it even more amazing. The reason it wasn’t planned was that I never intended to spend more than two hours in the city, but that two hours turned into eight days.

I was on my way home after a two week vacation. My short flight from Amsterdam to London went off without problems, and my easy two hour layover in London before the final leg to Chicago should have been the same. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans. As we landed at London Heathrow airport, the pilot informed us that all flights for the rest of the day were to be cancelled, due to a volcanic eruption on Iceland. I couldn’t even process this information, but as we exited into the terminal the situation began to sink in.

All passengers were being asked to exit out through customs; I got a nice “Leave to Enter” stamp in my passport and proceeded down to the baggage hall with the rest of the herd to retrieve my luggage. After having my luggage lost for 5 days at the beginning of my vacation, I was anxious to have back as soon as possible! The rest of my day was spent waiting; waiting for my luggage, waiting for a hotel voucher, waiting for a bus, waiting for good news.

The airline was kind enough to put us up in a hotel, although the hotel was 40km outside of London, and I had no clue where I was anyway. A luxurious room at the Hilton to myself improved my mood, and those first two days passed fairly quickly. Travelers wandered in and out of the lobby, chatting and congregating in front of the TV which played the news all day long. On Saturday morning we were suddenly told we had to check out immediately and head back to the airport. What were they going to tell us there?

As it turned out they told me they could do nothing else for me, so a woman I had met at the hotel offered to let me come along with her. We bought cheap cell phones from the Vodafone store in the airport and I was able to call home for the first time. The cell phone continued to help when I got in contact with a young man in west London who was willing to put me up for a few days. I will be eternally grateful for the kind people across the world on courchsurfing.org and for William who hosted me for 6 nights at his small apartment in Notting Hill.

So I took a leap of faith and agreed to meet William at the tube station closest to his house. His apartment was a charming little place near the famous Portobello Road, and the kitchen window looked out onto an overgrown courtyard garden. I started to like the idea of being stranded in London and gave barely a thought to my job back home. William and I played UNO on the floor and talked until we went to sleep.

William had an extra bike and so Sunday was spent riding bikes through the parks and neighborhoods in the area, and even through downtown London. We grabbed a late lunch at an outdoor café on a quiet little street and rode along the Thames. Seeing the city on a bike was the best way to see it, and I used the bike the rest of that week. I spent my days visiting all the city museums and public parks, and wandering around Notting Hill. I even happened to unknowingly walk into the bookshop that was in the Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant film ‘Notting Hill’.

So while the British Museum, the Tower Bridge and Shakespeare’s Globe Theater were all highlights of my visit, but my evenings were all spent quietly back at the apartment. William and I might eat dinner together and have some tea, talk, read aloud from a novel in our best acting voices, or simply watch the TV if anything good was on. And so I passed my 8 nights in London for less than $200. It’s a memory I won’t soon forget.

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Surfing at the Smiths


December 9, 2009

By JENNIFER ZIMMERMAN jzimmerman@pioneerlocal.com

The Smiths of Elmhurst very much resemble your typical nuclear American family.

With two kids and a beloved pup named Shadow, the couple’s three-story home sits at the end of a bustling neighborhood block where children’s bikes can be seen more frequently than cars, and young and old families have quietly settled in.

Rachel Smith poses with her dog, Shadow, on the couch of her Elmhurst home Friday. Smith is a member of the Web site couchsurfing.org, where she opens up her family’s couch to interested travelers passing through town.

CouchSurfing.org: Rachel’s page

Those visiting for the first time are usually met by lively family conversation and an invitation to a warm meal rather than the typical distractions of television or music.

“You want to be hospitable,” said Doug Smith.

But the Smiths have taken “hospitable” to a whole new level.

Earlier this year, upon the recommendation and request of his daughter, Rachel, Doug Smith literally opened up his family’s home to the entire World Wide Web.

Both his spare bedroom and downstairs couch are available for occupancy to some of the more than 1.5 million users of the Web site, couchsurfing.org.

Stretching across all areas of the world, the Web site allows users to create profiles and either offer up their own couches, free of charge, or search for one that is available in the area they are planning to visit. Or, instead of opening their couch for a night or week at a time, couch surfers can opt to instead have guests over for coffee or a drink.

About 1.6 million people have successfully “surfed” since the nonprofit organization was first created, according to the Web site.

“If it wasn’t for Rachel, I really wouldn’t have gotten involved at all,” Doug Smith said.

Rachel Smith runs her own profile on couchsurfing.org, where people can comment, leave recommendations or share their own experiences visiting with her family. So far, she has hosted three surfers, two of whom traveled halfway across the globe from New Zealand and Australia for a one-night stay with the Smiths.

The two men, both in their mid-20’s, were coming into town to do some recruiting work for a Christian college they worked for and needed a quick place to crash without having to spend a lot of cash.

“That was pretty exciting to have someone from halfway across the world stay the night,” Doug Smith said.

“And they loved the bunk beds,” his daughter added.

Although open to hosting more surfers, the Smith family is particularly choosey about who they welcome into their home, with both safety and convenience being major factors.

How long a person may want to stay, who they are and their intentions in passing through the area are all important considerations.

Having little to no information on a user’s profile page raises immediate red flags for the family, who will only welcome guests that provide sufficient background information, a phone number and have received good recommendations from fellow couch surfers. The Web site also has many verification systems built in to help ensure that those signing up are who they say they are.

“The last place you want to feel not safe is in your own home,” Doug Smith said. “Ask lot of questions. Find out if your kids have really done their homework on this.”

Having recently graduated from college, Rachel Smith is interested in experiencing the other side of couch surfing and will hopefully visit some foreign, but safe, couches of her own in the spring.

For now, though, she continues to attend couch surfing meet-ups in the city. She also keeps in touch with surfers she has already connected with, one of whom she regularly salsa dances with.

Both Rachel Smith and her dad are anxiously awaiting their next guest.

“I had the wrong impression of it,” said Doug Smith, who once called it the couch potato club. “But it’s no different than hosting a sleepover. You just don’t know the people.”