Hostels vs. Couchsurfing vs. Airbnb vs. Workaway

Guys, I’ve done it!

I’ve pretty much tried every budget accommodation out there for the penniless, dirty backpacker.

why pay more to check my bag when I can just wear its contents?!

I once was a hostel regular. I never thought anything could deter me from staying in youth hostels with their cute little pod beds, friendly staff and bars full of potential new friends from all over the world. But then I went on one emotionally draining trip that left me wanting more from my travels. A year or so down the road I went on a solo weekend trip and met some people that made me never want to step foot in a hostel again.

Over the year I lived in China I started to plan a round the world trip with the goal of connecting more with the host country and locals. I decided the best way to do this would be to spend at least a month in my city of choice. I also decided that on the off chance I were to travel to a new country for a short period of time I’d stay with a local.

But how???

For the longer stays (at least a month) I plan to volunteer in exchange for accommodation and some meals. (try workaway, wwoofing or helpx…heck! you can even email hostels, yoga centres and other tourism related businesses to ask if they take volunteers)

For the shorter stays (Passing through one country to get to the next. A flight from Lisbon to Belgrade is $430. A flight from Lisbon to Geneva and then to Belgrade a few days later is $115. Play around on skyscanner. I love the feature that says from Your Departure airport to EVERYWHERE. It searches for the cheapest flights in the WORLD!) I plan (planned?) to couchsurf with a local or if money permits stay with an airbnb host.

Only 4 months in and I’ve stayed at all 4 budget accommodations.


Hostels have been my home away from home since I started traveling. They’re cheap, social and oftentimes organize activities for the day and night. My biggest gripes about staying in hostels is the lack of privacy in the dorms and the sometimes loud and annoying party crowds that are only there for the booze and photo ops.


Although I’ve been a member of couchsurfing for years, this was the first year I actually surfed. In past years I’ve gone to the meetups and language exchanges. All in all they’ve been fun albeit mostly full of locals eager to get free English language practice. That being said, many CSers will show you around their city in exchange for this valuable conversation practice time, so it’s a win-win for both local and English speaking tourist.

National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation with a friend I made on
National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation with a friend I made on
truly fun day with a total stranger
truly fun day with a total stranger

A few months ago in Japan I endeavored on my first ever surfing experience and I’m sad to say that it will likely be one of my last. My first host was tall and gawky. When I first arrived I knew nothing of the sleeping arrangements. Seeing his living room had no couch I asked where I’d be sleeping. He gave me two options: the floor or his bed. I chose the floor. Aside from that uncomfortable moment we didn’t see much of each other during the 3 or 4 nights I was there. He went on one strange outing with me to Harajuku. We met Hideaki Kobayashi. It was weird.

here's the one cryptic picture we took together
here’s the one cryptic picture we took together

Finally on my last night staying with him things took a turn for the worse. I was ready for bed dressed down in my pjs. I came to the entry way of his room to say goodnight and farewell knowing he’d be up and out of the apartment before me in the morning. Suddenly he stood and lingered in the doorway as well. He began to repeat, “Ohhh I will miss you…. ohhhh I will miss you” in the creepiest way. I tried to giggle it off and say, “hehe yeah let’s keep in touch.” After another breathy “Ohhhh I will miss you” he admitted that I was “very attractive”. Suddenly I realized what kind of a host he was, only accepting females and waiting for the day that one would finally give in to him. I fake yawned, smiled and retreated to my spot on the floor in the living room bidding him goodnight. Thankfully the living room did have a door, so it felt like I had literally closed the door on the topic. That’s not to say that I didn’t spend the whole next hour debating whether to grab my things and bail or sleep one more night. I was scared. Somehow I fell asleep and woke in the morning to an empty house. Hallelujah! But I was off to my next couchsurfing stay….

I wrote a review that was kind of coded with words to discourage other women from staying with him. Since then two have written me and both won't be staying there.
I wrote a review for him that was kind of coded with words to discourage other women from staying with him. Since then two have written me and both won’t be staying there.

I got some relief reading the reviews of my next host seeing that he not only hosted men and women, but also hosted parents too! He was a small, scrawny Chinese guy living in Kyoto, Japan. He reminded me so much of my Chinese coworker/ headache/ bff in Shenzhen that I instantly liked him. We got to do a little sightseeing together and he even took me to a conveyor belt sushi spot. All in all it was a great stay… BUT…his house was a pig sty! And I’m no neat freak! I went to bed dirty and woke up dirtier sleeping there. His studio apartment reminded me a lot of one of those junk drawers everyone has in their house, but this one emptied and scattered all over the place with garbage bags sitting in the entry way that he’d forgotten to take out. Yeah it was a free stay compared to a 15-20 euro bed in a hostel dorm or similarly priced private room from airbnb, but it was pretty gag worthy and not the best sleep. Worth it for the cultural experience? Hmmm I think I could have just settled for the rotating sushi meet up.

*sidenote* After Japan I DID stay with an actual real friend I met IRL in Seoul, South Korea and it was an aweseome experience. His house was clean and I knew he wasn’t creepy. Thanks, Bobby 🙂

Gangnam style!
He even danced gangnam style for my entertainment! What a pal!


I’ve used airbnb here and there in my travels. It’s another way to stay with locals (if you book private room instead of entire home) but it comes with much higher standards than couchsurfing because of course you ARE paying! Airbnb is affordable, but still a definite splash out for me when traveling. A private room for 1 in the heart of Lisbon is 23 eur. A bed in a 6 bed female only dorm is 12 eur, an individual room about 28 eur. Of course if you are traveling with a buddy/boyfriend/lover a cheap double bed private room on airbnb Lisbon would cost around 30 eur for the two of you (i.e. 15 eur each if you’re progressive lol). My heart currently aches for the Brazilian/German intercultural couple that are currently staying in an 8 bed mixed dorm where I’m workawaying. For 3 euro more a piece they can be getting it on every night of their vacation in one of the sexiest cities in Europe. *sigh*


Workaway is an international organization that enables travellers willing to work as volunteers to contact hosts (who can be individuals, families or groups) wanting help with their projects or activities. Workaway projects can be anything from farm work to reception at a hostel. So far I’ve had three workaway experiences all working in hostels. The first was a nightmare with a fat, middle aged Israeli boss that treated me like his whipping girl/bunny entourage (???) The job and hostel were actually spectacular. I met so many cool travelers and some nights I got to be a sort of social hostess bringing the guests bottles of champagne and making everyone love me. I even got shoutouts on hostelworld! It was fun, but the horrific management eventually made me leave and find other hostel work in a sister run hostel in Jaffa. Here I was treated quite well despite Israeli women’s tough character. They also had a killer breakfast that I got to serve. I worked from 7:30 AM to about 11:30 AM preparing, serving and cleaning up the breakfast. In exchange for this minimal work I got my own small bedroom above reception, about $10 each day and of course our delicious breakfast.

breakfast hostess with the mostess
breakfast hostess with the mostess

And so where am I now and how am I affording to keep a roof over my head?

I’m in my third and what I kinda, sorta hope to be my last workaway “hostel experience” in Lisbon. Don’t get me wrong! The hostel is rocking. The owner is chill AF. The guests are interesting and multicultured. My coworkers and covolunteers are cool too. But there’s something missing. Remember how serious I’ve gotten about adding purpose to my travels? Well working in a hostel doesn’t give your trip much purpose aside from meeting a ton of people from different countries. Which is peachy. But it’s not enough.

I came to Lisbon with the eyes of someone considering moving here for a long term stint (after this year long sabbatical of course) Staying in the hostel I feel removed from the daily pace of the city. I only have two coworkers who are local. I try to go to CS meetings, meetups and do other activities around the city on a daily basis. I’ve even *cringe* been on a tinder date that incredibly didn’t crash and burn. This past Sunday I went to the Azulejos museum and followed it up with a slice of cake and café at a place with a live jazz jam session. It was such a cultured Lisbonian day and yet I still feel somewhat disconnected to the city.

I imagine it’s a lack of meaningful relationships…meaningful actions. It’s for this reason I hope my next workaway experience will be one of more humanitarian response. I hope to connect with the culture on a deeper level and feel that what I’m doing is actually worth more than a bed and a bite to eat.


5 thoughts on “Hostels vs. Couchsurfing vs. Airbnb vs. Workaway

  1. Well at least you know work away isn’t lacking in meaningful jobs!! 🙂 I’ll be excited to here which one you choose next! I want to try working in a hostel because I think it would be fun but there are soo many amazing jobs like orphanage work or helping on a farm or building something that is really really needed. Haha I always get sucked in looking at all the possibilities 😆

    1. Oi! I really loved my first hostel job in Tel Aviv. It had a great patio area where all the guests would hang out and have dinner or something to drink. I already had Israeli friends I’d meet with from a birthright trip I did beforehand, so I think my stay in TLV was more meaningful than here in Lisbon. I’m hoping to work with children or at a yoga retreat center next 🙂

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