Image: Jazz Hostel
J. Pat Carter / AP file
Hostels no longer have chore wheels, and instead of just a TV room with a pingpong table and old books, today's amenities often include free Wi-Fi, laundry machines, pool tables and lockers with built-in power outlets for charging laptops and other travel gadgets.
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/4/2008 9:45:25 AM ET 2008-09-04T13:45:25

A unique travel experience for some people might include renting a luxury condo next to the beach. For others, it may involve wrestling your host in exchange for free night’s lodging.

Both options are available.

And both seem to be quite popular. The one you seek out may say something about your budget, but reveal plenty about your sense of adventure and your skills as a guest.

Hotel alternatives with a twist
In an effort to stretch taut travel budgets, many folks are looking beyond traditional hotels and instead renting condos, timeshares and vacation homes. These alternatives don’t include all the amenities of a hotel, but often make up for that with extra space, full kitchens and other conveniences — and a lower price.

For really tight budgets, there are cheaper places to stay.  Two to consider: hostels and the home of someone who has joined the informal, but suddenly-very-hip CouchSurfing Network.

Each has its challenges, rewards and unique rules.

Hostels: Join the crowd and watch your stuff
I have (mostly) fond memories of staying in $8-a-night youth hostels while traveling as a college student through the U.S. and Europe. Equipped with a sleep sack (two sheets my grandmother sewed together) and a worn pink towel, I biked my way from hostel to hostel. I slept on lumpy bunk-beds in large, dormitory-style rooms and fed coins into metered showers that rarely provided the promised hot water. I made a new set of friends each day, but there were times when the surroundings seemed iffy, the “free” breakfast questionable and the assigned chores unreasonable.

Today’s hostels are quite different. They’re cleaner, more regulated, and far more appealing. And now that more people are traveling on a budget, hostels are welcoming cost-conscious adults and even families with children. Scroll through the list of the more than 4,000 hostels in the non-profit Hosteling International (HI) network, and you’ll see that many modern day hostels offer private rooms as well as small dorm-like sleeping arrangements. The chore wheels are gone. And instead of just a TV room with a pingpong table and some old books, hostel amenities now often include free Wi-Fi, laundry machines, pool tables and lockers with built-in power outlets for charging laptops and other travel gadgets.

Of course, there are still challenges to the hostel experience. While it’s still cheaper to stay in a hostel than in a regular hotel, you may still end up sharing a room with strangers. And you’ll still need to watch your stuff.

Friendly but superficial
Making new friends, though, seems the same. During a recent stay at a Canadian hostel, 23-year video editor Anne Person found plenty of other travelers to hang out with. “I don’t think I ate alone the whole time I was there,” says Person, “But it was a very superficial experience. You’re still definitely a tourist.”

That’s why, before moving on to the Seattle part of her trip, Person secured an invitation to stay in someone’s home through the CouchSurfing Web site. “It’s nice to be able to go out and explore a city and then come back to a real house.”

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Wrestling matches and drooling cats
On the face of it, couch surfing sounds a lot like mooching.

Video: Best hotels on a budget Here’s how it works: members of this popular “hospitality network” use the Web to both offer up and seek out free places to stay. Hosts and “surfers” create personal profiles and, like buyers and sellers on eBay, check each other out through references and feedback. “That way,” says Crystal Murphy, a “global ambassador” for the non-profit CouchSurfing Network, “if the person I’m going to stay with likes to party, I’ll know to follow their relaxed etiquette. Or if the person is on a regimented schedule and has to get up early to go to work, I’ll know to be careful about late nights.”

Murphy insists, though, that couch surfing is more than just free accommodations. “We’re a tight knit community of travelers who thrive on meeting people and having experiences.” In fact, says Derek Wallace, a “nomadic ambassador” for the community, “I tell people that if they’re only interested in finding a cheap place to stay, we’re not the right way to go. If they’re not interested in spending time with the people they’re staying with, then it’s probably better to go to a hostel. For us, the cultural immersion is the goal; the free place to stay is just an added benefit.”

Polite, but wasted
Bethany Weeks, a nursing student, hosts couch-surfers at her home in New Mexico and surfs on other people’s couches during vacations. “I once stayed at a home that had five surfers at one time. It would have been seven, but the Lithuanians never showed up.”

In general, her experience hosting travelers has been fine, although she has had one troublesome guest: “This one guy stayed longer than he said he would and then, while I was at work, he drank a whole bottle of my rum. He was wasted, but still very nice; he offered to pour me a drink of my rum when I came home.”

Weeks’ couch-surfing host in Seattle, Cheryl Smalley, hasn’t landed on anyone else’s couch just yet, but says she’s having lots of fun introducing surfers to her town. She’s even glad she hosted that “first young man,” an aspiring poet who “had a large capacity for accepting hospitality, but who didn’t seem to know much about what’s expected of a guest. And that’s the difference between a moocher and a well-mannered couch-surfer.”

Unusual arrangements
Speaking of differences, with more than 710,000 couch surfers in the network, Murphy says there are bound to be some mismatches and unusual situations. “That’s why we encourage people to read the profiles of potential hosts and possible guests very, very carefully.”

Video: Travel on the cheap For example, Murphy’s profile mentions her pets (although not her drooling cat) so that guests with allergies can look for housing elsewhere. Anne Person says she wouldn’t mind sharing a couch with cats, but probably won’t stay with the couch-surfing host in San Francisco who asks all his guests to pose naked for his online profile.

And then there’s that guy in Italy whose profile clearly states that he likes to provide his guests with a “unique experience” by wrestling with them to see who gets which couch. He videotapes the matches and presents them to surfers as souvenirs.

“Some people love it, some don't,” Murphy says, “but he’s made it very clear to his guests what his hospitality includes.”

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.

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