A big happy Thanksgiving to all our American readers (and even if you aren’t :))! We are very fortunate to be sharing this day of gratitude with a local Couchsurfer, and it has us reflecting on our other generous hosts.
Throughout our travels, we have employed many ways to find low-cost lodging. Some of these are less interactive like house-sitting, where we watch someone’s pets while they are traveling. Other lodging types are more of a cultural exchange like Couchsurfing, and Servas is another option. It is much more focused on the fostering of world peace and values more sustainable travel practices and humanity. When we have the opportunity, this program is a perfect way to gain a better understanding of cultures around the world by living with hosts for a couple of days.
Have you ever heard of Servas? Most people have not as it is relatively small as compared with other similar sites. In this post, we’ll talk about what Servas is and how it started. We’ll also share some of our experiences over the past five months of travel that have made us well-versed in the program. Read on to learn everything you need to know to get started!
What is Servas?
Servas means “we serve” in Esperanto. This language is 125 years old and was meant to be a second international language in order to promote world peace. This fits in with the mission of Servas International, which is to spread peace and understanding through travel and hosting. The program started shortly after World War II and as a result, tends to be an older crowd who has been with the program for decades.
When joining Servas, members can choose to be travelers or hosts or both. There is an expectation that travelers will stay with hosts for two nights (no more, no less). This allows enough time to get to know each other and exchange cultures while not being a burden on the host. However, some hosts will offer longer stays. Once you join the program, lodging is free; no money is exchanged between the hosts and travelers.
Servas allows us to connect with locals while traveling, and it is somewhat similar to Couchsurfing. Best of all, our most memorable hosting cultural experiences have been with this program. We have even made some lifetime friends.
Our Introduction to Servas
We were first introduced to Servas through an international travel Meetup group. The founders of the group had done a year-long trip around the world but decided a year just wasn’t long enough. They were resourceful and found ways to keep extending their trip for a total of 7 years. One of those means was Servas. They now teach travel and run a business called Wild Spirit Travel that shows others how to do the same. They introduced us to Servas and are members themselves.
While being hosted can save on lodging costs, this program is so much more than that. The benefits far exceed just being a free stay; you get to see first-hand cultural experiences you just don’t get on your typical walking tour through a city. You share meals, stories, politics, and the true culture of the place you are in. Expectations vary depending on the host, but some will cook traditional dishes and show you around their hometown. The goal is to build peace, goodwill, and mutual understanding.
Our First Experience Using Servas
The first time we were hosted was in Rotterdam. We weren’t quite sure what to expect when we were greeted by our hosts at the bus station. We made our introductions and within minutes they offered for us to stay longer than the expected 2 nights. They paid for our tram tickets, explained how the system works, and even gave us transit cards to use during our stay.
Knowing that we might be hungry from our travels, our first stop was an Indonesian restaurant. This is a restaurant that only locals would ever know about and it wasn’t typical. It had a few small tables and very selective hours. There was just one dish they served each day and your only option was the size. It was a good place for us to get to know each other a bit and break the ice.
Upon arriving at their home, they immediately treated us like members of their family. While we are so used to being somewhat of a burden on Couchsurfing, this felt different. They really wanted us to be there. It was hard to get out of that mentality, and we definitely contributed where we could. We made genuine connections with these people and ended up spending two weeks there. During that time they showed us around town explaining the history of Rotterdam. We went to the coastal town of Den Haag with them which was a great place to spend a day with our hosts. On another day we went to Mini World, which has an extremely detailed miniature of the city of Rotterdam and some nearby areas. It was pretty fascinating and fun to recognize all the places around town.
Since we are traveling long-term, they were inspired by us and have offered to join us later in our trip when we reach Japan. Servas is more than just meeting locals but also making new friends. Certainly don’t expect this much attention from everyone, as some will stick to the two nights. Do expect to get some cultural insight from the experience.
Unique Servas Hosts
After being in Rotterdam for two weeks we headed up to Amsterdam for a few days. There, we met our next Servas host whose age didn’t match her profile; she was much older. It was funny to see such a disparity, but it just meant she’s been with the program for a long time. She offered to drive us around to some nearby places and even tried to make sure we could sample a special local dish with her. We got to see some windmills and a cute little town south of Amsterdam. She was very generous and encouraged us to see as much as we could while in the city.
Sobral de Monte Agraço, Portugal
When we went to Portugal we had a unique stay in the countryside just outside of Lisbon. Before going into it, we knew it wasn’t going to be anything like what we had done before since it was outside of the city. They made all of our meals, providing samples of some local Portugal culinary delights. We enjoyed conversations sharing both Portuguese and American cultural differences.
The hosts recommended some sights nearby to go explore during the day and let us know they would have dinner ready when we got back. We visited the beautiful city of Santa Cruz which wasn’t very far away. In exchange for all of the wonderful tips and culture, we shared some of our travel stories and videos with them. It was exactly how we pictured Servas to be. While we didn’t have as much in common with them, they were very fantastic hosts.
The Process of Joining (United States)
When joining Servas you have the choice of being a traveler, host, or both. How you join is a little different for each country, but they will be similar. We are primarily focused on the traveler element, but if you want to do both the basic steps are below.
- Register a new account
- Enter your contact, traveler and letter of introduction (LOI) information
- Collect 2 letters of recommendation from friends or coworkers
- Find an interviewer and request an interview through the servas.org website
- Pay your fees of $98 per year (as of this writing)
- Receive your stamped hardcopy LOI in the mail in 4-6 weeks
- Request host lists on the website and contact hosts by their preferred method of contact
- Create a new account
- Fill out your host profile
- Collect 2 letters of recommendation
- Find an interviewer and request an interview
- It is free to join as a host, but there is an expectation to donate $50 annually
How to find a host
The first step is to request a host list online while logged into your account. These lists are by country, so request them for all the countries you plan to visit, up to 5 countries at a time. Each country’s list will look a little different, but the basic principles are similar. The host lists will have a guide to explain the different abbreviations and the layout of each host profile. These are usually organized by city or region, so when looking for a host, find one that is close to the area you want to visit. The profile will include the host’s address to help you better plan your trip.
Once you select your host, contact them based on their preferred contact method listed in their profile. Usually, this is by phone or email. Check the Servas.org website for more information.
- Upon arrival show your LOI to your host
- If they offer to host you for longer than two days, you should cook for them on an extra day or alternate for longer stays
- Bring them a gift from your home country to show them a piece of your culture
- Keep your spaces clean and offer to help out around the home
- It is best to find hosts that speak the same language as you so you can ensure good communication and cultural exchange
These things will go a long way in making the experience more about sharing than taking.
The Future of Servas
Having an app would be a great improvement to better facilitate participation, especially from younger generations. Most hosts we have seen are in the age group of 50-80, and it would be great to see younger people hosting. Younger generations are not as familiar with this program so we would like to see more involvement so the program does not die out. This is a great alternative to Couchsurfing and we have really enjoyed our experiences so far. We look forward to our next hosts and we plan to host other travelers in the future.
What cultural exchange impacted you most?
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