Why travelling ‘for free’ doesn’t work
comment 1 Written by on June 16, 2010 – 12:58 am


Mark Boyle, the freeconomy guy who I’ve written about before, has popped up in the Guardian today talking about how to travel for free. There are no real revelations in his recommendations – Couchsurfing, LiftShare and WWOOFing all get namechecked –  but I’m happy to hear that he is going to be writing more regularly for the environment blog. There’s room for a lot of interesting debate, providing the trolls move over and let him speak.

One of the comments did amuse me though:

“Is this the same individual who the Guardian reported as setting out to walk to India without money and got as far as Calais – and then came back with the revelation that they spoke French in France?”

I clicked on the link and, sure enough, there was some truth it. The story goes that Boyle planned to make a cash-free peace walk to India, relying on the help of strangers, but because he didn’t speak French they assumed he was a vagrant and no one would help him, so he gave up at Calais and got the ferry back to Dover.

Hard not to have a little chuckle, right?

I can’t help thinking it’s a shame to blame a foreign language for this. Shouldn’t he have been more prepared? He knew his first stop was France. He could have at least got someone to write something out for him. And no one in Calais speaks English? Really?

The interesting thing is that he would have got on so much better had he used the websites he advocated today. People respond so much better if you send a quick introduction first rather than just turning up on their doorstep. Take, for example, the success of Twitchhiker.

Even though I’m a big Couchsurfer, if someone knocked on my door right now desperate for a place to stay, the first thing I’d think was ‘scam’. I can’t help it. Classic citydweller mentality.

Perhaps this was Boyle’s point and he was trying to get away from our silly reliance on the internet and our ingrained judgements. Perhaps he was trying to make connections with people that went beyond language and demonstrated innate human kindness.

It didn’t work though.

Supporting yourself in a caravan by growing your own food and making your own toothpaste is one thing, but expecting people to fund your trip to India without spending a single penny? I’m not convinced. As I’ve said before I wouldn’t advise anyone to couchsurf if they are flat broke. And you should always have an emergency fund. Or in Boyle’s case – a 17-year-old you can scab travellers’ cheques off.

I’m kidding. The last word goes to the cash-less man…

“I know people are laughing at me. I don’t mind. … if all I’ve done is give people something to smile about then that’s not so bad. There are worse things going on in the world.”

What do you think? Should ‘free travel’ be encouraged?

Photo: Bilingual signs at Calais… when it started off so well. From Flickr by Pictor 30D

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