What Is The Sharing Economy And What Does It Mean For Travellers?

The sharing economy has become a huge driving force in the travel and gap year industries, but many travellers are still confused as to what it is and how they can use it to travel cheaply, easily and independently. This article will answer all those questions and more. 

Backpacking around the world is a vastly different beast today than it was when I first started travelling almost fifteen years ago. The ‘gap year’ has been made into an entire industry in and of itself, travellers now have whole travel infrastructures and organised tours tailored to make the travel experience easier for them, technology has advanced so much that travel adventures are often streamed live onto numerous social media sites and communication and staying in touch is no longer an issue, and the sharing economy has entered the fray to give travellers a wider array of choices on everything from accommodation to where and how to eat. It is easy to see why first time travellers are often bewildered by the array of options on offer to them.

What Is The Sharing Economy?

Put very simply, the sharing economy is an umbrella term that describes an array of socio economic systems built around the sharing or fair trade of goods and services. This can be anything from an accommodation service, a transport service, a cultural service, anything at all really.

The sharing economy has been around for many years in various forms, and not always in an organised way either. I have known many backpackers using their skills as hairdressers or artists in exchange for services they needed. I used to give martial arts lessons  to backpackers or do odd jobs in hostels in exchange for a nights stay or a meal or two for example. Backpackers have for as long as I can remember banded together to share costs on a taxi or a tour. That in effect is part of what the sharing economy is.

It is recent advances in technology and social media that have really seen the sharing economy explode in a big way. For travellers it has opened up the world like nothing else has before, and has allowed them to share, connect and interact with local cultures in a whole new way.  The sharing economy has given travellers the opportunity to travel cheaper by circumventing the traditional travel or accommodation industry options, and has allowed them to connect with locals and really get the most out of the places they are visiting.

How Can Backpackers Use The Sharing Economy?

Hospitality networks.

Hospitality networks have been around for a long time now, but have really come into their own in recent years. They are essentially a service where local hosts can connect with travellers by offering them a free place to stay, basically you stay with a local instead of in a hostel or hotel. Couchsurfing is still one of the biggest and most popular hospitality networks out there, but there are plenty of others too such as global freeloaders.

Accommodation networks. 

Accommodation options have always been varied for travellers, but the sharing economy has really opened up a whole new way to travel, not just a new place to stay. Instead of staying in a hotel or hostel, you can pay to rent a spare room or even an entire apartment for short or long term stays. Airbnb is one of the largest and most popular networks (alongside being one of the most controversial), but there are also  HomeAway and Wimdu to name just a few. These networks are great, especially if you are travelling long term or travelling slowly, as they are often substantially cheaper than a hotel room, and you get your own space, your own bathroom and your own kitchen too! Essentially a home away from home.

Dining networks.

There are a number of websites beginning to establish themselves where you can sign up and either eat a home cooked meal with a local, join a dinner party or meet a local for lunch in the places you will be visiting. There is usually a fee involved depending on what you choose and the agreements you make with hosts, but in general they are a great way to meet locals and have a different experience to the usual street food and cheap restaurants.  Eat With A Local and Colunching are just two examples, but there are many more that offer similar services.

Shared Transport.

These services essentially allow you to share a ride with locals who are heading in the same direction, who pick you up and drop you off where you want to go. There are fees involved and whilst they are often cheaper than a taxi, the use of ‘suggested donations’ with companies such as Lyft or Sidecar and surge pricing in the case of Uber make that an increasingly thin margin. I’ll be honest, as much of a fan of the sharing economy that I am, these transport options have yet to impress me and I mention them only out of a need to be thorough. To be honest, I’d still just use public transport and the occasional taxi when needed.

The sharing economy is growing all the time, and these examples are just a brief overview of what is on offer. It really has made travel so much cheaper and easier, and opened up whole new ways for travellers to connect with locals, save a lot of money and get a unique travel experience.

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.

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31 comments on “What Is The Sharing Economy And What Does It Mean For Travellers?
  1. Sketchpacker says:

    Wow so useful, cheers for this πŸ™‚ I’ve also found Helpx.net to be quite a useful tool of the sharing economy, but you’ve got to be careful to make sure your verify your hosts before you tramp off to their crib

  2. traveling9to5er says:

    Thanks for sharing. This is a great explanation of this newer trend and how to use it in your travels. Uber is taking some steps forward with their Uber Pool. I don’t think it’s available everywhere yet but I was in San Francisco last weekend and we shared a ride home with a lovely couple for just $6. And at least for now isn’t affected by surge pricing.

  3. Road Affair says:

    We love couchsurfing. Not only is a friendly on our wallet, it also allowed us to meet so many amazing people. Some of our highlights are, staying on a private island in panama, in a rural hotel in honduras and in a house dedicated just to couchsufing. Unfortunately it is becoming more and more difficult to get accepted by hosts because many guys are only hosting girls now.

    • Wow, a private island? That’s pretty damn awesome! I love the meeting people side of the sharing economy too! Although I’ve never personally found that difficulty, is that becoming more normal now?

  4. Revati says:

    This is the first time I’m hearing of Go Cambio, and it sunds greats! I was just about losing faith in Couchsurfing (with all the freloaders that have crept in) but Go Cambio sounds like so much more fun, and practical too!

    • I know what you mean, it should be about so much more than just ‘thanks for the fee bed’ and off they go. Go Cambio at least addresses that by making it mutually beneficial to both parties. Thanks for the comment. πŸ™‚

  5. Claudia says:

    I like the idea of a sharing economy, but I found using it really hard in developing countries where I like to travel. Besides, I have had some really crazy experiences on couchsurfing!!

    • I know what you mean Claudia, there is a time and place for everything and the sharing economy isn’t always going to be the best or even most convenient option. That’s why there are a whole range of options open to you from hostels and homestays to guesthouses and hotels. The choice is vast. It’s all about experiencing as wide a range of options as you can.

      • Claudia says:

        Yes, and having said this – I have also met some FANTASTIC people through couchsurfing, that I can’t wait to meet again!

  6. Bruno says:

    I’ve never heard of Go Cambio, but I’m intrigued.
    Overall, great round-up post and a different perspective on the travel industry!

  7. Bean Abroad says:

    Thanks for all the links in this post, I’ll be using them as much as I can this summer. This is why I love the travelling community because people like to help each other out. Keep up the great work.

  8. Its amazing how the travel industry has evolved for all these new innovative ways and options to supplement the “normal” ways of exploring. With these options there is really no excuse not to get out there as its not all run by expensive brands. You can incorporate free, cheap and reasonably price options on your travels.

  9. Clemens Sehi says:

    Interesting topic and a nice view of the industry! Thanks for writing!

  10. Tim says:

    To agree with your other comments it is amazing how the travel industry has evolved. I have never tried the couch surfing experience and likely never will but some of these other networks are intriguing. Thanks for sharing all this information.

    • It definitely has changed so much since I started travelling! Try them out, you never know you may really like them? You may not but at least you’ve had a new experience. πŸ™‚

  11. SLioy says:

    I looove Couchsurfing, even if I rarely end up doing it anymore. I find that travel of this style (AirBnB as well) really changes the experience, and makes for a nice sort of switch when I start getting burnt out with being on the road. I’ve not tried any of the others, but perhaps on my next trip it’s time to go ahead and do so?

    • It’s always worth trying new things! πŸ™‚ I totally agree with you, I try to mix it up when travelling as well, hostels, guesthouses, the occasional hotel or sharing economy accommodation, they all end up adding to the mix. Thanks for commenting.

  12. antonette says:

    Thank you for this helpful post! I’m not really one of the sharing to be honest, I prefer camping and cooking my own meal on a small gas-cooker, however I can totally see how this works for everyone who enjoys meeting locals (not that we don’t, we just need to be on ourselves quite a lot, too) …

    • That’s the best thing about travelling, you can travel in any way you like! And there are so many ways to travel and so many different types of accommodation now I always urge everyone to try as many types as they can and get as many different experiences as they can. πŸ™‚ Thanks for the comment.

  13. Melody Pittman says:

    Thanks for clearing up all those very confusing details about the sharing economy. Not being a young adult traveler, or the backpacker type, they are all very confusing. You did a nice job of helping me understand it all. This is also opened my eyes to some things I would really like to try.

  14. Jayne says:

    Thanks for the tips, Michael! I’m excited to try to use some of these sharing platforms for my first backpacking trip soon. The human connection that comes with sharing economy is interesting, and it’s the pulling factor for me. I was a bit hesitant to try when I heard about it at first but I’m more open to it now after reading more about it from you. If you never try, you never know. πŸ™‚ Thanks!

  15. Hmm, GoCambio is new to me. Sounds cool, but I’m a diehard Couchsurfer, so it’ll probably be a while before I try that one out πŸ˜›

    I saw someone else mention HelpX in a comment, and I would also add Workaway.info — it’s like a work exchange network (sort of like WWOOF but more general), you can find hostel jobs, volunteer projects in health or education, people looking for help building or painting houses, or people who just want you to come speak a particular language with them or their kids. I’m Workawaying at a hostel in Mexico City right now and having a blast of it!

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a former nurse turned published author and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent over twenty years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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