Going Dutch means not paying at all
by Roberta Cowan
AMSTERDAM - Dutchman Ramon Stoppelenburg believes in a simple philosophy: people are generally nice and hospitable and that everyone, occasionally, should be able to offer a meal and a bed to a friend. He is putting this idea to the test, traveling the world without any money by using the internet to get invited to peoples' homes.
This adventurous spirit has taken him around the world, to European countries close to home, as well as more far-flung destinations like South Africa, Hong Kong and Australia. Currently he is on a five-month tour of Canada.
Stoppelenburg is a 26-year-old former journalism student from the northern Dutch town of Zwolle, who dropped out of university when he caught the travel bug. What makes him unique is that he meets potential hosts through his website and is up-front about the fact that he is traveling without any money, relying solely on the hospitality of others.
In exchange, he faithfully updates his website with reports on his travels, writing about the places and people he meets.
'It's the same as asking family to come over. The only difference is that I am not your family,' explains Stoppelenburg.
His site, letmestayforaday.com, averages 50,000 hits a day, which includes daily diary submissions, photographs, a discussion forum, a press room (BBC, CNN to CBC and hundreds of newspapers have tracked his journey), FAQs, maps and sponsors' advertising banners. The young traveller currently has more than 3,000 standing invitations in 72 different counties. And thousands of people from all over the world read about this freeloader's latest adventures.
Stoppelenburg says he always wanted to travel but as a student never had the money to do so. 'I didn't want to work for months just to enjoy a vacation for a week. So I came up with the idea of staying with locals and hitchhiking, which doesn't require a lot of money. But how could I stay with locals? I thought of the idea of asking them through the internet and then I thought, could it be possible to travel the world for free, totally depending on the hospitality of other people?'
Within a few days of launching his site in March 2001, he was approached by sponsors. They provided him with clothing, a backpack, a digital camera and a mobile phone.
'On land I can get pretty far with my thumb, but the big obstacle is of course, how to cross the oceans. Travel agents offered me tickets to South Africa and Australia and in return, as with every sponsor, they get free advertisement on my website.
'A woman from Canada who saw my website offered me her air mile points and booked me a return ticket for five months in Canada,' Stoppelenburg says.
'I don't tell people I have no money. Whoever invites me has seen and understood the website, which clearly states I travel without any money,' he adds. 'All I ask of my hosts is to help me out with a place to sleep and some food - something everybody should be able to share with a person for at least one day, I think.'
Depending on the hospitality and generosity of his hosts, Stoppelenburg says he doesn't need money for anything else. 'Chocolate bars have become a luxury to me, because I don't really need them. I would never walk into a store and say I need something and tell them I have no money, because that is really freeloading.'
Stoppelenburg maintains that he doesn't have money and doesn't even want money. But he does accept online donations to finance a backup team in Holland and the high costs of the internet server.
'What I do is an equal exchange: hosts help me out and I report about these experiences on my website to share with others. I do something in return. There is a big difference between asking for help and begging on your knees. And I've never had a host who complained about this exchange.'
Stoppelenburg always wanted to travel and write so he created a lifestyle which combines these two passions. He is never bored being around people and he does not miss the privacy. 'I like being around people too much because I am really interested in new people and finding out about how other people live. Between hosts I get a few moments on my own.'
His website gets over 350 emails every day. 'I always tell people that I simply can't stay in contact. But whoever sends me an email does get a reply. Sometimes there's a balance between getting to know new people and places and processing everything for my daily reports. It takes about 25 hours week to update the entire site, but I am not complaining, because this is the best job I could wish for right now.'
But isn't being back in the Netherlands somewhat anti-climatic? 'It is hard because suddenly I am on my own again, surrounded by friends and family who have missed me. People are more relaxed and although they are interested in what I do, they don't hype it up or treat me like a celebrity. And, back home I have to pay the bill for beers .'
Surely depending on others' handout and meeting strangers can't be fun all the time, but Stoppelenburg said he had not had any bad experiences.
'People aren't that bad. Those who think there are many bad people out there should just turn off their TV. I only had trouble finding places to stay a few times. I slept at the Birmingham Airport in England, in the back of a car at a caravan park in the Australian Kimberley, and I had to knock on a few doors in Western Australia.'