Budget Travel: How Low Can You Go?

After a quick lap around the Puerta del Sol neighborhood, Charlotte heads for her nanny gig and Alan displays the innate trust of this tribe by giving me the keys to his flat and going to work -- a chance to check out the digs.

I'm sure that it is bad form for a rookie to look a gift couch in the mouth, but allow me to err on the side of honesty (and it pains me, because Alan is an interesting, seemingly decent guy). You know the stained love seat you occasionally see abandoned on the side of the freeway? That would be an upgrade. The bathroom looks like it hasn't been cleaned since Franco died and the kitchen sink is full of last week's dishes. Welcome to Bohemia!

But who needs $12 cashews and a working television? I'm here to see one of Europe's great cities, not a cigarette-and-couch-surfer-scented fourth-floor walk-up!

In search of a cheap, authentic meal, we head to a place called El Tigre for a typical 10 p.m. dinner. A few of Alan's fellow surfers have joined -- a philosophy student from Berlin, a film student from Denmark and Dilip, a Northern Californian who's eyes light up as he describes the first time he surfed with a family in Nepal.

"They picked me up at the airport. They had little kids. They fed me authentic Nepali food. It was beyond anything I could even explain," he says. "It's revolutionized the way I travel. I think a lot of people come into it as a substitute for a hostel. But people who think they can save a dime or two will maybe realize later that this is more than that."

Later, Alan's friends tell me that they tried to talk him out of giving this community any publicity.

"The more people who join, the higher the chance something bad will happen," the guy from Denmark says.

We enter the raucous restaurant and wade towards the bar.

Spain is suffering a much worse recession than the U.S., with an unemployment rate around 15 percent, so tapas has become a form of survival food. Order a $2 beer and you get a plate of rustic-but-filling bread, cheese and chorizo. It is the Spanish equivalent of living on happy-hour buffalo wings, and it would have been great for my competitive budget, but I offered to buy Alan dinner.

"Look, man. I really wish you were here tomorrow," he says as I hold out the Euros for another round. "I get paid and I could do you up proper!" Alan tells me he traditionally cooks a meal for his guest on their first night.

After dinner, the group walks back to his flat and after a interesting conversation about the future of capitalism, it's light's out.

Since the love seat is good foot shorter than I am, Alan throws down a plastic-covered cot mattress and apologizes for not having any sheets or blankets. Or pillows.

I say thanks and good night, and tuck in beneath my rain coat. Around 3:30 a.m., Alan's roommate comes home and, in the darkness, steps on my head.

"Sorry, dude," he says, and then proceeds to his room where he turns on Radiohead's "OK Computer" and begins to sing along softly.

At 4:30, I sneak out, round the corner and check into the Hotel Melia Madrid Princessa, where a sleek king room goes for $172, (or more than four times my daily budget).

Since CouchSurfing.com lists over a million members with 1.9 million "positive experiences," I feel compelled to give the final word to Lisa Lubin, a television producer who spent two and half years couch surfing around the globe. If you read her posts you'll see that sheets, pillows and gracious hosts are the norm.

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