Traveling often requires extensive funds and spending, however, one BYU graduate decided travelers shouldn’t have to spend thousands of dollars to get the experience of a lifetime.
In April 2012, Jeff Paul launched Mormon Explorer, a website made especially for members of the Church who desire to travel and stay with other LDS families or host members in their hometowns. With the website, one can make an account and connect with members in over 58 countries. In just a few months, the site already has more than 932 members and growing.
Paul said he came up with the idea from using the popular website couchsurfing.com, and from his experience on a study abroad to Switzerland.
“We stayed with some incredible families who would cook us authentic meals, take us on tours of their city and help us stay within our budget by offering us a place to stay at night,” Paul said. “We also tried more traditional travel, where we would stay in a hotel or family hostel for the night. We were impressed by the stark contrast between the nights we stayed cooped up in a hotel room and the times we stayed with new friends, staying up late conversing, sharing travel tips and truly experiencing the culture.”
However, Paul said staying with members in other countries is not the only feature available on Mormon Explorer.
“Not every traveler is comfortable staying with a family they do not already know, and we fully understand and appreciate that,” Paul said. “For that reason, we have allowed users to choose what type of interactions they are willing to provide. You can invite another member over for a meal, provide a tour of your city, invite them to an activity that may be going on in your ward or take them to church on Sunday. You choose the level of interaction, and we feel this helps Mormon Explorer appeal to a broader audience with different comfort levels.”
For those who desire to travel and meet others but are nervous to use the site, Paul offered a few useful tips.
“Look up an Explorer in your destination and ask them to help you find the church or take you to their favorite restaurant in town,” Paul said. “You will create a lasting friendship by meeting someone with similar values who is willing to help you truly experience what their city has to offer. The other suggestion is to find someone who a friend of yours has already stayed with. It’s like staying with a friend of a friend. It becomes a lot less strange once you view it that way.”
Alyne Tamir works with Mormon Explorer as an event coordinator and said she has gained friends on nearly every continent, allowing her to travel to places like Spain, Egypt and Jordan. However, she was not always comfortable with the idea of staying with strangers.
“I definitely understand being nervous,” Tamir said. “I remember my first time was in Athens and I was excited yet dubious, so I decided just to meet with them for lunch. It was a group of three university students and they were so laid back, showing me around town and taking me to the local market. Looking back, I wish I had realized how safe it all was and stayed with them for a few days.”
Although this is a great way to travel on a budget, Tamir said Mormon Explorer is not just about saving money, but also about creating lasting friendships with people around the world.
“It’s a way to meet new people with similar interests (and) people that can share so much with you and show you what hospitality really is,” Tamir said. “Mormon Explorer isn’t only for members, it’s for anyone with high standards and an interest in all the other people and experiences out there.”
Scott Paul helped his brother Jeff launch Mormon Explorer in 2012, and said he frequently used couchsurfing.com as a way to travel around the world. Mormon Explorer is unique in that it is specifically tailored to the LDS community, but there are many websites similar to couchsurfing.com that allow individuals to travel on a budget and meet others, such as stay4free.com, hospitalityclub.org and travbuddy.com.
However, these websites are not just about being hosted, but hosting others.
Scott Paul was given the opportunity in April to host a young man from Ghana who was in town to translate for General Conference, and who was without his family for the Easter holiday.
“We invited him to our Easter with our family,” Paul said. “It was really cool to use the site and have it connect strangers who share the same religion. He was away from everybody, so it was a perfect time to be a family to somebody who doesn’t have a family.”
Tamir said although it is great to be able to stay at homes for free, it is important to be gracious to hosts. Bringing a gift, keeping yourself busy if they are busy or being free if they want to hang out are all important aspects of staying with other explorers. However, Tamir said one of the most important things is not during the visit, but afterward.
“Keep in touch with your hosts,” Tamir said. “They can stay your friends for a lifetime.”
Mormon Explorer is a non-profit company run by volunteers. For more information visit mormonexplorer.com or mormonexplorer.com/volunteer.