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NEW DELHI (Reuters Life!) - Hotel rooms in India tend to be expensive and hard to find, but a new Web site is helping visitors find a bed, with a warm conversation thrown in, all for free.
While most hosts on www.extrabed.in offer a spare bed and an Internet connection, some offer sightseeing tours, endless cups of coffee or even a game of Scrabble to add that personal touch.
The Web site was born after its founder, Kiruba Shankar, randomly contacted bloggers in Mumbai to see if anyone would put him up. He found several.
"The blogger I stayed with had a small house and he could only offer me a mat to sleep on," said Shankar, 34, who had tired of staying in hotels during his travels.
"But we had a lot of fun and ended up playing videogames all night. I preferred sleeping on the ground at this guy's place rather than stay in irritatingly clean and inhuman hotels."
Shankar floated the Web site in January and immediately found takers for the free hospitality network service. The site is similar to www.couchsurfing.com, which also offers travellers the use of a spare bed or couch for free and which has more than 300,000 members globally, with thousands more signing up weekly.
Indian hotel industry officials say a booming economy has led to a severe shortage of hotel rooms across all price brackets and an exponential rise in tariffs as well.
ExtraBed is only for bloggers, and hence users wary of giving strangers access to their homes can read the potential visitors' blogs to understand them.
"It's better than reading their CV to form an opinion," Shankar said. "The fact that a guy has a blog gives you a comfort feeling about his character."
While non-smokers and teetotallers tend to be popular guests on ExtraBed, one optimistic host on the Web site has set an unusual condition -- prospective visitors should agree to babysit his young child.
And since the hospitality is free, guests often find ways to express gratitude: they help with household chores or bring a gift. And users are raving about the service.
"We had a lot of ideas to share about filmmaking," said Ganesh A.P.P, a 21-year-old engineering student who hosted a blogger from Singapore for a fortnight in Chennai.
"We learnt from each other and he even taught me a new camera technique," said Ganesh whose guest shared his interest in filmmaking.
Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, was Shankar's guest for three days during a trip in February.
"When I used ExtraBed to find a place to stay, I was excited to have the opportunity to meet a new family, a new friend," Wales told Reuters via email.
"The blogging community in India and around the world is all about people sharing knowledge with others, and now, a little bit of hospitality as well."