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March 25, 2007

CouchSurfing.com — 'Grab your bag and go CouchSurfing with me'

Hloiliju

It's the hottest thing on the planet.

Long story short: You register on the CouchSurfing website and then find places to stay — free, all over the world — with fellow members.

Terry Ward wrote an article about it which appeared in the March 11, 2007 Washington Post, and follows.

    Divan Intervention

    Why pay for a hostel? With CouchSurfing, you can find a bed — or at least a sofa — for free.

    Sure, there were cathedrals around every corner, interesting museums and hostels full of Australian backpackers keen to get their party on. But for University of Pennsylvania student Jim Goldblum, who spent the autumn of 2005 backpacking around Europe while studying abroad in Spain, something was missing.

    "It gets a little monotonous, honestly," he said, referring to hostel life. "You're constantly meeting Australians. Sometimes I felt like I was more in Australia."

    So when Goldblum, 22, decided to continue his European travels in 2006, he opted to change his tactic. He swapped bunk-hopping in hostels for CouchSurfing — just about everywhere.

    Goldblum is among a growing legion of independent young travelers turning to the CouchSurfing Project to stretch their budgets and to ensure that their travel experiences go beyond just ticking off the sights. The free Internet service, founded in 2004, connects travelers with hosts around the world offering floor space, a couch or sometimes an entire bedroom, all for the grand sum of nothing.

    The average age of a CouchSurfing member is 25, with more than 44 percent of the site's 173,000-plus members falling between the ages of 18 and 24. Most CouchSurfers hail from Europe, home to more than 75,000 members, with North America's nearly 60,000 members making it the second-most-active CouchSurfing continent.

    "It just completely changed things," Goldblum said, back home in Philadelphia. One time he had an entire wing to himself in a luxurious seaside apartment in Porto, Portugal. On another occasion, a University of Warsaw student acted as Goldblum's personal tour guide in Poland, taking him along with her everywhere — from local markets to the underground club scene.

    Divans are available in 213 countries, in places as diverse as Jamaica, Singapore and Ghana. One Florida member, "Captn Bob," offers travelers a private aft cabin on his sailboat. There are even a handful of couches on offer in Saudi Arabia (a member in Riyadh appears vaguely royal, pictured atop a stately white horse).

    Here's how it works: You create a profile at www.couchsurfing.com, choose your travel destination, then request accommodations by contacting potential hosts through e-mail that's routed through the site. If all goes well, you'll be welcomed to stay for a night or more. There's no obligation to host.

    CouchSurfing is the brainchild of Casey Fenton, 28. Before he came up with the idea, Fenton had his fair share of what are commonly referred to as "real jobs," among them working as a computer programmer in New Hampshire and as a legislative aide in Alaska.

    Preparing for a last-minute escape to Reykjavik, Iceland, Fenton went about looking for accommodations in a most unusual (some might say illegal) way: He hacked into the University of Iceland's student directory and e-mailed hundreds of female students, indicating a desire to experience the real Iceland with them.

    More than 50 people responded, and Fenton proceeded to have the time of his life.

    "When I got back from Iceland, I was like, 'Yeah, I get it now,' " Fenton said. "It all started clicking into place, and I started working on [the Web site]." Now, with more than 400 people joining every day, keeping up with CouchSurfing has become a full-time job.

    Fenton, who grew up in New Hampshire, lives in Nelson, New Zealand, the current base camp for the CouchSurfing Collective. That's the vagabonding brain trust behind the Web site, which is powered by Fenton and a bevy of dedicated volunteers. At any time, about 15 people are living at the Collective; nationalities and numbers fluctuate, with computer programmers and design-savvy folks coming and going — dedicating a few days to a few months — before moving on.

    Come April, Fenton said, the Collective itself will pack up and shift to Europe (with outposts planned in Paris and northwest Germany). Some of the New Zealand Collective members will move to the new locations; others will set off on solo travels; and still others will slink back to the dreaded "real world." It's no surprise that Fenton is headed for Europe.

    "There are a few times a year where, for weeks, I'll be CouchSurfing," said Fenton, who draws a salary from some of the money the nonprofit site receives in donations. "My goal is to have as many diverse experiences as I can in my lifetime. And CouchSurfing seems like the perfect way to do that."

    Chris Vourlias, 28, a CouchSurfer from Brooklyn, N.Y., would no doubt agree. Staying with people who actually live in a city allows a more realistic window into life there, said Vourlias, who has used the service to stay with hosts in such places as Fez, Morocco, and Catania, Sicily.

    The hosts "get up, and they go work," Vourlias said. "They don't live in the old part of town. They live in a little residential neighborhood 15 minutes away by train. You hear them complain about the rent and the public transport and the wages and how tourists are driving up the prices."

    Seasoned CouchSurfers make the experience sound welcoming enough, if not downright warm and fuzzy. But the idea of shacking up with strangers leaves most travelers with a trepidation or two, a point that the Web site addresses head-on.

    Collective member Rachel DiCerbo, a 29-year-old New Yorker charged with focusing on safety and member dispute issues, said that most of the complaints she has received are the result of personality conflicts between members. "Safety is important to us," she said, "but we are not the police."

    Members are urged to solve misunderstandings on their own, DiCerbo said, but CouchSurfing "ambassadors," who represent the site on a local level in many communities, can be brought into the equation to help mediate disputes.

    That said, a situation in December was considered serious enough that DiCerbo e-mailed 110,000 members to warn them of police reports received about a member accused of check fraud and credit card theft. It was the first time in the site's three years of operation that a police report about a CouchSurfer had been received and the first time that the Collective had sent out that type of mass e-mail, she said.

    "I have been getting a lot of responses from this e-mail, and so many people have said, 'Thank you,' " DiCerbo said. "This says to me that people do care about safety on the site."

    Fenton agrees that member vigilance sends a positive message regarding site safety. "It's been pretty surprising," he said, referring to the low number of negative incidents reported by members. "When you start something like this, you think, 'Okay, what's gonna happen?' "

    Safety measures taken on the site include "vouching," whereby members who have been vouched for by three other members can then vouch for other CouchSurfers. Essentially, it's a circle of trust among people who use the site often; members must meet face to face before initiating the vouching process.

    Additionally, a list of safety guidelines for both hosts and surfers includes tips for women traveling solo, as well as such basic advice as keeping a family member posted about your itinerary and making sure your luggage is locked.

    DiCerbo said the site emphasizes the importance of leaving detailed references after you have stayed with someone or hosted a fellow surfer. Members are encouraged to be brutally honest about their experiences to give future surfers an idea about what they can expect from a host or guest and what accommodations to expect. Members can edit their references, but they cannot remove them, she said.

    "We want people to leave factual references — not just say, 'This guy's a jerk,' " she said. "You really want to embody what the experience is like with that person. That's something we're trying to encourage."

....................

In a sidebar Ms. Ward also wrote about her personal experience CouchSurfing in Limerick, Ireland; that piece follows.

    My One-Night Stay in Limerick: More Than a Couch

    In December, I became a CouchSurfer. Officially.

    An adventurous traveler by nature — and no stranger to staying at hostels or with friends of friends — I decided to give CouchSurfing.com a try during a one-night stop in Limerick, Ireland. About a week before my arrival, I created a profile on the Web site so I could contact other users.

    I selected a photo in which I appeared presentable but modest (this isn't MySpace, after all), then I started browsing for hosts.

    At the top of the list of nine options was a member with the user name "Limerick Male Couple." I read the profile and learned that Mike and Carlo are an American/Italian couple living in Limerick's city center. Their references — from both male and female surfers -- were predominantly "extremely positive," with one "positive" in the mix.

    The best part? They were offering an entire spare bedroom [top] in their apartment, not just a ratty divan in a home office.

    It sounded like an ideal situation for a woman traveling solo, so I e-mailed the guys, introducing myself. A few days later Mike responded, accepting my request for lodging. He included a map with bus routes, as well as some advice about what to see in Limerick.

    We exchanged a few more e-mails, and by the time I knocked on his door, Mike no longer felt like a complete stranger.

    Carlo was already out for the evening when I arrived (he works nights), and when I left in the morning he was still asleep, so I never met him.

    I gave Mike a bottle of Spanish wine, and we spent a good hour sipping orange pekoe and nibbling Amaretto di Saronno cookies in his cozy living room while sharing our experiences as Americans abroad. He showed me photos of the students in Limerick to whom he teaches English, and we exchanged ideas on how best to learn a foreign language.

    Before leaving to check out an Italian restaurant Mike recommended, I retired to "my" room for a rest.

    There was a fresh stack of towels and a plush duvet atop the double bed, a TV, a reading chair and a cheery mirror shaped like a sunburst on the wall. "When you're traveling, you want a place to feel safe and comfortable and to get clean," Mike told me. "That's what we offer."

    The next morning, after a great night's sleep and a hot shower, I made the bed and went on my way.

....................

Finally, her helpful pointers on CouchSurfing etiquette.

    A Little Thank-You Can Get You a Long Way

    Just because you're sleeping on someone's sofa doesn't mean you have to be rude. Here are some pointers if you plan to CouchSurf.

    • When contacting hosts, allow time for an e-mail rapport to develop. The more comfortable you feel before meeting in person, the better the experience will be. Don't e-mail a host at the last minute expecting to find a place to stay.

    • Do not ignore your host. There are no rules about how much time you have to spend hanging out, but nobody wants to feel used. Be sure to engage your host in conversation to keep with the cultural exchange mission of CouchSurfing.

    • Though you don't have to bring a gift to your host, showing your appreciation never hurts. Consider burning a CD of your favorite tunes or toting along flowers or a bottle of wine. Offering to make dinner or do the dishes is another good way to say thanks. Keep in mind that, in certain cultures, showing up empty-handed is taboo.

    • If your host offers to pick you up at the airport or bus station, offer to pay for tolls, parking or any additional expenses.

    • Pack light. The goal is to respect your host's space and be as inconspicuous as possible. Stick to a small backpack that can easily be tucked away in a closet during the day. Don't leave your toiletries in the bathroom.

    • Don't be a couch potato. Get out and about so your host can have some downtime.

    • After you leave, send a thank-you note. A postcard from the road is a gracious way to show your gratitude.

March 25, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Comments

Wow...I think I have found what I want to do with my couch? Poor couch...just has us sitting on it but you know it would be great to have someone actually sleeping on it too? I can just see us coming out of our lovely rooms all bedheaded and heading down the hall to the kitchen to make coffee and find that the darn coffee pot is broken. Ok..now on this particular morning my poor couchsurfer would be ready to hit the waves~ big time! He or She would have heard some words I am sure they never even knew existed. And then not to mention a few little twists of "I am not going to school today" Or "I am too sick to go to school today" routines. Also the fact that I don't seem to care if he is too sick to go to school today? But alas after much saying your ok and it's going to be a good day at school today...we actually walk out the door to the birds singing and the sun almost trying to shine to drive our too sick to go to school child~ to school. Oh I can just see what would be posted on that couchsurfers site for those days.

But alas I am just jealous. I think I could do this and really enjoy it too.

Posted by: Rhonda | Mar 27, 2007 9:43:05 AM

Another great site in a similar vein is www.globalfreeloaders.com - I have hosted several folks in our home from the site, though have not yet had the chance to travel and stay with others.

Posted by: KJ | Mar 25, 2007 8:25:20 PM

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