"Many travelers today aren't interested in just sightseeing and checking tourist attractions off on a list. They want to experience what it's like to live in another culture. What better way [to do that] than by spending time with someone who lives there?"
This question, posed by Boston-based traveler Madelyn Medeiros, motivated her to try an alternative accommodations service called the Couchsurfing Project. "Couch surfing" is the method of choice for the budget traveler who is seeking no-cost lodging and the chance to meet local people. For those who open their houses and lives to couch surfers, it's an opportunity to join people in mid-adventure without leaving the comforts of home.
The CouchSurfing project is the brainchild of Internet entrepreneur Casey Fenton, who first thought of the site in the late '90s, but didn't officially launch it until early 2004. Over the past two years, couch surfers have multiplied, and the website has recently broken the 50,000-member mark. The average age of surfers is 27 and almost half the membership is between 18 and 24. However, couches aren't just for young people to surf on: There are almost 2,000 members over the age of 50. And it's not just a range of ages that the Project boasts. There are members from 186 countries who speak more than 600 unique languages. Conveniently for North Americans, almost 90 percent of the members list English as one of those languages.
How it works
Aspiring couch surfers can start by creating a profile that helps site members understand more about each other. The profiles are as diverse as the couch-surfing community, and as detailed as individual members choose to make them. There are photos, of course, and personal facts such as languages spoken, places visited, and interests. Add to that a mission statement, a personal philosophy, "couch information," and references from other surfing buddies and you get a fuller picture of what a particular member is all about. As Medeiros puts it, "the site is about more than just cheap travel—it's about connecting people all over the world."
Who it's for
One couch surfer from Australia who goes by the username Flurf describes his fellow members in this way: "No matter where anyone comes from (their culture, language, etc.) the differences can be not only overlooked but embraced and enjoyed because of the often-present trait in couch surfers, which is a willingness to learn and share." Flurf notes that it isn't just those away from home who are in search of adventure, but the couch owners, too. He adds, "As travelers we hunger for experience, and as hosts we still do! So it's a bunch of like-minded people who can hang out, relax together, party together, talk and learn from each other."
Who it's not for
Couch surfing may be one of the most affordable ways to see the world, but it's clearly not for everyone. Travelers who have certain lodging preferences, such as loyalty to a particular hotel chain or star class, may not appreciate the unpredictability inherent in the surfing lifestyle. Also, since social interaction is a significant part of the experience, surfing may not suit those who are shy around new people.
Is it safe?
The prospect of either opening one's home up to a stranger or flopping down on a random couch seems fraught with risk. There are, however, many safeguards the Couch Surfing project has built in to its system. For starters, anyone can sign up to couch surf, but not just anyone can become a vouched-for or verified member. To be vouched for, another member has to give the new member a positive review, either by initially referring them to CouchSurfing.com or by vouching for them after the new member signs up. A further level of security is added by the fact that it's easy to view the chain of users a member is linked to in his or her profile. According to the project's website, this function helps "other users determine how trustworthy you are, based on the quantity and 'quality' of the people you know."