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Couch surf your way to free lodging

“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.”

Verification adds another level of peace of mind, and involves having the service check that the name and address on a profile is the same as the one on the member’s credit card, and then sending that person a special code via postal mail that must be then entered into the website. Short of individually investigating members, which would be impossible given the more than 1,000 average weekly registrations lately, these verification measures provide a decent level of security. Of course the ultimate question of whether it’s safe depends on your personal judgment. Make sure to thoroughly research anyone who is going to stay with you, or on whose couch you’ll be crashing.

More free-accommodations services

The focus here has been on CouchSurfing, but it’s not the only service of its kind out there. Other online networks that can help travelers find free beds include The Hospitality Club and GlobalFreeloaders.com. Despite the wildly different connotations of their names, both of these websites offer free services that make it possible for travelers seeking an affordable night’s rest to connect with hosts offering free lodging. The Hospitality Club is the larger of the two, with more than 100,000 members; GlobalFreeloaders has about one-third that many.

If you’d like to try out one of these services, but feel uneasy about meeting a potential host or guest through the Internet, there are two well-established organizations that may be more suitable. Servas was founded just after World War II and is the oldest of the free-accommodations services, though it presents some obstacles not found with the Web-based outfits. Prospective Servas members must interview with a contact person and then wait to find out whether they have been accepted. Servas also charges a fee of $50 for unlimited domestic travel or $85 for unlimited international travel. However, with these drawbacks comes the added benefit of security, knowing the person you may be hosting or staying with has been screened by a representative of the organization.

Hospitality Exchange dates to 1965 and also publishes printed directories, which it sends to members who have paid the $20 annual fee. However, its scope is limited, having members in just “20 countries and territories.” Whatever its limitations, the Hospitality Exchange website does present one amusing saying about visitor relations it’s wise to keep in mind no matter which of these services you use: “Fish and guests begin to smell in three days.”

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