Posted Oct. 11, 2012
By LAURA YEPES
After missing the last bus back to Murcia, Spain, Ketti Wilhelm and Rachel Smith, both from Montana found themselves stranded in Alicante. With hardly enough money to even stay at a hostel, they and two friends found themselves in a situation no traveler ever wants to be in— having no place to stay.
Wilhelm took a chance and sent out a message on CouchSurfing.org, a growing organization online that helps travelers find local people willing to offer their couches for a night or two. When she received a call 10 minutes later from a man in a nearby town who offered to host them, they could hardly believe their luck.
What followed was an adventure in the tourist town of Benidorm, and a night both girls remember fondly thanks to the host who gave up his own bed for them to sleep in and prepared them breakfast the next morning.
Wilhelm’s and Smith’s experience represents everything that that the founders of CouchSurfing hoped to accomplish when they started the organization in 2004: to provide a cheap way of finding where to stay for travelers on a budget and also to set up the opportunity to experience places in a way never done before.
“At CouchSurfing, we envision a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter,” is the opening line of the mission statement on the CouchSurfing website.
CouchSurfing has become the preferred method of traveling for millions of young people across 207 countries. On the website, travelers, also called explorers create their own profile and are able to post their travel plans or offer their couch to anyone who is looking for a place to stay in their area. Requests can go both ways, the person looking for a place to stay could either directly message a user or post a message about their travel plans and wait for a host to offer them a place to stay. And it’s all free.
“At first I thought it was just a cheap way to travel,” Smith said. “But then I started hosting and I realized you get to meet really cool people.”
To many students from big cities where trust is not a commodity, this form of traveling can seem a bit daunting, not to mention “sketchy.” After all, if you wouldn’t let a stranger into your house, why should one let you into theirs?
The organization addresses this skepticism by offering the possibility to get verified by the founders. Users who choose this option pay a fee to have CouchSurfing confirm that they are in fact who they say they are and that their address is accurate.
There have been few cases of reported abuses by a host or a surfer. The Daily Mail from the United Kingdom reported one case in which a woman was raped by her host in 2009.
To prevent incidents like this from happening or recurring, CouchSurfing recommends for travelers to leave comments on a host’s profile. Those comments cannot be removed by any means, so before agreeing to stay with someone, a person should look at the comments for other’s reviews.
Cases like those are rare, though. For the most part, participants in CouchSurfing are just looking to meet new people and to learn about cultures.
Wilhelm said she prefers surfing when she travels because it has resulted in so many unexpected great experiences. When she went to Paris, the host she and Smith stayed with helped them find their way around the city and recommended places to visit.
“Paris can be so overwhelming, and with her help, we got so many gems out of it that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise,” Wilhelm said.
Apart from the host/surfer relationship, the CouchSurfing community offers events for surfers visiting the same city to do together. Members are able to sign up for groups and receive notifications about trips, dinners and any other event that could involve up to 30 people. Smith attended one in Oslo, where the members met up to have a few drinks
“It’s awkward at first because you’re meeting up with a bunch of strangers, but then we started talking and we had really good conversations,” she said.
CouchSurfing is more than just receiving free room and board. What a system like CouchSurfing promotes is camaraderie among curious travelers, who are looking for more than just tourist attractions in the cities they visit. Often, hosts take their guests to fun events that only locals would know about, or “hidden treasures” that would be difficult to find if a they were to just stay at a hostel and find their own way around the city.
Smith said that meeting people who are willing to open up their home to you, as well as help you when you’re most vulnerable can also affect personal views.
“It kind of erases all the negative things we see daily in the news,” she said. “You realize that the world is not so bad.”
HOW TO DO IT
- www.couchsurfing.org— Can sign up using Facebook account or setting up own account on the website. To get a feel for the CouchSurfing Life, go to CouchSurfing’s page on Flickr at http://flickr.com/photos/nomadjim/sets/72157630640820284/.
- A minimum contribution of $25 is expected to get verified by the organization, but unverified membership is free.
- To find a host, you can search by the area where you are traveling to, or post your travel plans if you would rather someone contact you and offer their home.
- Either way, check the host’s profile for comments left by previous surfers to see if they have had positive, neutral or negative experiences with that person.
- Countries with most surfers, according to website:
1. United States