Have couch, will travelThere is a new way to hop around the world for travelers whose budgets can't keep up with their wanderlust, and the perks may be more than financial. For adventurous travelers only, Couchsurfing.com is a Web site that connects travelers to people who are willing to host strangers in their homes for free.
You might expect that to be a small group, but you'd be wrong. The site has more than 670,000 members in 231 countries, with 5,000 new members signing up every six weeks.
When sisters Martina, 23, and Brittany Fields, 22, of Norfolk, went backpacking last year, they stayed with strangers in Germany, France and the Netherlands over the course of two months.
"I didn't want to stay in a hostel because I wanted that experience of meeting the locals and going to the local places," Martina said. "If you go to the hostels you're just going to meet other Americans."
Couchsurfing Project co-founder Casey Fenton felt the same way. After scoring a cheap ticket to Iceland, Fenton sent e-mails to more than 1,500 university students in Reykjavik asking if anyone wanted to put a friendly American up for the night. The result was amazing.
Not only did students offer Fenton a place to stay, many wanted to show him "their" Reykjavik. Fenton had such a great time that he decided never to go back to that traditional tourist trap, the hotel. He recruited three friends with various skills and The Couchsurfing Project was born.
"Couch surfing is a global hospitality network and the premise is that a traveler can stay anywhere in the world, for free, in someone's home, as long as they are willing to sleep on the couch."
That's how Dan Hoffer, another one of the four original founders, explains the site to someone who has never heard of it before.
There are other similar hospitality networks aiming to link travelers with free accommodations, but Couchsurfing is the largest by "almost any metric," Hoffer said. Other sites include GlobalFreeloaders.com, founded by Australians, and HospitalityClub.com, founded by a German.
The Couchsurfing Project also seems to have inspired participation at levels far beyond any other site. The Web site is maintained by volunteers, drawn from the most active members. The nonprofit only has six paid employees, and only one of the original founders is paid for his involvement. The others have day jobs, Hoffer says.
It's evident that the site's members, or "couch surfers," derive benefits much greater than a sleeping surface.
"You have the opportunity to make friends you will keep years and years later," Martina said. She and her sister still keep in touch with most of the people they met while couch surfing.
They were able to return the hospitality they were given when a friend who hosted them in Berlin came to Norfolk and stayed at the Fields' house.
Martina has also made friends at home through The Couchsurfing Project. She coordinates meet-ups for the group "757 CSers" which has 87 members in the Hampton Roads area. The 757 CSers get together once a month to talk about places they've gone, places they want to go, and people they've met while couch surfing.
"It's an awesome opportunity to meet people who are doing the same thing you are doing," she said.
The average age of the site's members is 27, but couch surfers range from 18 to 89. Rick and Cherri Feineis of Virginia Beach are a married couple in their 40s in the "757 CSers" group. They joined the site together after Rick read about it in a magazine for business entrepreneurs. The article suggested that traveling businessmen could use the site to save money, which is why Rick got involved.
But since Rick and Cherri do a lot of world travel, they decided they might as well let the world come to them. They were also already involved in Lost Boys of Hampton Roads, a program to place Sudanese refugees in temporary homes.
"We'll open our home up and see who comes," Rick said at the time.
Their first couch surfer was a Saudi Arabian backpacker named Yasser, who proposed to cook for them in exchange for sleeping in their home. They agreed to the arrangement, but there was tension in the house. Cherri was apprehensive about hosting someone from the Middle East because of the war in Iraq. And the young Sudanese boy staying with them was afraid that the backpacker might have bad intentions.
"Here was a Sudanese refugee whose family was slaughtered by Muslims, and here was this Islamic person, and the Sudanese was terrified. He thought he was going to kill us in our sleep. That was what he experienced as a child in Sudan," Rick said.
Yasser arrived and Rick describes the experience as a "genuine cultural exchange." The Saudi Arabian cooked Philly cheese steaks (using kosher Muslim beef) and all said grace at the table. The group smoked flavored tobacco from the hookah pipe Yasser brought from home and the family took him to a reggae bar. The Sudanese and the Saudi Arabian got along, and Yasser and Cherri write each other every month.
Fear of being murdered by a couch surfer is actually a common reaction from the uninitiated. Martina's parents were understandably leery of the idea of their two daughters sleeping on strange couches in faraway countries, even though they have faith in their girls' good judgment.
"They said, 'How do you know these people aren't going to kill you?'" Martina said.
But Brittany and Martina persuaded their parents after showing them the diligent planning that was their groundwork for spontaneity.
"They planned it out, they just didn't jump right in it, so I felt more comfortable as things went along," Martina and Brittany's father, Martin, said. "But in the beginning I was like, I really don't want them to do this ... but I trust them."
Martina and Brittany's mother, Bridget, sympathized with her daughters' taste for adventure. When Bridget was 18, she crashed on couches in the Florida Keys for a few months, without doing the kind of planning that Brittany and Martina did.
"So at first I was hesitant but then I had to put myself back when I was younger and my adventures," Bridget said. "I enjoyed myself and they should too."
The parents were also comforted by the idea that the sisters would be traveling together.
The planning that Martina and Brittany did was to sift through member profiles to find people they thought they would be comfortable staying with. They communicated with their first host in the Netherlands for a month and a half before they met him.
After they got to Europe, they would search for hosts in their next destination, communicating with them for a few days before meeting.
The web site has a mechanism for collecting information about a member's trustworthiness. The first level of security is the reference system. Members can write a testimonial about their experience with another member, and rate that experience as negative, neutral or positive. This information is prominently displayed on a member's page.
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If you are really concerned about safety, you can stay with a member who is "vouched for."
"If you want to put your trust behind another member, you can do so openly in the community by saying, 'I vouch for this person.' You need three vouches in order to be able to vouch for anybody else," said Rachel diCerbo, who heads up the Member Disputes and Safety Team at The Couchsurfing Project.
The most basic safety precaution is to read a member's profile thoroughly and look at their photos, diCerbo says. The site gives members the tools to make safe decisions, but it relies on couch surfers to do their own research.
The site recommends that couch surfers always have a back-up plan and money for a hostel or hotel.
Problems are rare. Only .02 percent of experiences are recorded as negative. DiCerbo can recall only two times that she had to remove two profiles because of reports that couch surfers were stealing from their hosts. The overwhelming majority of member disputes she handles are due to miscommunication and personality conflicts.
Ernie DeGraw, 35, of Norfolk, recently hosted a girl from Montreal for a month with no kinks. But he remembers a previous couch surfer who showed up unexpectedly, days after she said she would - and then overstayed her welcome.
"If you don't really match up well it's not going to be a good experience," DeGraw said. "If you have a good kind of connection with somebody it doesn't really matter if they stay for one day or three weeks. It's almost like they're not here, or they're actually like your friend and you don't mind helping them out."
Unconvinced? Maybe you just have to see it to believe it. Even if you are skeptical at first, it only takes a few comfortable experiences before couch surfing feels natural, says Ashley Sawyer, 24, was the founder of the "757 CSers" group.
"I am to the point where I cannot travel and get introduced to a big city any other way than couch surfing," Sawyer said. "Hostels and hotels are so boring even if you can afford them."
"It's so much cooler to see the different sides of the city, to see the life of it itself and from the viewpoint of someone who actually lives there and has a home there."
Video: Oletha McGillivray and Couch Mistress Selin Murat explain the thrills of couch surfing in Turkey. This is a handy way of sinking your teeth into a true cultural exchange.