The Couchsurfing Project
Riding the Waves of Participatory Travel
by Kelly Amabile
Despite a crash that shut down Couchsurfing.com for five days last June, this hospitality
exchange website has rebounded nicely, aided by a generous outpouring of volunteer support and technical expertise from its own member community. In July 2006 the popular hosting program launched a reinforced version, which continues to
attract new members and gain momentum as a premiere grassroots travel community portal.
Although sometimes labeled as merely a resource for young backpackers looking to bum their way around the globe, Couchsurfing is a robust network for travelers of all ages. As of April 2007 the total number of members had
passed 194,000 users in over 22,000 cities worldwide. The average Couchsurfing member age is 26, but there are at least 44,000 registered users over the age of 30.
What began as a way for founder Casey Fenton to crash on the couch of some Icelandic students has blossomed into a global self-supported online network that facilitates free homestays and cultural exchanges between travelers
of all ages and backgrounds. For three years the website has helped budget travelers connect with spirited folks around the world that believe in Couchsurfing’s mission to create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread
tolerance, and facilitate cultural understanding.
The free couch concept on which the program was founded is an attractive selling point, of course, but participants discover that the true benefits of Couchsurfing.com have little to do with sleeping or surfing (unless of
course your host has an extra board and lives by the beach). Travelers seeking unique opportunities to interact with locals should consider searching the website’s extensive database of world citizens willing to welcome them into their
homes. Here are some reasons, rewards, and things to remember if you choose to give couchsurfing a try on your next trip.
Reasons to Couchsurf
Live and learn: What better way to learn about a place than to live with locals for a few days? Brush up on your Mandarin or learn how to prepare paella Andalucian-style. Even if your host has no time to show
you around, he or she will surely point you to the best coffee shops and budget boutiques around town.
Experience local customs, traditions, and celebrations: Couchsurfing offers countless opportunities to embrace daily life elsewhere, and you never know what might happen during your stay. Maybe your host is
goalie of the town’s football club and asks for your cheering support at a playoff match. Or it might be harvest time, and your host needs help gathering almonds at the family farm.
Immerse yourself in a mixed bag of international connections and perspectives: Keep in mind that hosts may not always be native to the country you’re visiting, but chances are they’ve lived, studied,
or worked locally for awhile and can provide a unique point of view on the place. And if you happen to be considering a move to the area, your host can serve as a sounding board, and may even be able to offer introductions to expats from your
own country who live nearby.
Wake up with more than bed head: Staying with locals often sparks great conversation that might not surface in other situations. Discussions about cultural differences and sensitivities to regional issues were
frequent topics during my couchsurfing stays. Hosts sometimes invite family and friends over too, which makes for lively (and often late night) chats.
Reap the benefits of a “pay it forward” mentality: The first couple I couchsurfed with said they had no plans to visit the U.S. I was disappointed that it seemed I would not be able to return their
gracious hospitality. But I soon learned that the couchsurfing spirit spawns a never-ending series of hospitality connections: they hosted me and someone else will host them one day.
Membership has its privileges: Don’t expect free meals or a drive to the train station every time you surf, but chances are most hosts will offer at least a banana and granola for breakfast. And if you’re
staying for more than one night, some folks will offer use of their sink, detergent, and clothesline, or better yet, their washer/dryer.
Respect the written agreement: Most couchsurfing arrangements are negotiated several weeks in advance via e-mail. But be sure to get contact information and directions from your host before embarking on your
trip. Arrive when you say you will, call if you get delayed, and never be a no-show. And don’t make a habit of soliciting last-minute accommodation requests. Other members may not vouch for you as a reliable surfer.
Make a match: Take the time to find the right fit. Couchsurfing.com’s search options allow travelers to seek out hosts with similar interests, as well as desired sex and age ranges. Think of it as a break
from the random variety of hostel bunkmates normally encountered on budget trips—it’s a nice change of pace to stay with someone who enjoys architecture and brewpubs as much as you.
Be flexible and open-minded: Couchsurfing profiles provide only a glimpse of what life is like with the person with whom you might stay. Their home might be farther from the train station than you thought,
and their dog might be bigger and friendlier than you’re used to. Be easygoing and understanding of the unexpected.
Be cautious and careful: There are specific guidelines, personal references, and verification requirements that ensure levels of safety and comfort for participants. Become familiar with the rules and participate
at your own pace.
Give a travel token: Don’t arrive empty handed. If you can’t give a gift, offer your time instead—invite your host to dinner at the bistro around the corner, or if your host is too busy, at
least clean the dishes in the sink before you go.