I once had a semi-slacker friend named Ken who managed to live in Milwaukee for several months by couch surfing. Crashing on various people’s sofas, beds, and floors at night (including my own spare futon), he eked out a meager, transient existence with all the gritty panache of an urban backpacker. This first brush with the couch surfing concept left me with the impression that it was all about a lazy person mooching on other people’s goodwill. However, as I learned more about the phenomenon, I realized that there’s a culture of reciprocity and kinship in the couch surfing community and that most couch surfers aren’t just freeloaders like my former friend.
As it turns out, there’s even a website, the aptly named www.couchsurfing.com, dedicated to matching couches with couch seekers. Of course, they take a loose interpretation of the term couch, as members offer everything from furnished spare rooms and rollout beds to couches and inflatable mattresses. Providing stays ranging from one night to months at a time, hosts specify the parameters. And oddly enough, this is no fly-by-night operation. Launched by a restless soul named Casey Fenton in 2004, the website has grown to around 70,000 members in 196 countries. Need a place to stay in Slovenia? Spain? South Africa? South Dakota? There are more open couches and willing hosts than you might expect.
Casey and his friends put an organized framework behind something that people were informally doing through networks of friends, emails, online message boards, and world-of-mouth resources. As yet another example of how the worldwide web has truly connected people, couchsurfing.com primarily matches travelers with free places to stay in a place unfamiliar to them. Many people who couch surf are backpacking (across the US, Europe, etc.), visiting a new city, or even traveling to meet an online friend for the first time. Some are college students, others are urban professionals, and yet others are good old hippies. There’s a wide variety of people on couchsurfing.com, but to my surprise, very few folks seem to use it as cheapskate housing in their own city.
So what keeps couch surfing largely on the up-and-up? Well, there’s the elaborate vouching system. Not unlike Ebay’s feedback feature, the vouching aspect of couchsurfing.com allows both the host and the couch surfer to leave comments about each other. The benefit of this is many-fold, as it not only addresses safety and security concerns, but it also reveals the personality of the users (many of whom are both hosts and surfers, depending on whether they’re “home”). Part of the site’s success lies in people taking time to post pictures, write up profiles, and talk candidly but tactfully about their experiences with each other. To that end, it functions like other social networking sites, with “friend” features and “group” subcultures. Imagine snowboarders helping fellow snowboarders or fans of a musician hosting fellow fans when a concert’s in town.
What are some of the reasons to go couch surfing? Well, beyond traveling on the cheap, there’s the opportunity to personalize your experience. Instead of staying in a hotel, you get to crash in a house or apartment with someone who actually lives in that city. If your host is willing to play tour guide, you get to see your location through the eyes of a local – to visit new neighborhoods, dine at less touristy restaurants, and explore things you might have missed otherwise. If you’re traveling to a non-English-speaking country, you even have the chance to practice a foreign language with a native speaker. In sum, consider couch surfing a cultural exchange. Even if you’re just bumming around the US, it’s a shot at making friends from another region.
Hosts benefit from many of the same aspects of couch surfing, and since the majority of hosts are also surfers, there’s a feeling of reciprocity. And of course, surfers have a responsibility to be respectful members of any household while they’re there.
Couch surfing is about fun, friendship, and frugality – all positive things. So if you balked at the concept previously, give it a second shot. The person who crashes on your couch this month may be the same person who offers you a couch next year.