It’s getting to that time of year again, when we stop paying attention to lectures and start dreaming about the varied and exotic places we’re planning on visiting for winter break.
Whether it’s Paris or just a road trip to Las Vegas, we all have one question on the top of our minds: Where are we going to stay?
Well, if the price of hotels is getting you down or you’re hoping for a little more interaction with the locals than simply sitting through yet another prepackaged tour, ‘couch surfing’ is just for you.
Created by Casey Fenton, a 27-year-old Internet entrepreneur and Web site designer from New Hampshire, The Couch Surfing Project is an innovative way for thrifty travelers to contact locals not only for travel tips and advice, but possibly for a free place to stay.
With more than 38,000 members in 169 countries and over 8,500 cities, the logistics of couch surfing are fairly simple. When you sign up (which is free), you are asked to fill out a profile and answer questions that range from ‘What are you favorite books?’ to ‘What is one amazing thing you’ve seen or done?’
Upon completion, you can then conduct a search for couches in your destination of choice. After perusing the list of members on the site, you decide whom you would like to meet and/or stay with. You can then request permission from your (potential) host and make the necessary arrangements. Hopefully, sooner or later, you’ll be on your way to a foreign destination where a free couch and a new friend awaits.
Before you say it, yes, I know, it sounds too good to be true. Why on earth would people you’ve never met be willing to host you for free?
Fenton believes the answer is simple. Couch surfing, he explained, is a way for both hosts and visitors to develop more cultural interactions with diverse people around the world.
‘The more people you interact with, the more tolerant [and] the more understanding of these types of people you will be,’ Fenton said. ‘Instead of [just watching others on the] news, you’ll have a strong connection [with other cultures].’
Former UC Davis student and current couch surfer Alba DeSantiago agreed.
‘It’s one thing to stay somewhere for free but couch surfing is more then that,’ DeSantiago said. ‘[Couch surfing] has allowed me to go from someone who simply experienced things from a hotel or tour bus window to someone who can truly delve into the local mindset.
DeSantiago pointed out that couch surfing has provided a unique kind of exposure to the rest of the world.
‘I’ve discussed French politics with French students in Paris and have lived with business professionals in London and Spain,’ DeSantiago said. ‘Even when I’m not traveling, I know I can log on to the site and have conversations about world events with people who are there, actually experiencing the moment.’
Natalie Djabourian, a fourth-year English major at UC Irvine and a couch surfer, echoed DeSantaigo’s sentiments.
‘Couch surfing lets you get closer to the culture. Through staying with all of these different people, you learn about their life and how to relate to them,’ Djabourian said. ‘You learn that despite the fact that they may live thousands of miles away from you, they’re still pretty similar in terms of their goals in life, their jobs and their interests.’
However, despite all of the benefits of making new friends and having places to stay in foreign countries, both DeSantiago and Djabourian warned that one should still heed the potential risks of staying with someone you don’t know.
‘Given that it’s the Internet, it’s something you can never be too sure about, ‘ Djabourian admitted. ‘While The Couch Surfing Project has yet to have a problem, before you arrange to stay with someone, it’s always still best to check their references and see whether or not they’ve been vouched for or verified.’
The reference, vouching and verification systems on the couch surfing system, detail three different levels of security. On the base level is the ‘referencing’ system. Whenever a couch surfer has hosted or been hosted, both parties will typically leave each other comments detailing the experiencing.
Although the comments can typically be short, such as, ‘Hey, had a great time,’ or can recap experiences that only the host and the hosted will understand, they’re still significant because they’re essentially thought of as reviews for the other surfers.
‘People realize the ramification of a bad reference,’ Fenton affirmed.
For both the vouching and verification systems, the process of getting either is more complicated, but also more significant in terms of security.
For a member to be ‘vouched for,’ one needs to have someone who has already been vouched for do the vouching. However, once it’s done, it means that the surfer is now in a trustworthy circle of surfers that leads all the way back to the founders.
Additionally, for the verification process, surfers can do a number of things, from confirming their street address (they will be sent mail by The Couch Surfing Project) to donating money and having their identity verified by allowing The Couch Surfing Project to ‘piggy back’ off of their account information.
While there are many ways to make sure that the person you’re going to meet or stay with is ‘safe,’ Fenton believes that ultimately, travelers have to trust their own instincts.
They need to decide if couch surfing is the right thing for them and should never feel pressured into doing something they don’t want to do.
This is a credo that thousands of couch surfers have taken to heart