CouchSurfing an increasingly popular way for those on a budget to see the world

Showing up at a stranger’s house for a free night of accommodation might not be everybody’s cup of tea.

 But for members of a popular social travel network, the concept of “couch surfing” is about much more than securing a free night or two of accommodation — it is a unique way to meet others and to travel virtually anywhere in the world.

According to its website, since its founding in 2004 CouchSurfing (couchsurfing.com) has grown into a global community of over four million registered users in 240 countries and nearly 80,000 cities.

The concept is simple: people register on the website and create personal profiles containing information about themselves and — if they are interested in hosting guests — the type of free accommodation they are willing to offer. Those seeking accommodation can search the website’s database for hosts according to gender, age and location.

The more information a person is willing to share, the more likely they are to receive an offer of accommodation. References from other members help to establish a given member’s reputation as a host or guest. Although the website helps to facilitate connections between guests and hosts, it is up to the individual parties to agree on the particulars of each stay.

Benefits go beyond free accommodation

While the appeal to those travelling on a budget is obvious, CouchSurfing can often offer much more than simply a free place to spend a night or two.

Calgarian Lisa Reinhardt used CouchSurfing to find accommodation during a recent stay in France. Reinhardt stayed with four different hosts and says a common theme ran through her experience.Avid traveller Lisa Reinhardt, cruising along the Na Pali coast in Hawaii, says CouchSurfing provides the opportunity for a unique travel experience. Photo courtesy of: Lisa Reinhardt“People wanted to meet me, and they wanted to share with me,” Reinhardt says. “The people I met through CouchSurfing were lovely, generous and generally like-minded travellers.

“You usually have to know someone quite well before you let them stay at your home, but CouchSurfing forces a higher level of intimacy in a shorter time-frame.”

Element of trust for both guest and host

Reinhardt says she initially had concerns about the safety of CouchSurfing. But after talking to friends who had successfully used the website to find accommodation, Reinhardt did a fair amount of research and eventually set up her own CouchSurfing profile.

“The idea of staying with some stranger when you are sleeping and at your most vulnerable was a little intimidating,” Reinhardt says.

“I realized that both sides of the agreement are extending the same kind of trust,” Reinhardt adds. “In fact, it’s arguably harder for the host to invite you into their home.”

Ian Tuckey, another Calgarian who has used CouchSurfing says the community forums on the website allow guests and hosts to get to know each other beforehand.

“CouchSurfing is only scary if you are scared of doing it,” Tuckey says. “Most people on the network don’t have the creepy vibe.”

Despite the title, the accommodation offered isn’t always a couch.

“Most of the network actually has spare beds in private rooms,” Tuckey says. “Sometimes, you can go a month without paying for a room or wearing out a welcome.”

Host enjoys opening her home

Annarita Mabellini, who hosted Reinhardt during her visit to France, first heard about the CouchSurfing community from a radio interview. Recently returned from a trip to Cuba, where she had enjoyed the experience of paid accommodation in a private home, Mabellini was intrigued by the concept of CouchSurfing. She became a member of the community in 2008.

“I have a big house, my sons had left the nest and I was getting ready to retire,” Mabellini says. “I thought that CouchSurfing could be a good way to meet people and to travel internationally.”

Through connections she has made on the website, Mabellini, has couch surfed through France, Spain, Sweden and Norway. Last year she relied on CouchSurfing while spending two months in Argentina.

Having a large house, Mabellini often hosts more than one couch surfer at a time. Most are young, which she says makes the experience even more enjoyable.

“I am the host, but they meet people from other countries at my house. It’s a nice experience for them, as well as for me,” Mabellini, says.

“I like to see that they connect and that they try to understand each other by finding a common language, which isn’t always English.”

She says that hosting couch surfers has been a positive experience. “I am interested in foreign languages and enjoy meeting new people and sharing food, conversation and laughter,” Mabellini says.

Using common sense

Having hosted more than 100 guests in her home since 2008, Mabellini says she understands that it might seem a bit strange to some but that so far she has had no major problems.

For those who might be interested in hosting couch surfers, Mabellini advises to carefully read the profiles and references of those registered on the website.

“You can read between the lines sometimes,” she says. “Never open your door to somebody with an empty profile without any photos. Exchange some emails with the person requesting to stay in your home. Use your common sense.”

ktaylor@cjournal.ca