Surf’s up, couch style

Talk about homestyle. One social networking site is providing travelers with a free alternative to staying in a hotel. That might be why about 10,000 people a week sign up to join CouchSurfing.com.

The Couch Surfing Project matches people all over the world who have an extra couch or bed with someone looking for a place to crash. Usually it is a tradeoff: By becoming a couch surfer, you are encouraged to offer accommodations to other surfers, but you aren’t obligated to.The Couch Surfing Project matches people all over the world who have an extra couch or bed with someone looking for a place to crash. Usually it is a tradeoff: By becoming a couch surfer, you are encouraged to offer accommodations to other surfers, but you aren’t obligated to.

“The prospect of sleeping on a stranger’s couch and having strangers sleep on yours was a little bit odd at first,” said Jay Ford, a 24-year-old community organizer in Richmond who started couch surfing in 2005. “I was somewhat weary of it in the beginning. I was brought up in a paranoid household,”

Within 25 miles of Richmond, 125 members like Ford have a couch available to travelers. The volunteer innkeepers aren’t just starving students, either. Local members range in age from 18 to 57 and include an architect, a data processor, a winemaker, a pharmacist, a brand marketer, teachers and engineers.

Ford signed up to find accommodations for a two-month trip to Ireland. He had planned to stay at hostels, a tried and true method of getting through Europe. But he thought he might have fun and save a few pounds by couch surfing. Enter CouchSurfing.com. With a little bit of time on the website, he managed to find accommodations at a castle, a paper factory made into lodging by a member specifically for surfers and with an elderly couple who taught him how to make Irish oatmeal at 5 in the morning.

Since then, Ford has couch surfed in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, Ecuador, Peru and across the United States.

“Everyone is incredibly kind and incredibly open, the kind of people I wanted to be friends with,” Ford said. “The people I stayed with had a predisposition for seeking out new experiences and the art of conversation so much they have people into their homes.”

Ford regularly hosts fellow travelers and gets requests frequently — about two or three a week. The more you participate, the higher your profile appears when people search for a place to stay in a particular location.

Ford said couch surfing typically offers more amenities than staying at a hotel. Although the level of hospitality varies from person to person, Ford said he always sets aside time to give visitors a tour of Richmond and offers to take them out for drinks and share home-cooked meals. He said most hosts follow a similar model and are able to provide a better perspective on local restaurants and places to see than you can get from a guidebook or concierge desk.

The reasons people choose to couch surf rather than find traditional lodging are all over the map, Ford said.

“I once had a 58-year-old man stay with me who was financially well off, but it was a decision about what he wanted his experience to be, and a hotel just wasn’t what he was interested in,” Ford said.

“There isn’t anyone that isn’t acutely aware they are saving money,” Ford said. “That may be why you sign up, but it’s the hope of the program that you then realize there is a mission statement.”

CouchSurfing International is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that was founded in 2005. The organization’s stated mission is to “create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance, and facilitate cultural understanding.”

Membership has more than doubled each year: There are more than 850,000 members with 617,000 available couches in more than 50,000 cities in 230 countries.

They also claim 99.8 percent positive experiences, which is a satisfaction rate any hotel owner would dream of.

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Robert Wheatley
Robert Wheatley
9 years ago

Makes me wonder why the U.S. has not caught on to the youth hostel culture like many other countries around the world have. I’ve stayed in several in Canada, Europe and Central and South America and have always had pleasant experiences. It’s a great way to travel, especially on a budget.