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CouchSurfing: Free Housing (and Maybe More) for Travelers

By Adam Troudart

When Casey Fenton booked a cheap weekend flight to Iceland back in the spring of 1999, he had no place to stay. Rather than scouring the Internet for last minute holiday deals, he randomly emailed 1,500 Icelandic students in Reykjavik, asking if he could crash on their couch. A few dozen of them said yes. After a great weekend in the Icelandic capital with locals, Fenton was left with a taste for more. Upon returning to the US, he invited a few friends to join him in co-founding CouchSurfing.org.

Picture this: You’re in the middle of planning a two-week trip around Europe – visiting Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Rome. Now, instead of spending hours in front of hotel review sites and thick travel guides, you log into your CouchSurfing.org account and key in your destination. Before you know it, an almost endless list of names (alongside smiling faces) appears offering empty couches and/or bedrooms. All you need to do is pick a host and send him/her a message, asking if you could spend the night at their place.

Launched in 2003, CouchSurfing is an online hospitality exchange community, which helps people all over the world connect with others who are willing to host them during their travels. Hosts choose the terms under which they’re willing to help. Some members meet travelers for coffee or show them around their hometown, while others prefer to just offer a spare bedroom for a couple of nights. As in other hospitality exchange communities, one of the key guidelines in CouchSurfing is that the hospitality must be given free. And no, you don’t need to host in order to be hosted.

Couchsurfing, as a practice, is now entering the mainstream – now a part of pop culture and entertainment. For instance, one young New Yorker who has given new meaning to the term “free hospitality” is Hank Pitman of the critically-acclaimed comedy series Squatters. He and his friend Alex Selkirk are two flat-mates who bet on who can last longer without an apartment, without paying for housing, and without staying with friends. While Alex calls his office home, Hank enjoys one-night-stands with Manhattan girls. As a courtesy to his hostesses, he cooks them the occasional meal. Similarly to Hank Pitman, CouchSurfing members like to cook meals or offer gifts from their home country, as an act of kindness towards their hosts.

Squatters – It Starts with a Bet

First-time visitors could potentially define CouchSurfing.org as a hippie community, reminiscent of the American “back-to-the-land” ventures of the 1960s and 1970s. There’s definitely a very positive, helpful, naïve, “peace and love” feel to the couchsurfing movement. There are thousands of forums in the site’s community section, where surfers discuss travel, music, ideas, and a lot more. Moreover, most of the network’s activity is handled by CouchSurfing members themselves. CouchSurfing Ambassadors organize events, meet up with new members, and share the CouchSurfing spirit. They help to keep their local communities active and engaged.

Solidarity aside, not everyone is comfortable spending the night with a stranger. Consequently, there are robust community-managed safeguards in place to protect participants. Luckily, very few cases of sexual harassment have been reported, and most of the surfer profiles seem to be right in line with CouchSurfing’s vision statement: “A world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter.” Still, while CouchSurfing is clearly not a dating site, I’ve spoken to male surfers who use the network as a means of meeting girls and having sex – a practice not uncommon in any social network, making connections vulnerable to misinterpretation.

While CouchSurfing.org is not the only show in town, it is certainly the biggest hospitality exchange community. Since its debut in early 2003, CouchSurfing has attracted over 3 million members, mostly young travelers, from over 240 countries, and it keeps growing rapidly. CouchSurfing is, in a sense, a social network, where the engagement level is taken to the physical plane. Most surfers see the hospitality activity as an exciting cultural experience or as belonging to a big global family.

Not all members are happy with the current state of CouchSurfing, however. The project has recently turned from a non-profit organization into a for-profit B corporation – threating the current image of couchsurfing as a selfless community, a perception that members uphold with pride.

Every day thousands of surfers host fellow CouchSurfing members in different parts of the world, and the blogosphere is full of raving testimonials about the network. In his book The Thank You Economy, Gary Vaynerchuk (entrepreneur, speaker and NY Times bestseller) describes how Americans once fled from their small friendly towns to the suburbs, looking to distance themselves from their neighbors. Today, however, social media and economic hardship has revived the sense of community amongst citizens of the world, bringing back the small town community spirit. Hippies or not, couchsurfers seem to be bringing about some positive change in light of tough times.

Squatters – Take Me Home Tonight

Squatters – In Search of a Douche

Watch more episodes of couchsurfing comedy SQUATTERS

Adam Troudart is a blogger who is obsessed with words, people, and helping people succeed by using words.

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Must Reads 4/24/2014