Have you heard of the term “couch surfing”?
Actually it's the name of a web site that's set up along the lines of Facebook and other social networking sites. Its purpose is unique: it features listings of people around the world who are willing to offer their couches free of charge to travelers visiting their countries. The web site defines itself as “a worldwide network for making connections between travelers and the local communities they visit”. There are some minimal conditions set up by the couch owners themselves, but generally the invitations are open to anyone browsing the site. So if you're planning a trip to Italy and you want to see the country from a local person's perspective, you might want to consider a spot of couch surfing.
A Brief History of Couch Surfing
The idea of travelers staying with locals rather than paying top dollar for impersonal accommodation like hotels and hostels is not new. Back in 1949 an American named Bob Luitweiler organized a foreign-exchange home stay service for adults called Servas, which is still operational today. Later, with the advent of the internet, organizations such as the Hospitality Club were able to offer a similar program online. The Couch Surfing project was originally conceived by Casey Fenton in 2000 but it took until 2004 to launch the couchsurfing.com web site. After a major computer glitch in 2006 almost shut down the project, the web site was restored and is now the most visited couch surfing site on the net.
How Couch Surfing Works
Couch surfing is free to join. Members create a listing offering accommodation in their homes, which are searchable by location. Travelers visit the site and request accommodation at their desired destination. Both parties work out terms in advance with regard to length of stay and other considerations. The accommodation is free but there may be some arrangements regarding food expenses.
When we checked out the couch surfing site this morning, there were 301 listings of couches on offer in Italy. Most of the couch providers were male, which is understandable if you consider the potential dangers for females offering accommodation to complete strangers. Still, there are a number of women included in the Italy listings, and we assume they have ways of screening their prospective guests to ensure a safe and positive experience for both parties.
There's also a safety issue to consider as a traveler. Some of the men offering couch accommodation may have ulterior motives, entertaining fantasies of nubile female travelers knocking on their doors with adventure in mind. If you are a female traveling alone or with another female, obviously you're savvy enough to be aware of potential predators, so you need to assess any possible hosts carefully. The couch surfing site allows members to post profiles and references, so you can get a sense of who they are before proceeding further. More importantly, the site offers its members the option of undertaking a verification process, whereby it verifies the host's name via a credit card or bank account and his or her street address. It therefore makes sense to limit your contacts to verified listings only.
What's So Special About Couch Surfing?
We recently talked to a young friend who used the couch surfing service during her recent trip to Europe. She only signed up for the service on the later portion of her travels, but she had such a good time and made so many new friends that she's regretting not couch surfing for the whole of her vacation.
In more laid-back decades it was commonplace for travelers to encounter locals in public gathering places and be offered accommodation or a home-cooked meal at some point in the conversation. The world has become a little less trusting since then, but the Internet has provided a new avenue for this kind of natural generosity to once again express itself.
And much as we love the comfort of a predictable hotel room, there's an equal impulse towards connecting with other human beings, particularly those whose culture and lifestyle excite our curiosity. Couch surfing is one way to experience, however briefly, how the 'other half' live.
Tips For An Enjoyable Experience
The couch surfing experience should be a pleasant one for both you and your host. Here are a few tips for making this a more likely outcome:
1. Ideally, select a host you have something in common with, whether it's education, interests, family, etc. Evaluate him or her as you would a potential friend. (This is assuming that you have more than one venue to choose from at your destination.)
2. Get to know your host online well before your trip. Exchange a few emails and/or phone calls. Create some rapport before meeting, but don't force it.
If your communication doesn't 'feel right' for some reason, it's unlikely to get easier when you do actually meet. So consider choosing another host or staying at paid accommodations. You can always postpone your couch surfing experience for another stop on your journey.
3. On your part, observe the rules of being a good guest:
To learn more about this unique style of travel, visit the following couch surfing web sites: