“I was a little apprehensive when my hosts, a very unconventional punk couple in Cordoba, Argentina, took me to their house — basically a shack with dodgy plumbing and even dodgier wiring on their cooker,” says couch surfer Simon Warrington, 38. “But I decided to go with it, and they turned out to be incredibly interesting and intelligent. They took me to an amazing party, full of artists, and I had the most extraordinary time.”
Simon ventured into the world of couch surfing when he had five weeks off between jobs during autumn 2008. Work commitments meant his wife had to remain in the UK, but Simon was determined to use the time to travel.
“I wanted an authentic travel experience, but staying in a hotel on your own can be lonely. My wife wasn’t with me, so couch surfing was a way of meeting local people.
I had experiences I’d never have been able to access had I been in hotels, although I stayed in some pretty weird places.”
In a world where we barely know our next-door neighbours, let alone people living two streets away, the concept of opening your door, as a host, to a stranger, or, as a surfer, stepping through that doorway into the home of someone you’ve never met, might seem completely alien. But like so many other travellers after an authentic experience, surfers are shunning conventional hotels and hostels for a stay on a stranger’s sofa.
When Jessica King Smith, 31, finished her Masters in anthropology, she put aside three weeks to travel around her mother’s native Scandinavia. She set off on what she hoped would be something of a spiritual odyssey in search of her roots. “I wanted to get a sense of the place, but I didn’t want to stay in hotels. What I was looking for was a meaningful experience of Scandinavia, to try and understand my mother’s home. Because I only had three weeks, I needed to plug into local life immediately,” she says.
Jessica’s answer to this problem was to log onto couchsurfing.org, describing itself as ‘a worldwide network for making connections between travellers and the local communities they visit’. It has over three million members, who create a profile to both ‘surf’ and ‘host’.
“As a surfer, I was able to connect with like-minded hosts in Scandinavia who not only offered me a bed, but also introduced me to the local culture. I had extraordinary experiences: hiking in the hills, canoeing across fjords, sampling dried reindeer meat, and more saunas than I can remember!”
Connections between hosts and surfers don’t necessarily depend on being able to offer someone a bed. “I didn’t stay with everyone I connected with,” explains Jessica. “I met some people for a coffee or a meal, so they could offer local advice and tips. It was an eye-opening experience; I felt like I’d literally seen the inside of life in Scandinavia. If I had been staying in hotels, it would have taken me months to get under the skin of
Couch surfing isn’t a new concept. After all, I remember my parents lending the sofa at home to the odd friend of a friend who dropped by on their travels. The first hospitality network, where communities of travellers could share the home of a foreign host, was launched in 1949 by Bob Luitweiler and was called Servas Open Doors. It was later followed by organisations like Parporta Servo, for speakers of the 19th century constructed language of Esperanto, but registration was lengthy and complex, needing a minimum four-week notice period for a home stay. Hardly a convenient time-scale for today’s travellers.
So while the concept isn’t new, what has changed is the way surfers and hosts communicate. In the past, surfers relied on word-of- mouth recommendations, staying with friends of friends, so it was a bit of a hit-and-miss affair, with no unifying sense of community. The internet, of course, completely changed that. During the 1990s, online networks like the Hospitality Club, which today has over a quarter of a million members in over 207 countries, started forming. Less formal than its predecessors, this site generally attracted backpackers and students, hoping to save money on accommodation and, perhaps, live like locals for a couple of days.
Then, in 1999, something remarkable happened. Casey Fenton, a web consultant from the USA, booked himself onto a flight from Boston to Reykjavik for a business trip. Global travel was part of his work, but “rotting in a hotel all weekend playing Mr Tourist” seemed like a very unappealing way of passing his time. Hungry to experience real Icelandic life, Casey sent an email to a random selection of students, asking if anyone might like to show him around for the weekend. He received numerous responses, and over the next few years developed couchsurfing.org — one of the front runners in the craze — launched in 2004, attracting 6,000 members by the end of that year.
As the concept of couch surfing caught on, new members flocked to the site, but the entire concept suffered a serious blow in 2006 when technical errors meant everyone’s profiles were lost. “It is with a heavy heart that I face the truth of this situation. CouchSurfing as we knew it doesn’t exist any more,” Casey announced to his members. It’s testament to the surfers’ devotion to couch surfing that a collective in Montreal committed itself to re-launching the site, urging members to re-enter their profile data. Within a matter of days, the site was up and running again, with the slogan ‘Participate in Creating a Better World, One Couch At A Time’, which even today remains something of a mantra for the surfing devotee.
More than simply a way for travellers to find a bed for the night, the site has blossomed into a forum for like-minded people to share their travel experiences, connect with possible travel companions, and set up social events. The geographical spread that surfers and hosts cover is huge, taking in 245 states and countries, and 80,000 towns. Around 20% of surfers are registered as US citizens and 74% speak English. Casey Fenton didn’t know it at the time, but that email to Iceland spawned an entire movement that’s had a profound effect on the way many people think about travel.
Safe secure surfing
While the idea of sleeping on a stranger’s sofa might seem, at best, completely out there, and at worse, rather foolhardy, scare stories within the surfing community are rare. “I never felt worried, even in a remote spot in deepest rural Russia,” says Fleur Britten, who spent 10 weeks couch surfing her way across Russia and into China in 2008. She was drawn to it to satisfy her ‘innate curiosity about the insides of other people’s lives’. She says: “I was fascinated by Russia and China, but wanted to unpick the media myth and find out what life there was really like.” Fleur ended up chronicling the experience in her book On the Couch.
“I started surfing with a friend, but rather quickly went on alone, which was a more satisfying way of travelling,” explains Fleur, who spent every night of her trip on a different couch, apart from one night in Mongolia, where haphazard directions from her host resulted in her having to stay in a hostel. “Even as a girl, I always felt safe as there are good mechanisms in place to check the profile of everyone you stay with. All travel has a small risk inherent in it, whether you’re getting in to a taxi in Rome or on to a bus in Africa, and couch surfing is no different.”
The sense of safety, combined with the warm welcome from the vast majority of hosts that couch surfing engenders is part of the key to its success, and why the site has such a devoted band of members. Everyone on the site has a profile, and experienced surfers and hosts build up references, rather like profiles on eBay. While use of the site is free, there’s an optional credit card verification system, costing £13, which helps the site recoup some of its costs, as its survival, like the whole concept of couch surfing, depends on the willing co-operation of volunteers. The site even offers a personal vouching system, where members can vouch for other members they’ve personally met and trust.
“The system is quite rigorous, and as only about 0.2% of reviews are negative, you’d have to be foolhardy to run into real problems,” says Fleur. “Generally people who host are complete angels, and, if someone has hosted a few times, they’ll quickly build up positive references, so it’s not as if you’re turning up at the home of someone you know absolutely nothing about. It really does feel like a community.” Seasoned surfers like Fleur do, however, recommend having a possible back-up plan, such as the name of another local hostel or alternative host. “But the chances are you won’t need to use them,” she adds.
From a host’s point of view, the site also offers some basic but useful guidelines, like having a few house rules, or deciding beforehand how long a surfer should stay, and how many surfers can be hosted at any one time. Hardly rocket science, these are the kind of rules anyone who has had guests to stay will have grappled with at some point.
Forge firm friendships
In an increasingly homogenised, standardised world, the appeal of couch surfing is broad-ranging. Although there are obvious financial advantages to free accommodation, it’s interesting this is rarely cited as a motivating factor for either hosts or surfers. No money changes hands, but surfers are advised to bring a small gift to thank their hosts for their hospitality. “I filled my bag with souvenirs from England when I surfed across Australia and New Zealand last summer and they were all well-received,” says Anna Pilkington, 26.
Even the most well-connected person might struggle to arrange a series of home stays across an unknown continent if it simply depended on word-of-mouth or personal recommendations, as those travellers who kipped on my parent’s sofa did in the 1970s. Today, planning a long and complex trip as a surfer is relatively easy. Simon describes it as “even easier than Facebook. You literally set up a profile with a couple of photos, and your interests, and away you go.”
While couch surfing takes the traveller away from hotels and into the homes of real people, it can also, as in Simon’s case, encourage you to stray away from a well-beaten tourist trail, and choose a different, less obvious route. “As a surfer, I necessarily took a slightly unconventional route through Argentina, visiting smaller towns I might have otherwise dismissed.”
Because couch surfing is a system based on, and indeed dependent on, reciprocity and generosity, it attracts a certain sort of person. No one, after all, becomes a host in order to make money. “It’s a fantastic way to see the world, make new friends and share your friendship with others who are like-minded, considerate and generous with their spaces and time,” says Dede Tete-Rosenthall, who first experienced couch surfing on a trip from her home in the US to Tokyo. “After registering my profile, I was lucky enough to receive several positive responses, and also met up with people I didn’t stay with to share a meal and to hear about what I should see and where I should go. To this day, I still talk with the people who hosted me.”
Couch surfing changed Dede’s life: she now lives in Tokyo, where she’s finishing her PhD. “I would highly recommend it as it attracts a certain sort of person who is willing to trust other people. The friendship you get and the experience is so much more than can be described, and by far outstrips renting a room in a motel.”
Having surfed successfully, Dede is updating her profile to become a host, because the reciprocal nature of the surfer/host relationship means those who start out surfing often find that, on returning home, they start to host, too. When Janet Walker’s three children left home, she was inspired to register herself as a host after her own daughter surfed her way across the US. Living in Barcelona, Janet is inundated with requests. “I can’t put everyone up, as I’d literally have a stranger in my flat every night of the week, so I limit it to about four a month,” she tells me. “They usually stay a night or two, and it’s almost always great fun. You need to be quite a sociable person to host, but I’ve made some wonderful friendships with people from all over the world, and from all different walks of life. I’m quite astonished by the diversity of the people who stay with me.”
Janet, who is divorced, is grateful the surfers, who enjoy her spare room, provide her with some company. “Being a host is a really important part of my life. As an expat I do miss home, but having a steady stream of English guests through my house assuages that a bit. Of course, it really helps living in a city as beautiful as Barcelona, because people arrive here and can’t help but be in a sunny mood!”
Cultural insight and exchange
The motivations for hosting are varied. When Fleur travelled through Russia, she was astonished by the generosity of her hosts. “Without exception, every Russian host met me off the train, even if it was midnight, and ferried me around, preparing dinner for me, washing my clothes. These people really seemed to care about me.”
Many of her hosts couldn’t leave the country due to economic or visa issues, so their surfers gave them a much longed-for insight into a culture they might never visit.
“Lots of the people had kids, too, and see hosting as a way of exposing their children to different cultures. It was a very broad-minded attitude.”
Couch surfing is not, however, without its detractors as critics argue it deprives the local economy of money which should be spent on accommodation.
“Organisations promoting the use of local B&Bs, for example, resent what they perceive as freeloading backpackers undermining the market,” says Ethen Gelber, who formed the US based WHL Group, a large network of companies, which helps travellers experience a destination via local tourism professionals.
She rejects these preconception on the basis that couch surfing networks are founded on the value of cross-cultural exchange, which is at the heart of local travel, not just free lodging.
“We also see couch surfing as a part of the travel economy: surfers may stay in a place longer than they might have done if they had to pay for accommodation, and during this time, they spend money locally.
“The more we can cater to all travellers, and, more importantly, do so in a way that steers people toward a broader acceptance of responsible and local travel values, the better. Couch surfing is an essential part of that,” she says.
As we become more responsible as travellers, and as the internet helps us connect with one another as a genuine global community, we’re also becoming more aware of the fact that real travel is about people, and experiences. As a way of accessing these people, couch surfing offers the independent traveller a genuine insight into the cultures and counties they visit.
“Couch surfing has changed my life,” agrees Jessica King Smith. “I made life-long friends on my trip to Scandinavia, and left the country with a much better understanding of my mother’s home.” This summer, she’s hosted a string of guests from Norway. “What goes around comes around.”
Published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of © National Geographic Traveller (UK)