CouchSurfing: The World, For Free

Forced into frugality, you may find traveling on a shoestring can have its advantages, if you’re up for the adventure

Got the travel bug, but no dough? Smitten with wanderlust without the wherewithal? Consider CouchSurfing, a remarkable recent development in Bargain Bohemianism: a chance to avoid all those high-cost resorts or hostel nightmares and stay with the locals, where you get a bed, a few insider tips, a little culture mapping and a bit of companionship –and all free of charge.

So think of this article as a kind of Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hospitality – an introduction to bed-crashing your way around the world, to dabbling in inter-cultural exchange, and at best, to coming away having made some new friends abroad.

Founded in San Francisco a decade ago, CouchSurfing.org will celebrate its tenth anniversary in Vienna June 11 – 14, including four days of barbeques, cultural exchange, and many other activities as simple as chatting or swimming, with a base location at the Danube Island and in the Prater, two of Vienna’s greenest quartiers.

And it should be quite the fest. Currently, there are over 550,000 registered CouchSurfers throughout Europe, and over 7,500 in Vienna alone, making it the fifth largest European CouchSurfing capital. Of those, several hundred are expected to attend the anniversary, coming from throughout Europe, and the U.S.

While this may not be for everyone, for those who are willing to take the chance to take the great leap into the unknown, there will be great personal rewards. This year that hurdle of meeting strangers on the whim will be one notch lower.

But this would be the easy way in: relaxed. Not necessarily having to let a stranger into your house – and getting used to the idea of meeting and accepting strangers as generally trustworthy folk.

Let’s be clear: “CouchSurfing is not about the furniture,” says Casey Fenton, the founder of CouchSurfing.org, that describes itself as a web-based community of people who subscribe to the ability to stay somewhere for free, while traveling. “It’s not just about finding free accommodations; it’s about making cultural connections worldwide.”

Fenton, like most of us, began his life as a traveler the old fashioned way – in a hotel with his parents. It wasn’t until he booked a last-minute flight to Iceland that necessity struck: Dreading the thought of staying in an overcrowded youth hostel, he contacted some university students to try to score a place to stay. Fortune smiled on him: He was offered a couch in the flat of a friend of a friend of someone he’d never met, and CouchSurfing was born.

Since then, the phenomenon has exploded. Currently, there are over 1,120,000 CouchSurfers and over 800,000 couches available, in over 200 municipalities – offering the reasonable likelihood of finding a couch on your next trip.

The accommodations aren’t always of the same quality. You may get a bed in the spare-room, loveseat in the parlor, or sometimes even a furnished apartment to enjoy with a friend.

Each experience is special, and depends on what you make of it. French-born television journalist Mélanie Kominek, who lives above the Arctic Circle in Norway, recently came to Vienna with two colleagues and found a studio apartment for their three day stay.

“The apartment was so nice – and though it’s never assumed, we were delighted by the kindness and hospitality of our hosts,” Kominek said.

Located in Vienna’s 15th District, the flat came well equipped, with everything from clean sheets to a stylish kitchenette. Other “couches” may be decidedly less posh.

Another CouchSurfer, Eva Weidinger, left her home in Vienna to travel through France for four weeks last year – staying with twelve different hosts – and made her way from the flatlands of Aix-en-Provence to Midi-Pyrénées, then up the West Coast to quaint coastal towns of Brittany. The final leg of her journey was a week in Paris, where she enjoyed the sophistication of art and café culture that the French hold so dearly.

“Throughout the trip I met such a diverse bunch of travelers,” Weidinger said. “It’s just a good way to learn about people, and see that they’re, for the most part, genuinely good natured – there was really only one time where I didn’t get along with a host, so I moved on.”

But behind the convenience, travelers always think about safety. Is it possible that your host might turn out to be a creep or worse? To keep its members safe, the CouchSurfing site has a system of verification to guarantee you are who you say you are, live where you say you live, and receive mail there too – by contributing a small donation (€22 in Austria) via credit-card, that verifies your name and address.

Other steps of verification include user-provided recommendations and feedback from others helps travelers verify your trustworthiness. So while not all people who go CouchSurfing think it’s for them, or even enjoy all the people with whom they come in contact, it’s like any social situation – you like some, and can’t stand others.

So why, you may well ask, would ordinary people want to let a complete stranger into their home? The answer is quite simple: The hosts report that they have been guests of strangers in the past and want to return the favor; it’s fun to give the experience back to others and share a similar adventure.

The statistics are overwhelmingly positive: Of the well over a million surfing or hosting experiences arranged the site, fewer than 400 have been reported as negative, according to CouchSurfing.org. While this is not independently verified, still, if it weren’t working, we would probably have heard the complaints. That’s the beauty of Internet communities.

Still, this is only half of it. The events that come along with CouchSurfing bring locals and visitors together. It turns out that CouchSurfers have a lot in common.

Sitting down to have a beer with a Frenchman, an Englishman and a German, for example, the conversation may turn, as it has for me on occasion, to somewhat of a politico-philosophic tête-à-tête, resulting in hours of affable debate and sometimes even a pleasing stupor.

A customary characteristic between surfers is the shared travel bug. Where have you been? Where are you going next? Many conversations turn into pleasant ways to improve your foreign language skills, as well as plan your next adventure.

And even if you don’t have a couch to share, it’s no big deal. There is an option on the website to offer your time to go for a coffee or drink with a traveler who just wants contact with a local.

So, the next time you’re traveling, or considering traveling, CouchSurfing might be just the thing. No world-weariness, no guidebook, no indifferent itinerary. In its place, an engrossing encounter with the unknown and shooting the breeze with whomever you meet.

For more details visit CouchSurfing.org, or see “CouchSurfer’s Stammtisch” in Jul/Aug 2012 TVR.

Anniversary Events:
Jun. 11 & 14, 11:00-22:00, Donauinsel: Strom-kilometer 10 (approx.)
Jun. 12 & 13, 11:00-20:00, Praterwiese: Tram line 1 to Prater Hauptalle, go right

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