Hospitality is as old as civilization itself, travelling was partaken to further trade or religion and those spreading tangible or intangible commodities needed somewhere to crash, hence, the birth of the guesthouse. Happily this system rolled on for thousands of years, billions of overnight stays tallied up and people around the globe connected. With new reasons for travel emerging, so the nature of hospitality changed, hotels were built with increasing enthusiasm, cities razed and rebuilt to host the journeying masses until it all became…a little stagnant.
It was time for a revolution!
In 1999, Casey Fenton created a web-site based on the ancient notion of hospitality, the concept was simple: allow people to offer their hospitality to strangers around the world, for free. Capitalism shuddered at the thought, ‘reserve’ recoiled in horror, close-mindedness panicked and the people said YES!!!!
Couchsurfing was born.
What is it?
Essentially it’s a member based website which allows users to offer their hospitality to other members. This may consist of just meeting up for a drink, staying at a person’s place or offering people to stay at your place. Each member has a public profile with a self-description, a rationale for taking part and information about the extent of their involvement (whether they have a place for you to stay or ‘surf’). Requests are sent by those who wish to ‘surf’ and the prospective host decides to accept or reject the request.
There is no obligation to do anything, you don’t have to host to be able to surf or vice-versa. Your involvement is totally optional and you are in control of it. Some people give couchsurfers free reign in their homes, some are more restrictive with certain rules, some engage heavily with their guests while some prefer a more relaxed approach. Your hospitality and thus your particular brand of couchsurfing, is entirely up to you. The beauty and skill of optimum couchsurfing is therefore to match yourself up with people you are more likely to connect with.
To enable the meeting of similar minds Couchsurfing uses a reference system. It allows those taking part to comment on the behavior of other members they come into contact with. In this way a self-regulating culture exists to ensure security.
The typical practice of couchsurfing is that no money changes hands, it is hospitality based upon a culture of exchange, friendship, trust and mutual enjoyment. Hence the organizations tag line ‘Participate in Creating a Better World, One Couch at a Time.’
Couchsurfing is a type B corporation registered in the United States, which receives the vast majority of its funding via donations. The last public accounts in 2009 revealed that they recieved $1,168,642.45 from their membership base of more than 3.5 million people. Throughout more than 84,000 cities, during its 12 year existence Couchsurfing has enabled over 4 million ‘couchsurfs’, 6.5 million positive experiences and 4 million friendships.
Every week around 20,000 people sign up to Couchsurfing (some weeks its 40,000), the countries most represented are (in order) United States, Germany, France, Canada and the UK. Men form a very slim majority of couchsurfers and the average age is 28.
Why do it?
Couchsurfing introduces its concept like this :
“CouchSurfing is not about the furniture, not just about finding free accommodations around the world; it’s about making connections worldwide. We make the world a better place by opening our homes, our hearts, and our lives. We open our minds and welcome the knowledge that cultural exchange makes available. We create deep and meaningful connections that cross oceans, continents and cultures. CouchSurfing wants to change not only the way we travel, but how we relate to the world!”
The reasons to take part are as varied as the people who participate, but a few main reasons are usually cited…
Cultural exchange, you get to meet people from all over the world share stories, opinions and learn from them, sometime without leaving your living room!
Local knowledge, staying in a strange place can be daunting, but with a local on hand to help it’s a lot easier, plus you may get to experience things above and beyond the remit of a regular tourist.
Friendship, likeminded people can connect around a love of travel, or virtually any other shared interest.
Free accommodation, a controversial benefit amongst Couchsurfers as it can be viewed as cynical, however there is no escaping the fact, for the massive majority of Couchsurfers, it’s free.
As Couchsurfers we have hosted and ‘surfed’, and can honestly say that we are yet to have a less than positive experience. Over a one year period we shared our home with 32 people from 15 different countries. From a couch in Liverpool we were introduced to masses of new music, Iranian confectionary, French cuisine, Italian politics, slam poetry and great travel stories. We found a new trust in strangers and learned to relax our stuffy northern European outlook on meeting new people.
‘Surfing’ it’s a bit more adventurous, you are out of your comfort zone, more vulnerable but at the same time it’s much more exciting. From the outset of the Travel4more tour we intended to use Couchsurfing as a tool to open up the places we travel to, allowing us behind the scenes of tourist towns and enabling us to visit those places off the beaten travelers track. We have been incredibly lucky enough to have stayed with great people in Australia, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia where we were invited to family parties, karaoke bars and nightclubs, taken out to sample amazing local food, explored cities, were given access to swimming pools and gyms and above all made to feel welcome. We have slept on the floor, on couches and beds, stayed in swanky high-rise apartments and humble homes, cities have been swapped for swamps, Christians for Muslims and men for women. All of these differences have been interesting, but never material. There have been no barriers, only doors.
On our ‘Thank you to our hosts’ – page, we would like to thank all people who kindly let us stay with them, who welcomed us as friends and who showed us their city.
A word of warning
Of course the overwhelming success of Couchsurfing does not preclude instances of abuse; the rare horror stories that crop up as we meet more surfers include wrestling in spandex, projectile vomit, long over-stays and even theft. However these are exceptional and unfortunately come with the territory, the reference based system in use is a practical check against unsavory use, but by no means water-tight. Reasonable caution should always be exercised and certain precautions taken (see our good couchsufers’ guide below).
Discovering the warm-heartedness of strangers is the enduring benefit taken from this travelling revolution. Leaving the key to your home with someone you have just met is a liberating experience because it flies in the face of an increasingly paranoid fear culture. Learning that there are literally millions of honest, trustworthy people is a priceless realization which is had for free. We think it’s time for you to invest.
Want to give Couchsurfing a try? Here are some tips:
Your Profile: be honest and comprehensive, trust is the key element so make sure your profile reflects this. People are going to open their homes, or choose to stay with you, it’s only fair that you give them enough information to make a considered decision. Any weird and wonderful circumstances you may have which will affect the other people you interact with should be included here.
Requests to surf: copy and paste requests are frowned upon as they sometimes lack a personal connection to the person you are hoping to stay with. Make sure you read the persons profile (lots have passwords they want you to include) and tailor your request accordingly.
Hosts: surfers have a right to know the sleeping arrangements and any other information which may affect them if they stay with you. This should be in your profile to prevent any awkward surprises.
Safety: references are used to keep people safe, if a host or surfer has acted inappropriately it will usually be highlighted on their profile. Reading references gives you the opportunity to make sure a person is genuine (although risks still exist). You should always let others know when and where you are surfing, especially when doing it alone.
Why not sign up now at www.couchsurfing.org
Still not convinced? Read these Couchsurfing Testimonials taken from the site:
“CS takes the edge off of your everyday routine. Each CSr brings something new to the table whether s/he is a first time traveler or a seasoned traveler. We have the opportunity to attain fresh ideas/ experiences/ look at where you live through another person’s point of view. Highly recommend getting involved.” Nate Oski (South Korea)
“CS has help me create a bond, a network and a family that my imagination could not have created, it enables us to see others and others to experience us… with CS: “it´s a small world after all.” Clement Matorwmasen (Ghana)
“The best invention after the compass. Next comes the time machine.” Jonathan Schermuly (Switzerland)
“CouchSurfing is just an amazing way of traveling on a budget, sharing a bit of what you have, making new friends, learning, passing around good energy and showing others that there is still a lot of goodwill and trustworthy people in this world! It helps me to “be the change I want to see in the world” and to contribute to the world becoming a smaller and better place.” Carina Alves (Brazil)
“Like most of the best revolutions, the idea of CS is so simple and obvious (once you hear it). It’s a privilege to be part of something that is working against the fear, suspicion, and selfishness that seems to be taking over the world. Every CS experience is unique but they share the belief that people are good and that we can help and be helped a million miles from corporate profit motives. What could be better?” John Couper (Kazakhstan)
“CS changed my life. I know many people can say that, but believe me. Before I discovered this website I was shy girl who barely could speak English and was afraid of learning new things. Now I host and travel with CS a lot, I love organising events and meeting new people. I’ve seen places I would never visit as a “normal” tourist. I have some really good friends I met on this website and I learn a lot about cultures, languages and people and I have a lot more courage than before.” Gosia Drewa