Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Travel Tip: Couchsurf

If you don't know what "couchsurf" means, you are missing out. has begun to revolutionize world travel. It is a social network of over 2.5 million people across more than 200 countries worldwide. And just about all of them are willing to let you sleep at their place for no charge.

It's a simple concept. You let travelers crash at your place, and other travelers will let you crash at theirs. Not just any travelers of course-- people can only come stay once you invite them, there is a sophisticated reference and vouching system to determine if they're trustworthy (and how to hold them legally accountable if they aren't). But as accommodation is typically a huge chunk of any traveler's budget, this method can be a huge boon to those trying to see the world for less.

However, couchsurfing is about more than just a free place to stay. It's about all the things you can learn by being the guest of a different culture. A real guest, not just a lone customer in a hotel room. If you are a thoughtful and conscientious guest, you can learn far more from your host in an hour than you might have learned in a day with your guidebook. Finding a couchsurfing host who loves their home is the best and fastest way to get to the exciting, authentic travel experiences that the people on the tour buses can only dream of.

Likewise, as a host, this is very cheesy, but it's true: you're opening your door to the world. Not only are you meeting people from other countries, but you're meeting travelers from other countries. People with stories from literally anywhere. And from a personal perspective, it's a great way to deal with travel withdrawal, comparing notes.

The majority of couchsurfers are single travelers in their twenties. But I've hosted teens, stayed with 70-year-olds, and met entire families surfing couches together. There are added challenges to these things of course, but they can be done.

If you're curious about couchsurfing, go to the website's community page, and search for the place where you currently live. You'll find a forum of couchsurfers near you. If you're in a major city, they probably have one or several weekly gatherings-- usually just hanging out at a bar or coffee shop. For example, If you're in Seattle, the group usually hits happy hours in various bars around 5pm (rotates every week, check their board for details). In New York there's a Thursday evening event at Affair on Eighth in Greenwich Village that usually gets going around 8:30. Go join them, they're probably the friendliest crowd you'll ever meet.

If you want to learn more about this site and community, stay tuned. I'll have more posts coming soon-- first about what makes the site so safe to use, second about the basics of surfing for couches, and finally a little bit about hosting.

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