Divan Intervention

(Randy Mays)
By Terry Ward
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sure, there were cathedrals around every corner, interesting museums and hostels full of Australian backpackers keen to get their party on. But for University of Pennsylvania student Jim Goldblum, who spent the autumn of 2005 backpacking around Europe while studying abroad in Spain, something was missing.

"It gets a little monotonous, honestly," he said, referring to hostel life. "You're constantly meeting Australians. Sometimes I felt like I was more in Australia."

So when Goldblum, 22, decided to continue his European travels in 2006, he opted to change his tactic. He swapped bunk-hopping in hostels for CouchSurfing -- just about everywhere.

Goldblum is among a growing legion of independent young travelers turning to the CouchSurfing Project to stretch their budgets and to ensure that their travel experiences go beyond just ticking off the sights. The free Internet service, founded in 2004, connects travelers with hosts around the world offering floor space, a couch or sometimes an entire bedroom, all for the grand sum of nothing.

The average age of a CouchSurfing member is 25, with more than 44 percent of the site's 173,000-plus members falling between the ages of 18 and 24. Most CouchSurfers hail from Europe, home to more than 75,000 members, with North America's nearly 60,000 members making it the second-most-active CouchSurfing continent.

"It just completely changed things," Goldblum said, back home in Philadelphia. One time he had an entire wing to himself in a luxurious seaside apartment in Porto, Portugal. On another occasion, a University of Warsaw student acted as Goldblum's personal tour guide in Poland, taking him along with her everywhere -- from local markets to the underground club scene.

Divans are available in 213 countries, in places as diverse as Jamaica, Singapore and Ghana. One Florida member, "Captn Bob," offers travelers a private aft cabin on his sailboat. There are even a handful of couches on offer in Saudi Arabia (a member in Riyadh appears vaguely royal, pictured atop a stately white horse).

Here's how it works: You create a profile at http://www.couchsurfing.com/, choose your travel destination, then request accommodations by contacting potential hosts through e-mail that's routed through the site. If all goes well, you'll be welcomed to stay for a night or more. There's no obligation to host.

CouchSurfing is the brainchild of Casey Fenton, 28. Before he came up with the idea, Fenton had his fair share of what are commonly referred to as "real jobs," among them working as a computer programmer in New Hampshire and as a legislative aide in Alaska.

Preparing for a last-minute escape to Reykjavik, Iceland, Fenton went about looking for accommodations in a most unusual (some might say illegal) way: He hacked into the University of Iceland's student directory and e-mailed hundreds of female students, indicating a desire to experience the real Iceland with them.

More than 50 people responded, and Fenton proceeded to have the time of his life.

"When I got back from Iceland, I was like, 'Yeah, I get it now,' " Fenton said. "It all started clicking into place, and I started working on [the Web site]." Now, with more than 400 people joining every day, keeping up with CouchSurfing has become a full-time job.

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