Divan Intervention
Why pay for a hostel? With CouchSurfing, you can find a bed -- or at least a sofa -- for free.

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.

Fenton, who grew up in New Hampshire, lives in Nelson, New Zealand, the current base camp for the CouchSurfing Collective. That's the vagabonding brain trust behind the Web site, which is powered by Fenton and a bevy of dedicated volunteers. At any time, about 15 people are living at the Collective; nationalities and numbers fluctuate, with computer programmers and design-savvy folks coming and going -- dedicating a few days to a few months -- before moving on.

Come April, Fenton said, the Collective itself will pack up and shift to Europe (with outposts planned in Paris and northwest Germany). Some of the New Zealand Collective members will move to the new locations; others will set off on solo travels; and still others will slink back to the dreaded "real world." It's no surprise that Fenton is headed for Europe.

"There are a few times a year where, for weeks, I'll be CouchSurfing," said Fenton, who draws a salary from some of the money the nonprofit site receives in donations. "My goal is to have as many diverse experiences as I can in my lifetime. And CouchSurfing seems like the perfect way to do that."

Chris Vourlias, 28, a CouchSurfer from Brooklyn, N.Y., would no doubt agree. Staying with people who actually live in a city allows a more realistic window into life there, said Vourlias, who has used the service to stay with hosts in such places as Fez, Morocco, and Catania, Sicily.

The hosts "get up, and they go work," Vourlias said. "They don't live in the old part of town. They live in a little residential neighborhood 15 minutes away by train. You hear them complain about the rent and the public transport and the wages and how tourists are driving up the prices."

Seasoned CouchSurfers make the experience sound welcoming enough, if not downright warm and fuzzy. But the idea of shacking up with strangers leaves most travelers with a trepidation or two, a point that the Web site addresses head-on.

Collective member Rachel DiCerbo, a 29-year-old New Yorker charged with focusing on safety and member dispute issues, said that most of the complaints she has received are the result of personality conflicts between members. "Safety is important to us," she said, "but we are not the police."

Members are urged to solve misunderstandings on their own, DiCerbo said, but CouchSurfing "ambassadors," who represent the site on a local level in many communities, can be brought into the equation to help mediate disputes.

That said, a situation in December was considered serious enough that DiCerbo e-mailed 110,000 members to warn them of police reports received about a member accused of check fraud and credit card theft. It was the first time in the site's three years of operation that a police report about a CouchSurfer had been received and the first time that the Collective had sent out that type of mass e-mail, she said.

"I have been getting a lot of responses from this e-mail, and so many people have said, 'Thank you,' " DiCerbo said. "This says to me that people do care about safety on the site."

Fenton agrees that member vigilance sends a positive message regarding site safety. "It's been pretty surprising," he said, referring to the low number of negative incidents reported by members. "When you start something like this, you think, 'Okay, what's gonna happen?' "

Safety measures taken on the site include "vouching," whereby members who have been vouched for by three other members can then vouch for other CouchSurfers. Essentially, it's a circle of trust among people who use the site often; members must meet face to face before initiating the vouching process.

Additionally, a list of safety guidelines for both hosts and surfers includes tips for women traveling solo, as well as such basic advice as keeping a family member posted about your itinerary and making sure your luggage is locked.

DiCerbo said the site emphasizes the importance of leaving detailed references after you have stayed with someone or hosted a fellow surfer. Members are encouraged to be brutally honest about their experiences to give future surfers an idea about what they can expect from a host or guest and what accommodations to expect. Members can edit their references, but they cannot remove them, she said.

"We want people to leave factual references -- not just say, 'This guy's a jerk,' " she said. "You really want to embody what the experience is like with that person. That's something we're trying to encourage."

Terry Ward last wrote for Travel about skiing in France and Switzerland.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company