Couchsurfing.org started in 2003 by Casey Fenton, Sebastien Le Tuan, Dan Hoffer, and Leonardo Bassani da Silveira in San Francisco, not too far from the likes of other digital community gurus such as Craig and his endless list. The concept: a free website to find free places to stay. As a man of the world, a global vagabond so to speak, having a place to crash is extremely important. More important, in fact, than a good many things.
Couchsurfing.org works like this: you sign up, write a profile to describe yourself (from hobbies to music to politics), and if you’ve got a couch or need one. Much being careful of buying Michael Jackson memorabilia on eBay you can discern from the hustlers and douchebags by seeing their positive or negative references. If a bunch of seemingly cool folks say that Jim-Bob is a good guy to stay with, chances are he is a good guy to stay with. If a person has some negative feedback, there are plenty with positive feedback to choose from. And with an average of 60 million daily page views last year, this is no small network. We’re talking over 2.5 million positive couches surfed in 245 countries around the globe. It’s kind of a big deal. And it’s free!
We started hosting when I was in Fredericton, New Brunswick by welcoming backpackers from Europe into our spare bedroom. Then when I was in Oregon on an epic bike tour last summer I stayed with exceptional people in Eugene and Portland. It was great! Staying with locals is like having instant friends/guides/interpreters. And when you’re trying to get a feel for somewhere new it is way better than a bedbuggy hostel or an expensive hotel. And it’s free!
Not all couches are awesome and not all hosts are exciting. But you can get a feel for that in your correspondence beforehand. Typically people post images of the couch/bedroom – it’s all about being up front and honest. You work out a time to meet and then figure it out. I’ve only ever had awesome experiences…but then again I’m a large man and don’t often feel unsafe.
Just before New Year’s I hosted two French girls here in Vancouver. They were students in the U.S. (Texas and Oregon) and needed a couch (or floor) for the night. So we drank a bottle of BC wine that night and the next day drove around Vancouver, climbing around Lynn Canyon, eating sushi on The Drive, and talking about the city in face of an evolving Canadian culture that is, obviously, foreign to a couple of French girls. What a great way to build international community. How much did the girls pay me? Well, they did buy me a muffin, but that was just payback for the bottle of Grey Monk.
I’m departing the fair city of Vancouver and heading to the south of France for a few months to bone-up on my French before I move to Quebec. When I land in Montpellier I will be hosted by a few strangers, sleeping on their couch or extra bed for my first few days in the city as I get my feet firmly on the ground. I’m already in correspondence with them, these strangers who will open their homes and lives to me, and to be honest it makes me far less anxious about going to a new place…by myself…without much of a plan.
So what did we learn? That couchsurfing.org is incredible. It brings millions of people together (for free) in the spirit of hosting travelers and learning about different people. That it’s better to hang out with locals when trying to discover a new place. And finally, it’s free.
Go to couchsurfing.org and register to host today. It might not change your life, but it’ll definitely change one night in the life of a weary traveler.
Next blog entry: You Can Never Go Home: An Exploration into Whence We Came