Photo by Bogdan Seredyak.
Written By: Margaret Jacobi
Spring Break has become somewhat notoriously known as a holiday where college students are set loose to wreak havoc on different destinations. Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for travel, booze, and accommodations, these students journey to new places and, in a drunken haze, might miss what really makes the location unique. Different options, such as volunteer-based alternative spring break programs, have sprung up in the past as a cheaper, more productive option for time off; but what about the student that wants to have a cultural experience and a true vacation on a budget?
There are several websites for travelers looking for free alternative lodging options, but the site that is largely the most successful, Couchsurfing.org, has become an essential tool for those looking for both an economic and enlightening experience.
“We enable people to discover new and interesting people and places they wouldn’t otherwise encounter,” says Dan Hoffer, Co-Founder and CEO of the site. “This way, they can have social experiences while traveling and save some money in the process.”
Couchsurfing’s official logo, courtesy of Couchsurfing.org.
The free site, with over 3 million users hailing from 251 countries, offers hospitality services through a social network structure somewhat similar to Facebook or Myspace.
It all began when Casey Fenton, another Co-Founder, traveled to Iceland in 1999. He decided to email students at the University of Iceland to try to find a place to stay and was offered a plethora of couches. This experience, and the idea of such an opportunity being more accessible, eventually led to the 2003 unveiling of the beta site and it’s official launch in 2004.
Essentially, the site offers a way to connect with people all over the world in more meaningful ways. Users create profiles listing their information and what they are willing to offer as a host, whether it be a cup of coffee or a couch to sleep on. Search functions within the site allow members to search for specific hosts in different countries with the option of filtering their searches by age, keywords, safety features, etc. For instance, a search of users who listed “Tom Waits” on their profiles yielded 176 results in Berlin alone. This way, people can look for hosts they are likely to get along with to create lasting connections.
Meetings and homestays are consensual and arranged online beforehand without any monetary exchange involved. The host’s apartment is not to be treated like a hotel, though, since the goal of the site is to serve as a social tool. Users are encouraged to become friends and learn from each other, maybe over a few beers or dinner. There are no concrete guidelines or restrictions regarding homestays, relying only on human altruism that dictates a person should be grateful when offered a free place to sleep.
While staying on a stranger’s couch seems like a scary and naive concept to most, the site has enjoyed generous feedback since it started and continues to grow.
For the hesitant traveler, there is an entire page with several links dedicated to safety and tips on the site. Couchsurfers who want to take further measures of caution can also check for three essentials on a host’s page: whether they have been validated or vouched for and what their references say. A validated host has verified their physical location through a credit card payment and to become a vouched member, three different members on the site must vouch for the person.
However, the most reassuring information to an apprehensive new user is probably the references listed on every profile. At the bottom of every user’s page is a column of references detailing interactions, both good a bad, from previous members who have met with that specific user.
The site also offers user-generated groups on topics varying from slow food to sexual liberation and everything in between. This allows ex-pats or friendly new users to become part of the community.
A site based on the model of trust might seem archaic in today’s world, but the success of Couchsurfing.org is a reminder that there are still many good-willed people in the world wanting to learn from others.
“We are company with a social mission,” says Hoffer, “Our objective is to facilitate intercultural understanding and help make a better world by delivering inspiring experiences for our members.”