Couch surfing: the new wave of travel

Print

Social networking makes connections for international travelers.

University students are traveling more than ever. The number of study-abroad students has more than doubled since 1998, according to Learning Abroad Center statistics.

As travel becomes more commonplace among the collegiate set, students are looking for unique ways to widen their horizons without squashing their bank accounts.

Enter CouchSurfing.com. It’s a nonprofit organization and online network of more than a quarter of a million people across the globe. Its members are either traveling and need a place to stay, or have a couch and will let those travelers crash on it for free. But CouchSurfing’s mission statement emphasizes a larger purpose than thrifty travel. The organization seeks to “create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance and facilitate cultural understanding.”

Co-founder Dan Hoffer called it “a potentially superior and more fulfilling means of travel.” Potentially superior to some, potentially unsafe to others. Learning Abroad Center director Al Balkcum said even if travelers trust those they’re staying with, there are other safety concerns. Is the house or apartment up to fire and health codes? Is it in a safe part of town?

Nevertheless, new members join the site every day. “Some people refer to us as a social movement,” Hoffer said. “We embrace that definition.”

The Surfers

Whether CouchSurfing is a social movement is arguable. It’s not the first network of its kind. But the sheer number of hardcore couch surfers is undeniable. Public policy graduate student Genko Genov has been a couch surfer for two years. He’s had about 20 CouchSurfing experiences and said none of them have been bad.

“The most amazing thing is that you can really get to know people,” Genov said. “And when you visit a place, it’s not that you remember the place, you remember the people.”

CouchSurfing gives users the option of joining, but only to meet fellow travelers and show them around, not necessarily to host them.

Genov has used CouchSur fing for both reasons. Originally from Bulgaria, he has traveled to 18 countries.

Whether staying at someone’s house or meeting fellow surfers for a night on the town, Genov acknowledged he doesn’t always know what to expect. When a couch surfer canceled on him at the last minute in Barcelona, Genov called another surfer in the city.

When he got to the friendly Spaniard’s apartment, Genov said it was packed with 14 surfers. The host was lending out spots on his apartment floor and keeping track with an Excel spreadsheet.

The next day, the host took all the surfers to a neighborhood celebration where they had traditional local food. It was an experience he never could have gotten as a tourist, Genov said.

“Some people would say … this was horrible. Other people would say this was great,” Genov said. “It very much depends on your expectations – if you’re flexible and you’re open to people.”

Minneapolis residents Justin and Vonny Kleinman have been members since 2005 and are the city’s CouchSurfing ambassadors. They communicate with CouchSurfing administration and support the local CouchSurfing community.

They said they’ve hosted surfers 20 to 30 times, often hosting more than one surfer at once. “You meet like-minded people,” Vonny Kleinman said. “They want to meet someone new, and you’re someone new.”

Surfers are generally respectful, she said, and they genuinely appreciate their hosts.
Top Five Countries

UNITED STATES – 68,913
CANADA – 19,612
GERMANY – 18,736
FRANCE – 18,220
UNITED KINGDOM – 14,342

The Kleinmans said surfers have thanked them in small ways like washing the dishes or sending a postcard from their next destinations.

One brought them cheese from Italy and another even helped tear down their bathroom.

Diane Emerson, a longtime Twin Cities resident and University alumna, thought the project was so cool she worked for it in 2006 when she traveled to New Zealand.

At 53, she’d left a successful business career to travel the world and volunteer.

The Organization Co-founder Casey Fenton started developing the New Hampshire-based organization in 2003 after a trip to Iceland. As the story is told on CouchSurfing.com, Fenton had bought his ticket to Reykjavik but had nowhere to stay. So he spammed more than 1,500 students there, asking if he could stay with them. The response he got and the experience he had – exploring the city with residents rather than guidebooks – inspired him to set up CouchSurfing.com. Fenton and Hoffer are part of the 15-member leadership team that runs the organization, said Eric Lesage, media coordinator and leadership team member.
TOP FIVE CITIES

MONTREAL – 4,924
LONDON – 4,565
PARIS – 4,338
BERLIN – 2,578
VIENnA – 2,286

The leadership team and other volunteers hold routine meetings called collectives to discuss running the organization. The last one was a technical collective in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

“We are the people more or less defining the project, but we’re also very closely listening to what the members have to say,” Lesage said. “It’s their project too.” That’s why about 95 percent of the organization’s work is done by volunteers, Lesage said. The goal is to keep the Web site free for users.

“Part of the CouchSurfing mission is to make the world a better place. To do that, you need to flatten differences … between people from all over the world,” Lesage said. A small amount of money in one country can equal a month’s pay in another, he said. CouchSurfing is growing every day and tracks growth on its Web site. More than 5,000 new members joined over the weekend.
TOP FIVE U.S. CITIES

NEW YORK – 2,136
SAN FRANCISCO – 2,041
SEATTLE – 1,711
LOS ANGELES – 1,679
CHICAGO – 1,490

“Our challenge is to figure out how to manage that growth,” Hoffer said. “It would be easy for us to run ads and make money that way but our members don’t want that.”

All CouchSurfing’s money comes from donations and verifications, Hoffer said.

The Safety

Verifications are one of CouchSurfing’s several safety measures. Members can get verified by paying a $25 fee with a credit card.

“Only if the address we have matches the address your card has, will the transaction go through,” Lesage said. “Basically we’re piggybacking on the bank’s information on you.”

Emerson said she finds it a reliable way to pick trustworthy hosts.

“If you’re concerned about who you want to stay with … all you’ve got to do is … look at their profile and see they’re verified and vouched for,” Emerson said.

If a member has been vouched for, an icon will show up on his or her profile. Members can only vouch for other members, though, once they’ve been vouched for three times.
WHO ARE THESE Couchsurfers?

There are 266,346 couchsurfers worldwide. They represent 218 countries, 27,873 cities and speak 1,077 languages. Their average age is 26. Minneapolis has 648 surfers and ranks 11th among U.S. cities. 46 percent of all surfers are in Europe but 84 percent speak English. Males make up 52 percent of the couchsurfing community while 38 percent are females.*

*The rest are unknown, or are profiles belonging to several people. For more statistics or informations, go to: www.couchsurfing.com

Surfers are also encouraged to leave references, which are essentially reviews of their experience, on the profiles of other surfers they’ve stayed with.

“We can’t prevent anything from happening to (couch surfers),” Lesage said. “What we can do, though, is provide tools for them to ensure their own safety.”

Lesage said there have been a few instances of people stealing small items or trying to con other surfers. Site members were alerted immediately and the situations were remedied, he said.

Neither Genov, the Kleinmans nor Emerson said they’ve had a bad experience. Vonny Kleinman pointed out that whether hosting or traveling, “they’re trusting you as much as you’re trusting them.

“Personalities can clash. But if you really don’t feel comfortable with someone, you don’t have to stay there or host them,” she said. “And really, no one’s going to travel from France to steal my TV.”

The Movement

Though CouchSurfing is an online network, the idea of global understanding through hospitality started long before the Internet.

Emerson was a member of Servas International before she heard of CouchSurfing. Servas is similar to CouchSurfing but started in the 1940s. It has stricter requirements to become a member and is recognized by the United Nations as an accredited NGO.

“This kind of travel is not a flash-in-the-pan thing,” Emerson said. “This idea has been around.” CouchSurfing lists other online hospitality networks on its Web site, but Genov and Justin Kleinman said they find CouchSurfing to be the most user-friendly. All four CouchSurfing members said they understand skeptics’ concerns, but the benefits of this form of travel outweigh the downsides.

“Once you discover, in any aspect of your life, that you can trust strangers, it opens up the world to you,” Emerson said. “The world becomes a much safer, warmer place.”