Free digs while you travel? “Couch Surf” your way around the world!

(Heads-up: Malia, the host of a couple of the videos in this playlist, is one sassy diva, so if your delicate sensibilities are easily offended, you might want to skip the videos and stick to the article below. She’s a gal that calls adventures like she sees ’em 😉 Oh yeah, and she has an indoor swing. Shouldn’t we all?)

Couchsurfing is a global community of 9 million people in more than 120,000 cities who share their life, their world, their journey.

Couchsurfing connects travelers with a global network of people willing to share in profound and meaningful ways, making travel a truly social experience.


If you’re looking for a fun way to add a little adventure to your life without the big cost you might want to turn web surfing into couch surfing.

A young man who used the Internet to book a cheap flight from Boston to Iceland for a “weekend trip” on a whim found himself desperate for a place to stay, and in turning back to the Internet wound up creating both a successful and highly rated alternative travel experience web site.

While you’ve probably heard about “hostels” as an inexpensive way of launching a soul trek (I’ll be exploring that in another article soon), chances are you haven’t considered “exotic couches”. Today I’m going to share a bit about an interesting web site community called Couchsurfing and how it might be an inexpensive way to experience new cultures and people around the world.

 

What is “Couch Surfing”?

Casey Fenton ended up creating a web site that not only helped other travelers safely connect with free accommodations through a network of trusted host sites, but engage in educational exchanges that helped promote a sense of global cultural tolerance at a time when that is a real challenge.


A close friend of mine really enjoyed his experiences “hostelling” across Ireland and the U.S., and said that he was considering “couch surfing”. When he told me that it was a form of alternative travel based on free accommodations in other peoples’ homes, sometimes literally on their couches, my first reaction was “you’ve got to be kidding!? That sounds dangerous!” Never one to simply leave a rabbit hole on the web unexplored, I decided to find out for myself what had made him consider this as an exciting new form of alternative travel. Here’s what I discovered …

Casey Fenton - Co-Founder, Chairman, Chief Inspiration Officer - Couchsurfing

Casey Fenton – Co-Founder, Chairman, Chief Inspiration Officer – Couchsurfing

A young man named Casey Fenton was leaving home in New Hampshire and heading for Finland, but finding himself without a place to stay. Being web savvy he decided to reach out through the Internet to see if someone might be willing to offer their couch. He ended up with almost 100 replies.

What began as a problem finding accommodations inverted itself: who would he choose to stay with?

This was a turning point for Casey, who has since travelled back and forth across the U.S. Many times, and also around the world. He ended up creating a web site that not only helped other travellers safely connect with free accommodations through a network of trusted host sites, but engage in educational exchanges that helped promote a sense of global cultural tolerance at a time when that is a real challenge.

Click here to learn more about the vision Casey helped shape for what was then called “the Couch Surfing project”, and here to learn more about the values they’ve been embracing since first opening their virtual doors back in 2004.

 

What kinds of places can you travel to and find these sorts of free accommodations?

Find some really exotic — and cheap — places to stay while immersing in new cultures in a much more personal way.

Whether you’re looking for an epic adventure from Paris to Africa, or simply finding a way to rediscover your own backyard with a series of mini-adventures closer to home, there really is something for everyone here.

Baby steps first: Couchsurfers around the world host some awesome local meet-ups and events! Many cities have weekly language exchanges, dance classes, hikes and dinners. In addition to giving you a chance to learn more about couch surfing from people who have done it, it’s also a great way to make new friends.

When you’re ready for something a little bigger on your bucketlist, this is actually a pretty terrific way of cultivating an adventure that is a lot more immersive and culturally authentic.

When I first started looking into this back in 2008 my own “aha!” moment came from my desire to travel to Peru, but I have to admit I was paralysed with fear because of the dangerous climate spawned by political corruption and fatal crimes. I wondered if it was possible to find a “local” who might have a sense of the ropes, who might help me explore what was safe, know what to avoid, find the truly meaningful places to visit in the country’s rich culture off the usual tourist beaten path? This brought me to the digital doorstep of a 27-year-old marketing guru who lived with her mother and grandmother, had ant-eaters and who had cultivated a reputation as a generous and humble host, welcoming people into her home and teaching them how to cook the local dishes.

My first reaction was: “a family of women! This must be safer!” Perhaps a little naive, but it got me excited enough to dig deeper into the possibilities of this kind of alternative travel.

 

Wouldn’t it be considered dangerous both for the host, taking a stranger into their house, and for the guest, staying with a stranger?

Couchsurfing’s Tips for Women Travelers:

• When you’re surfing, consider staying with other women or with families, especially if you’re traveling solo.

• Be clear about your boundaries and don’t be shy about stating them.

• Educate yourself about the cultural and religious differences in the places you visit. Gender roles and expectations differ widely.

Click here for more tips …

That was of course the very first thought that made a skeptic of me when I discovered this web site in 2008, and what impressed me most about the project once I found the answer. (Click here to read their safety tips. You’ll also find this addressed in the video playlist at the top of this article.)

The “Couch Surfing” project is based on a “reputation system” similar to what the founders of eBay put in place. Guests rate the hosts that they stay with, and hosts rate the surfers (guests). At the simplest level this kind of user-based reference system offers a sense of where there are safer opportunities that fit your own needs. The more references a host or surfer gets, the easier it is to determine what kinds of experiences you’re going to be in for, and how compatible you’ll be.

Of course I wondered how new people entering the project were able to offer some sense of safety when they had no ratings. This is where the projects “verification” system comes in, inviting hosts to go through a series of steps to validate where they live and who they are, offering a sense of authenticity to begin from.

Ratings, references and member “vouching” are the main things upon which a network of trust has been built, and their commitment to this sense of safety has resulted in a customer satisfaction rating of 99.8% in a network of millions of hosts, with millions of positive experiences.

Note: the verification process is optional, but gives both the hosts and guests more peace of mind. At the time I shared this the cost was AUD$26, nearly par with the Canadian dollar. Given the benefits of nearly free accomodations it’s a pretty reasonable investment to make.

 

Is it really free?

Yes. And no. The spirit of the program is meant to be an exchange that does not include money changing hands, though many guests choose to buy dinner for the host in exchange for the accomodations.

Couch surfing is meant to be more than a free night’s stay. Hosts often help guests find local points of interest that are not always part of a normal tourist experience (and will sometimes offer to be your tour guide), immerse in the culture more authentically, and sometimes even cook for the guest, which can be a fun way to experience new cuisine in foreign cultures.

The kind of experience you have depends a lot on the information you provide about yourself as a prospective guest, and the kinds of hosts you search for on the Couchsurfing site. It’s a great way to customize the way you explore new places and cultures more authentically.

 

So let’s talk about the elephant in the room: all the couch surfers in the pictures and videos look like kids.

France D'Amour, Couchsurfing Host, New Brunswick, Canada

France D’Amour, Couchsurfing Host, New Brunswick, Canada

I have two things to say about that:

1) Yes, many of the folks who grabbed the couch surfing reigns during it’s first decade seem to be brave, young turks. Aren’t they always more naturally fearless?

and …

2) So what are we gonna do about that, diva? Problem. Opportunity!

While the scales may still be tipped, not all couch surfers are kids.

Great way to get to know some of the folks doing it later in life? Host an event. It’s one of the most popular aspects of the couch surfing community.

 

France D'Amour wrote an article about her experiences as a Couchsurfing host.

France D’Amour wrote an article about her experiences as a Couchsurfing host.

Anyone can host an event. Why not consider doing one at a local coffee shop and inviting other couch surfers, and those who are curious about it, to join you? It’s an informal, inexpensive way to learn more about it in person, and maybe meet some new adventure buddies along the way.

Proof that it’s not just a young adventurer’s pursuit? — fellow Canadian, France D’Amour, who has worked for a newspaper called “Le Madawaska” in the east coast town of Edmundston, New Brunswick for over 36 years. As a Couchsurfing host, she’s been so enthralled with her experiences that she recently wrote about it in the news. The title, translated: “Couchsurfing: Sharing at the Heart of the Journey”.

Not only did I wish my Français was a whole lot better, but you can be sure I’ll be following up with this particular adventure diva to invite her to share more of her own experiences with us here.


 

Curious about some of the fabulous, exotic, life-altering experiences other people have had while they’re couch surfing?

Couchsurfer Jenny Lu

Couchsurfer Jenny Lu

Me too! That’s why I love “Couch Stories”, a collection of amazing and inspiring stories from the Couchsurfing community.

One of my favourites? Couchsurfer Jenny Lu. Can you imagine travelling the world without hearing anything? Jenny can. She’s deaf and uses Couchsurfing as an opportunity to learn different sign languages. In March she set out on a 5 month trip through Africa and Europe. Click here to follow her blog for travel impressions and beautiful photos.

Want to discover more awesome adventure diva couch surfing moments? Click here to dive in and learn more about how other women are turning this alternative form of travel into an unexpected and powerful springboard for great adventures on a shoestring budget.


 

Oh, and did I mention that the Couchsurfing CEO is an adventure diva?

Jennifer Billock, CEO, Couchsurfing

Jennifer Billock, CEO, Couchsurfing

 

I didn’t? Well, she is!

While this particular venture may have started with 4 guys, Jennifer Billock is the gal at the helm now.

Jennifer is a Product/Consumer Insights Executive who has helped pioneer internet music, whose clients have included gDiaper and Kodak, and who also teaches meditation and yoga.

Now that’s an adventure diva, no?


 

Has checking this project out made me want to try this myself?

Adventures are the best way to learn.

 

I have to admit that I’m surprised to hear myself saying “yes”, but I am!

While I’ve had some travel experiences in the past that still leave me on the skittish side when it comes to trekking by myself (I’ll save that for the “tales of safety learned the hard way” section), I find the more I dig into this particular project the more excited I get.

While ideally I would love to take that trip to Peru, and this seems like an excellent way to do it, I’ll likely start out in a small way close to home and begin to network with other people who are writers and artists and “tiny house” enthusiasts, people with whom I have something truly in common, so that I’d not only benefit from the experience but would have something significant to give in return myself.

So I guess I can say “to be continued …” and that I’d love to hear from other Adventure Divas who decide to try this out for themselves, or who perhaps already have.

Why not head over to the digital kitchen table with me to chat a bit more about this?

Click here to join the conversation …

 

Sue

 

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