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Getaways – Have Couch? Will Travel

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By Adrianne Jeffries

RISMEDIA, Oct. 3, 2008-(MCT)-There is a new way to hop around the world for travelers whose budgets can’t keep up with their wanderlust, and the perks may be more than financial.

For adventurous travelers only, Couchsurfing.com is a website that connects travelers to people who are willing to host strangers in their homes for free.

You might expect that to be a small group, but you’d be wrong. The site has more than 670,000 members in 231 countries, with 5,000 new members signing up every six weeks.

When sisters Martina, 23, and Brittany Fields, 22, of Norfolk, went backpacking last year, they stayed with strangers in Germany, France and the Netherlands over the course of two months.

“I didn’t want to stay in a hostel because I wanted that experience of meeting the locals and going to the local places,” Martina said. “If you go to the hostels you’re just going to meet other Americans.”

Couchsurfing Project co-founder Casey Fenton felt the same way. After scoring a cheap ticket to Iceland, Fenton sent e-mails to more than 1,500 university students in Reykjavik asking if anyone wanted to put a friendly American up for the night. The result was amazing.

Not only did students offer Fenton a place to stay, many wanted to show him “their” Reykjavik. Fenton had such a great time that he decided never to go back to that traditional tourist trap, the hotel. He recruited three friends with various skills and The Couchsurfing Project was born.

“Couch surfing is a global hospitality network and the premise is that a traveler can stay anywhere in the world, for free, in someone’s home, as long as they are willing to sleep on the couch.”

That’s how Dan Hoffer, another one of the four original founders, explains the site to someone who has never heard of it before.

There are other similar hospitality networks aiming to link travelers with free accommodations, but Couchsurfing is the largest by “almost any metric,” Hoffer said. Other sites include GlobalFreeloaders.com, founded by Australians, and HospitalityClub.com, founded by a German.

The Couchsurfing Project also seems to have inspired participation at levels far beyond any other site. The website is maintained by volunteers, drawn from the most active members. The nonprofit only has six paid employees, and only one of the original founders is paid for his involvement. The others have day jobs, Hoffer says.

It’s evident that the site’s members, or “couch surfers,” derive benefits much greater than a sleeping surface.

“You have the opportunity to make friends you will keep years and years later,” Martina said. She and her sister still keep in touch with most of the people they met while couch surfing.

They were able to return the hospitality they were given when a friend who hosted them in Berlin came to Norfolk and stayed at the Fields’ house.

Martina has also made friends at home through The Couchsurfing Project. She coordinates meet-ups for the group “757 CSers” which has 87 members in the Hampton Roads area. The 757 CSers get together once a month to talk about places they’ve gone, places they want to go, and people they’ve met while couch surfing.

“It’s an awesome opportunity to meet people who are doing the same thing you are doing,” she said.

The average age of the site’s members is 27, but couch surfers range from 18 to 89. Rick and Cherri Feineis of Virginia Beach are a married couple in their 40s in the “757 CSers” group. They joined the site together after Rick read about it in a magazine for business entrepreneurs. The article suggested that traveling businessmen could use the site to save money, which is why Rick got involved.

But since Rick and Cherri do a lot of world travel, they decided they might as well let the world come to them. They were also already involved in Lost Boys of Hampton Roads, a program to place Sudanese refugees in temporary homes.

“We’ll open our home up and see who comes,” Rick said at the time.

The website has a mechanism for collecting information about a member’s trustworthiness. The first level of security is the reference system. Members can write a testimonial about their experience with another member, and rate that experience as negative, neutral or positive. This information is prominently displayed on a member’s page.

There is also verification system, where members make a donation to The Couchsurfing Project so the site can verify that the billing address on the credit card is the same as the address listed on the site.

If you are really concerned about safety, you can stay with a member who is “vouched for.”

“If you want to put your trust behind another member, you can do so openly in the community by saying, ‘I vouch for this person.’ You need three vouches in order to be able to vouch for anybody else,” said Rachel diCerbo, who heads up the Member Disputes and Safety Team at The Couchsurfing Project.

The most basic safety precaution is to read a member’s profile thoroughly and look at their photos, diCerbo says. The site gives members the tools to make safe decisions, but it relies on couch surfers to do their own research.

The site recommends that couch surfers always have a back-up plan and money for a hostel or hotel.

Problems are rare. Only .02% of experiences are recorded as negative. DiCerbo can recall only two times that she had to remove two profiles because of reports that couch surfers were stealing from their hosts. The overwhelming majority of member disputes she handles are due to miscommunication and personality conflicts.

Ernie DeGraw, 35, of Norfolk, recently hosted a girl from Montreal for a month with no kinks. But he remembers a previous couch surfer who showed up unexpectedly, days after she said she would-and then overstayed her welcome.

“If you don’t really match up well it’s not going to be a good experience,” DeGraw said. “If you have a good kind of connection with somebody it doesn’t really matter if they stay for one day or three weeks. It’s almost like they’re not here, or they’re actually like your friend and you don’t mind helping them out.”

Unconvinced? Maybe you just have to see it to believe it. Even if you are skeptical at first, it only takes a few comfortable experiences before couch surfing feels natural, says Ashley Sawyer, 24, was the founder of the “757 CSers” group.

“I am to the point where I cannot travel and get introduced to a big city any other way than couch surfing,” Sawyer said. “Hostels and hotels are so boring even if you can afford them.”

“It’s so much cooler to see the different sides of the city, to see the life of it itself and from the viewpoint of someone who actually lives there and has a home there.”

© 2008, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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