Adventurous ‘CouchSurfers’ travel across the globe

“He wanted us to show him around Prague, which we were happy to do,” Julia Cordray ’09 said about an experience she had on her semester abroad. “But it didn’t take us long to find out that he was not someone we should have invited into our home.” Yuyu, a Chinese national living in Berlin, made no attempt to conceal his rather creepy peculiarities. After asking Julia and her roommate a number of intrusive (not to mention absurd) questions about American sexual culture, he began showing his hosts a series of short videos that he had shot at nightclubs the previous night.

Why would Cordray consent to open her home to such a bizarre, and perhaps perverted, stranger? In her own words: “I was simply giving back.”

Cordray is only one of the several million adults worldwide who has experienced the recently developed practice of CouchSurfing. The CouchSurfing Project, founded in 2003, is one of the many internet-based hospitality services that have been recently developed.

On the CouchSurfing Web site, members can coordinate contacts and home accommodation information with other members worldwide, creating a hospitality database for eager and audacious travelers from all corners of the globe.

“I couch surfed in nearly every country I’ve been to: Turkey (twice), France, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and Latvia,” Cordray said. “Every time I stayed with someone; it was awesome! The only negative experiences I’ve had have been with hosting, but this I can attribute largely to my roommate’s indiscriminate and perhaps over-the-top southern hospitality.”

Shawn Woo ’09 also shares much of Cordray’s enthusiasm for the emerging service of CouchSurfing. “Overall, I’ve really only had positive experiences,” he said. “It’s understandable that people might feel tentative about moving in with strangers, but in reality it’s very reliable and safe.”

CouchSurfing uses a three-pronged system to ensure that users’ experiences are, as Woo said, reliable and safe. Firstly, users leave personal references, which cannot be deleted, on the walls of their hosts. Additionally, there is an optional credit card verification system, so that suspicious hosts or “surfers” can be forced, upon request, to confirm their identity. Finally, there is a vouching system that enables users to give credence to any number of other CouchSurfing members. “With all of this in place, it’s actually quite similar to eBay,” Woo said. “It’s organized in such a way that one can tell who is, and is not, reliable.”

Cordray agreed. “People are initially really nervous, especially girls, but when you can look people up on Facebook, and examine potential hosts through their CouchSurfing profile, it’s actually really easy to get a good handle on the type of character to expect,” she said.

Glenn Yong ’11 also had positive reactions to the ease of using the CouchSurfing site. “One can even have luck meeting that special girl or guy through CouchSurfing,” he said. However, Yong insisted that his words were not drawn from personal experience.

Participants in the CouchSurfing community all share one important commonality: a desire to meet people of different cultures. “I’ve maintained contact with a number of my past hosts. Although you only stay with the people for around four or five days, the fact that you’re both CouchSurfers breaks down barriers,” Woo said. “When you meet, you feel like you’re already close friends.”

Because CouchSurfers stay with locals from the cities where they vacation, the system provides an opportunity for travelers to fully immerse themselves in the daily happenings of the places they visit. “It’s easy to get an insider’s perspective on the place you’re visiting,” Woo said.

Yong, who’s from Singapore, has CouchSurfed throughout Southeast Asia. “Nowadays, few people dive below the superficial, the surface, when they travel to foreign countries,” Yong said. “CouchSurfing is not only the most economical way to travel, but it also creates relationships between travelers and locals that otherwise might be hard to develop in such a short time.”

However, the CouchSurfers’ experiences traveling abroad were not devoid of awkward meetings. Yong encountered an all-too-enthusiastic male host in Vietnam, which made his stay rather uncomfortable. Woo also had an awkward encounter in a Dutch auberge where he was staying in Amsterdam. (It’s embarrassing enough to walk in on a couple, but it is even more discomforting when they are two strangers you just met and have to stay with for the next few days.) Cordray’s stay in a Parisian home was also not without its awkward moments, as she stumbled upon 12 solid bricks of hashish in her French host’s upstairs room.

Despite her awkward encounters while CouchSurfing, Cordray believes the system has invaluable benefits for travelers. “You can’t see a city in the same way when you’re staying in hostels,” Cordray said. “It’s about meeting people, truly experiencing what life is like in a country.”

In an increasingly pre-packaged world, CouchSurfing is quickly becoming a popular option for those who want to immerse themselves in the authentic culture of various countries and peoples. For those brave and extroverted travelers revving up their engines for worldly exploration, it appears that new accommodation options should be considered. Even if your host is a little strange, at least you’ll have saved a few bucks on lodgings.