Couchsurfers use the net for cheap stays

The internet has revolutionised the way we book hotels. Now, an online community is doing the same for budget accommodation. Rhodri Marsden hosts his first guest
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's clear that my meagre two-seater couch from Ikea isn't a substantial enough piece of furniture to get a decent night's sleep on. But my new acquaintance, Emily Stott, seems unperturbed by the prospect, having kipped down on far less comfortable items in the past.

Emily is a dedicated member of couchsurfing.com, a social networking website that aims to provide a friendly face in an unfamiliar city, and maybe a couch to sleep on. Started by 27-year-old Hawaii resident Casey Fenton back in January 2004, it has not only been embraced by cash-strapped backpackers making their way around the world in their gap year, but also by those who would gladly surrender the scant comforts of a cheap motel in favour of some free, old-fashioned local hospitality. There are currently more than 68,000 couchsurfers currently registered, all eager to offer a warm welcome to strangers and hopefully find an equally generous reception when they next go travelling.

The US and the UK are particularly well represented, but there are couchsurfers in 194 other countries, including such exotic destinations as Yemen, Fiji and Afghanistan. My flat in Tooting is the antithesis of exotic, but is nevertheless useful for Emily, as she has to be at a meeting down the road in Carshalton the following morning. Discovering my profile on couchsurfing.com has not only saved her the cost of a room at the local Holiday Inn, but also given her the enviable opportunity to sit next to me in a library in south London, watching alternative cabaret of variable quality.

As the next act warms up in the adult non-fiction section, we avail ourselves of some free red wine and Emily tells me how it all started. "A guy from Greece told me about it while we were chatting online. When I checked out the site I realised that what people want when they go travelling is a flavour of what it might be like to live there. I don't think many of us actually want to feel like tourists."

Emily and her boyfriend Joss threw themselves into the project with gusto, and now, two or three times a month, they host couchsurfers from as far afield as Chicago, Brazil and Eastern Europe in their two-bedroom flat in York. "It's like a cultural exchange," says Emily. "You think you have an idea of what people from various countries might be like, but you don't know until you've met them. I just like the idea of us integrating more with the rest of the world."

Couchsurfing.com isn't unique; there are other sites, including globalfreeloader.com and hospitalityclub.org, which all contribute to a burgeoning worldwide hospitality network. But there's something about the couchsurfing.com experience that seems to engender a particularly strong sense of community; you can browse profiles and get a feel for the site before signing up, "ambassadors" are appointed to help out new members, there's a live chatroom, and the founders of the site are themselves active couchsurfers. Their aim is clearly to reassure people whose first question will often be: is it safe?

"Personally, I think that the kind of people who are willing to let you stay in their home are basically sound," says Emily. But if your faith isn't as strong as hers, there are other features that try to inspire greater trust. For example, you can see how many couchsurfing experiences your potential guest or host has had, and read comments that people have left about each other's behaviour - cleanliness, willingness to do the washing up and so on. People can also be officially vouched for as trustworthy by someone they have met through the site, and, if you wish, there's a voluntary verification process: a credit card-based system, providing proof that you are who you say you are, and live where you say you live.

And it seems to work; Emily has never heard of anyone having a bad experience. "There is the odd small misunderstanding between people who might have flirted and then misread each other's signals," she says. "But they do try and make it clear that couchsurfing.com isn't a dating site. And, of course, there will be people who you'll get on with more than others. But we don't usually have people staying with us for more than three nights, so it's never a problem."

Emily's more unusual hosting experiences include putting up a family of four from the Ukraine; the mother and father didn't speak English, but the children were fluent, did a good job of interpreting for the adults, and she remembers them fondly. This in turn inspired Emily's parents to join the site, and they now host the odd person from the other side of the world who might find themselves needing a bed for the night in rural Lincolnshire.

Emily recalls how couchsurfing has enabled her, too, to stray off the beaten track. "Over Christmas, I spent eight weeks travelling through India and China as part of research for my job, and a good half of that was spent couchsurfing. I could have had the hotels paid for, but this way I got to visit more places, and had a much richer experience."

It's clear from the website that the potent combination of cheap airfares and free accommodation have created a travelling bonanza, with people able to extend their trips by weeks with the money they are saving. So, now that I had successfully hosted Emily, and been vouched for by her on my couchsurfing profile as a decent chap, it was time to do some serious travelling of my own: down the M3, to Hampshire.

Cari Laythorpe is one of the aforementioned ambassadors, and picks me up at Winchester station to give me the full-blown, chauffeured couchsurfing experience. As we park in the centre of Chandlers Ford and walk through the rather grim local precinct, it's clear that this is no tourist destination - but dozens of people from America and Europe have, nevertheless, availed themselves of Cari's hospitality. "I usually take people up to London, or Stonehenge," she says, "or maybe do the historical tour of Winchester." As I'd already experienced all three, we settled instead for a few pints in a Southampton boozer.

Cari proves to be an almost evangelical couchsurfer, enthusing about her first experience: spending the whole of last August in Europe, and only having to find paid accommodation for two nights. "The other 29 were all couch," she says, "and I made some fantastic friends." Despite her infectious enthusiasm, I still find the idea of slumming it a slightly unattractive prospect, and when we get back to Cari's, I gingerly test the sofa, a purple duvet and a Spongebob Squarepants soft toy for levels of comfort and reassurance.

"The thing is," says Cari, "it's not just about staying over. If you want comfort, you go to a hotel; it's really about community." She recounts the tale of how she found herself stood up by a friend in Prague, and had no clue where to go or what to do. After three hours, she sent a text message to a fellow couchsurfer in the US. Within minutes of his appeal for help on the website, Cari started receiving text messages from people across Prague, offering to come and fetch her, feed her and put her up for the night. "And at that stage," she says, "I'd only been a member for a few weeks."

With this endorsement of human nature ringing in my head, I settle down for the night with Spongebob.

Comments