Imagine opening your front door to a complete stranger who expects to be put up for the night. Or imagine yourself as the one who knocks on a door in a foreign country and asks for a bed. Hundreds of Northern Virginians have been in one of these two roles, thanks to the grassroots travel Web site CouchSurfing.com.
The basic idea is similar to MySpace, Facebook and other social networking sites, but with a much more focused audience: outgoing travelers on a budget, looking for a local connection in an area they will be visiting. Profiles share some general information about interests and general availability. A member who can promise boarding for an evening is designated as “has couch” or “definitely has couch,” one who is less sure “maybe has couch,” and many who are unable to host travelers offer to “meet for coffee or a drink” and act as tour guide.
There are rules for Couch Surfers visiting someone’s home; the site reminds members to keep in mind that they are guests. They should not expect meals from their hosts, and in exchange for the free lodging, surfers are advised to help out in whatever way they can.
MAX SCHNELLER found out about Couch Surfing as a freshman at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He asked a friend to dinner and she declined because she was hosting a Couch Surfer, so she explained the project to him. Schneller, a Great Falls native, was living in campus housing so couldn’t get involved in hosting, but he remembered it two years later when he was studying abroad, living in an apartment where guest were welcome.
“I was in London for the past year studying and I hosted people,” he said. Schneller’s European guests had taken well to Couch Surfing – he called it “an accepted way of traveling the continent,” replacing the youth hostel as the traveler’s first choice in lodging – perhaps because, as he explained it, travel between countries is more common and easier than it is for Americans, where international travel usually implies crossing an ocean. Crossing national borders in Europe is more akin to crossing state borders in America, Schneller thinks.
“I was traveling, I was going to spend a year in Asia, and I thought, what better way to see the countries,” Mat Zalk of Reston said. He filled out his profile about two years ago, and recalled that there was only about 25-30,000 members worldwide; the site now reports over half a million surfers.
“It’s always been friendly,” Zalk said. Traveling with a friend in China, they were met at the busy capital airport. “In Beijing, there was a guy waiting for me, with a sign, ‘Welcome Couch Surfers Zack and Mat.’”
Greg Garrison traveled last year in Hong Kong and China, and heard about the Couch Surfing project then. On his return trip, he flew into Los Angeles, and as he made his way back home to Vienna he stayed with surfers. Earlier this year he was considering going to law school, and visited surfers at the University of California-San Diego and the University of Georgia.
“On both of those trips, the surfer who was hosting me, we went out for a drive around town talking about what they like, what they don’t like,” Garrison said. He found that getting information from the Couch Surfers about the universities and surrounding area was helpful in addition to official campus visits. “You’re very conscious of the fact that everybody participating in that [campus visit] process has an angle,” he said. Couch Surfing “is sort of the opposite – nobody has an angle.”
Robert Lutsky of Fairfax uses traveling as a different kind of educational experience. He is a cyclist who has written a guidebook for South America by bike, and found out about Couch Surfing on a trip to New Zealand and Australia. He estimated that he has stayed with 35 or 40 people, and talked to many more than that. He’s amazed by what he calls “the consistency of people” in the Couch Surfing project. “My experience has been 100 for 100 kind of thing. [Hosts are] really nice, really kind, generous with their time and their knowledge, eager to help you do what you want to do or see what you want to see,” he said. “I’ve always left before they wanted me to.”
Potomac native Brian Muchmore’s visits to 30 countries earn him a reputation as an experienced traveler. “I love to travel, it’s my favorite thing to do,” he said. His first Couch Surfing experience was on a trip backpacking across Africa, Europe and Asia the last few months. His brother told him about the project several years ago, but he hasn’t been able to utilize it until this trip.
Muchmore doesn’t plot out his travels in advance – he stays in an area until he feels ready to move on. “When you travel like I do, Couch Surfing is pretty difficult,” he said. “I am pretty fly by the seat of my pants.”
He also hasn’t been able to host surfers yet. “I live way out in Potomac at the moment,” he said. “I have the feeling no one’s going to come out.” He said he has become a de facto host a few times, since he’s had friends or roommates who have had Couch Surfing guests.
Julia Seymour of Springfield was planning a trip to England with her mother Barb, who found CouchSurfing.com while doing online research for the trip.
“At first I found it a little scary, but after I looked at it and read through some people’s profiles and got a better handle on why it exists, I established a profile for myself,” Seymour said. The women stayed with three families, for seven or eight of their 12-night trip. “It was a great experience.”
Couch Surfing is also a family affair for Zalk: “My sister’s just had her first guest and she’s pretty excited about it,” he said. His sister, who lives in Denver, has also surfed with him in the past.
Laura Schaefer and her husband live in Fairfax, and are planning on going to Europe for three months this fall. They hope to spend some of their time as with Couch Surfers to save a bit of money. They have already hosted surfers – a New York band stayed with them once on the way to play shows further south, and again when they were making their way back home.
“When we told our friends that we had this band of five, six people staying with us they were really surprised,” Schaefer said. She admitted she wondered how it would go as well. “At first I was a little nervous with it being our first experience, [but] it ended up being really great.”
Schaefer explained the validation process that brings a level of security to the project: there is a fee – $25 in the United States – for CouchSurfing.com members who want to add a level of security to their profiles. The site verifies the address attached to the profile and adds an icon to the profile marking it as validated.
“I THINK I SIGNED UP in 2006 when I was a Peace Corps volunteer,” said Will McPhail, who served in the Caribbean on the island of Dominica. “I had heard about this interesting network,” he said. McPhail, who is now living with his family in Burke, was already an avid traveler before his time in the Peace Corps and Couch Surfing, studying abroad in Australia and visiting Central America and Europe, Turkey and Morocco.
While he was in Dominica, McPhail didn’t think it would have been appropriate to host surfers, since he lived in a village of only 70 people – “they would have been very skeptical” – but he was a day host for some Couch Surfers, taking them on hikes around the island.
“I think the weirdest thing of it all is meeting someone online – I think that’s frankly bizarre … a little bit creepy almost,” McPhail said. But after the initial hesitation, he’s a fan of the site. “I think it’s fantastic, I embrace it 100 percent.”
Kate Sweet and Bob Doherty of Arlington have the same love of adventure all the surfers do, but they also represent another demographic on the site. Currently 50 and 64, respectively, they retired early to devote more time to traveling, and through CouchSurfing.com, also help other people get more travel experience.
“I’ve always been an aggressive traveler, even before I retired, it’s my main hobby,” Doherty said. While they were on a trip to Manitoba, Canada to see polar bears, Doherty saw an article about Couch Surfing and they signed up when they got home.
“We travel quite a lot, we try to travel budget,” Sweet said. “When you like to travel a lot of places, frequently you soon find that you can’t do it in a first-class hotel,” Doherty added.
Before they joined CouchSurfing.com, Sweet was already familiar with Web sites that aim to make connections in a community: “I do Freecycling, and it seems like Freecycling in a different form,” she said. Freecycle is an internet-based community recycling program. She is comfortable with the safeguards the site has, between the three-step validation and vouchers – recommendations from surfers to other members of the site who have hosted or stayed with them.
Zalk said that to him validation and vouchers were less important than the more common form of feedback: the references any member can leave with anyone else.
“The most important thing really is the references,” Zalk said. “You see if someone had 25 references, you’re pretty certain that he’s not a lunatic.” But just counting references isn’t enough, Zalk said – travelers should be able to read between the lines a little. There’s something of a curve on the references, because people are reluctant to leave criticisms of their hosts. “Anything that’s not super-positive is really negative,” Zalk said.
Sweet and Doherty were the first guests of a surfer in Orlando, Fla., and on a later trip with his brother Doherty stayed with the woman again. “I quite frankly enjoy this type of travel,” he said. “The hostels give you the same sort of quality, you get to meet other people.” Sweet likes it as well: “It’s a great way to get lodgings cheap and you get to meet people,” she said. “I’m sure we’ll be doing it for years.”
Ana Mendonca recently moved to her own place in Vienna, and updated her Couch Surfing profile: “Now I have a profile saying that I can host and I’ve been receiving e-mails,” she said. She expects to be a double-duty host next month – a Couch Surfer in New York is hosting a girl from Germany, and they wanted to come to the D.C. area for a weekend.
Since first joining, Mendonca has also made use of the forums and groups on CouchSurfing.com. There are groups for members in the same area, as well as interest-based groups. A Washington, D.C.-area group has social meetings and outings. “I sometimes go to the meetings – they have meetings every other week,” Mendonca explained.
Schaefer is also a fan of the forums on CouchSurfing.com, saying that it helps foster a sense of community. “People have conversations about very different things than you would normally find on a travel site,” she said.
Muchmore discussed the links he’s found between CouchSurfing.com and some of the other networking sites. He Couch Surfed with two girls in Cairo that he met on Craigslist and had befriended on Facebook.
He also found some differences, and said he thinks that for some users Couch Surfing has been used to make more connections than just those between hosts and travelers. “Way more I think than the other websites, this can really be utilized as a dating Web site,” he said. Some of the female surfers he’s talked to in the Mediterranean region have had problems with men contacting them for socializing and not traveling.
Schneller said Facebook and Couch Surfing were “along the same lines,” he personally uses them for different purposes. His Facebook account is “to keep track of people that I meet or that I already know, while Couch Surfing I see as an opportunity to meet new people.”
Mendonca hasn’t been able to meet many new surfers yet – her arrangements haven’t worked out – but she hopes to find a host for some upcoming trips. “For summer, I’m planning to go to Miami and for sure I’m going to try to find somebody to stay with,” she said.
Schneller tried to surf once, on a trip he was hoping to take from England to the Canary Islands. He found someone willing to host him, but was unable to make travel arrangements. He plans to be back in Los Angeles this summer and will have a car on campus for the first time, and wants to take the opportunity to visit areas all along the west coast.
This domestic traveling actually raises a question for him: “Is it okay to surf inside of your own country?” The European travelers he met while studying in England were all looking to experience different cultures in countries other than their own. “It’s rare for someone to want to stay in the same country, because pretty much everything is uniform,” he said. He’s not sure he’d feel comfortable Couch Surfing in the United States, but doesn’t rule it out: “maybe once I find out how expensive hotel rooms are I’ll feel differently.”
GARRISON HAS ALSO HAD the chance to host, with two girls from New Jersey who came for the Cherry Blossom festival. “One of the girls was a surfer and one was just her friend,” he explained. “She was just looking for someone in the D.C. area that looked liked they’d be a nice host.”
That process of looking for a host, Garrison said, is one of the things he said could use some improvement. In his opinion, the member profiles tend to blend together, with many people describing the similar values that led them to join CouchSurfing.com – love of travel and desire to experience other cultures, independence, open-mindedness, etc. “You end up reading the same thing,” he said. “It’s in everyone’s best interests to advertise more about themselves.”
Although the site lets users search for members using a handful of filters, including age, gender, language and location, McPhail doesn’t have many specifics when looking for a host: “Whoever looks friendly and shares the same interests as I have … [and] someone that’s passionate about their country.” He has picked well, because he has become friends with many of his hosts. He specifically mentioned a French couple who hosted him on a visit to Dominica’s neighbor island Martinique – “we still keep in touch, they just had a baby,” he said – and an American girl and her Guyanese boyfriend in Guyana.
As for Lutsky, he takes care when choosing people to contact as potential hosts. “I’ve had the highest percentage of acceptance – I get almost a 90 percent ‘yes, come stay with us,’” he said. “I usually write to people who don’t get written to, so most of the time I write to people they say, ‘oh, you’re my first one.’ I tend to seek out people who don’t get as much attention.”
Sweet and Doherty have no problems welcoming other surfers to their home. “We refuse to be nervous and afraid, you can just make yourself crazy,” Sweet said. She didn’t even hesitate when the first man showed up on her doorstep. “It just didn’t occur to me that I needed to be afraid of this person,” she said. “He came with his own breakfast cereal.”
She’s only had problems with one surfer, but it was more of a personality clash than anything else. The visiting man came off a little misogynistic to Sweet, but got along better with her husband.
Sweet says that for the most part, the online profile provides a good sense of the person who has filled it out. It helps her judge both the people with whom she would like to stay, and those she would like to host. She does occasionally turn down some requests. “Sometimes I get something from somebody and they haven’t filled out the whole profile and I don’t have a good sense of them, and I’ll just say no to them,” she explained. “I think if you find someone that’s sort of closed – they’re not good Couch Surfers.”
Garrison also recognizes that there is a certain type of person who will be interested in joining the Couch Surfing project. “It’s not for everybody, and there are people who just don’t have a comfort level for that type of experience,” he said. “The great part of it is, they don’t have to have anything to do with it. It’s for like-minded people who do feel that way, and do sort of get it, and want to help other people take advantage of it.”
As much as Couch Surfers have in common, Garrison said there is still a wide range of people signed up as members. He welcomes the “self-conscious split” he feels is happening on the site between surfers who are looking for a party-type experience and those who prefer a quieter time. On his way back to Vienna after his travels in Asia, he experienced both with back-to-back hosts in New Mexico and Arkansas. “One guy was going to take me out all night drinking and not let me pay for anything, we stumbled back to his apartment at 3 in the morning,” Garrison said, while he and the other host “exchanged maybe a total of 20 words of conversation with,” and they were asleep by 9:45 p.m.
WITH ALL OF the diverse experiences and range of people involved, the overwhelming response is that Couch Surfing has been a success. Most people had no hesitations in recommending the project.
“There’s no point in it being an exclusive club,” Zalk added. He did say that the references he uses as a tool to judge Couch Surfing members may be diluted with more members on the site. “The truth is, as more and more people join the system, it’s possible that references lose a little bit of their integrity,” with friends recommending each other without having stayed with them as surfers.
Garrison doesn’t want to come across as pushing the site, but does want to get more people involved. “It’s the kind of thing that I’m quick to mention,” he said. “If someone gets it and is interested, I’m definitely a proponent. I’ll help them set up a profile, help them get started.”
Schneller also wants more Couch Surfers. “I would encourage as many people as possible to sign up for it – the more people we have on the Web site, the better it works,” he said. “It’s a self-propagating thing.”
While Muchmore is open to more people joining CouchSurfing.com who are truly interested in traveling and hosting those travelers, he hopes it will stay focused. “The more it grows, the more people you have to go through who aren’t actually Couch Surfers,” he said. Although the site boasts large membership rolls, “the people who actually utilize it, and who are actually in the community, are significantly smaller,” he thinks. Bigger numbers are not what CouchSurfing.com needs, Muchmore said. “It’s more effective, kind of, at the level it is than growing into something like Facebook,” he said. “I just think it won’t be as effective if there are 7 million people.”