Our friend, Mac S., won a fellowship to do research which required him to travel ‘around the world in eighty days’.  He quickly realized that after paying for transportation and food, he had almost nothing left.  B & B’s can be expensive.  He found a solution – Couch Surfing.The Couch Surfing Project was founded in 2003 in San Francisco.  It calls itself the largest “Hospitality Exchange Network” with 1.6 million members.  It is a new phenomenon in travel.  The idea is reciprocity. ‘You can sleep in my guest room (or on my couch), if I can sleep in yours some day.’  Every member can go online, see all the accommodation being offered, and ask to be a guest – or offer to host.  Instead of reciprocating with an individual, you reciprocate with the community at large.I know what you are thinking… “What if the bed is awful?  What if the host is scary? What if they have pet snakes?  What if the ‘surfer’ is inconsiderate in my home?  The Couch Surfing Project has thought of that.Every time a couch surfer spends a night, both the host and the surfer go on line and fill out an evaluation form.  If a surfer is a mess, or loud, or inconsiderate – the next potential host will see the record and refuse that surfer a bed.  If the host gets a low rating, future surfers will avoid his ‘couch’.  This works like an online Zagat’s for free accommodation.In addition to stretching his budget, our friend Mac found that Couch Surfing connected him to local people in each city he visited.  He became a traveler not just a tourist.  He found that in many cities, couch surfers gather with hosts in pre-arranged gatherings – maybe for a beer or a sporting event.  If either the host or the surfer does not like the other on first meeting, there is no harm.  There is always a B&B.  This never happened to Mac, though he always kept a booking in town for the first night… just in case.  He has made friends from Budapest through Egypt and all over India by couch surfing.  He has hosted other surfers in a bed in his dorm at university.CouchSurfing creates a social network for travelers, making foreign places much less intimidating and infinitely more personal than if a traveler just reads a guidebook.How to Couch Surf. First you register, it is free.  As a show of your commitment to the community, you can donate 25 dollars (they use a sliding scale based on per capita GDP for how much a citizen of each country should donate) to be “validated” but this is optional.  You share as much personal information as you want.  You are invited to send a photo.  This is optional.  If you know a couch surfer, you can ask for a referral.  If you prefer just to dip your toe in to the community, you can set your preferences to “meet for coffee or a drink” and then move up to full-blown hosting.  Then you go to the site and click on Surf or Host.  Ideally, you will be both a surfer and a host over time.  Take a look at CouchSurfing at: http://www.couchsurfing.org/Couch Surfing is not going to be for everyone and even for seasoned surfers, some stays are better than others.  Hosts would say some surfers are better than others.  Call me risk averse, but I think that women should consider staying with female hosts, or traveling with a friend.  Still, if a host has gotten great reviews from the last fifteen surfers, you are probably very safe.

The majority of participants are 20-something, but Mac encountered people from all walks of life.  Families host travelers in Egypt, a businessman gave him a tour in India, and an Irishman lent him a free bike to see Budapest.  He had dinner with a management consultant who was in Bangalore to see a client but wanted to meet some new people through ‘surfing’.

Here is the CouchSurfing mission (according to Wikipedia): “CouchSurfing seeks to internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance and facilitate cultural understanding. As a community we strive to do our individual and collective parts to create a better world, and we believe that the surfing of couches is a means to accomplish this goal. CouchSurfing is not about the furniture, not just about finding free accommodations around the world; it’s about making connections worldwide. We make the world a better place by opening our homes, our hearts, and our lives. We open our minds and welcome the knowledge that cultural exchange makes available. We create deep and meaningful connections that cross oceans, continents and cultures.

CouchSurfing wants to change not only the way we travel, but how we relate to the world!”