Travel accommodations are free in this program
By DAVID BEAR
Does the high cost of hotel rooms keep you from traveling? Would you like a place to stay for free? If so, the CouchSurfing Project may be for you.
For years, mostly younger travelers have been crashing on a couch or in a spare bedroom of people they either already know or met along the way, the accommodations equivalent of hitchhiking.
But now the idea has gone high-tech. Casey Fenton, a 29-year-old computer programmer, has transformed the idea into a Web community.
In 2003, contemplating a trip to Iceland but not wanting to pay for a hotel on the expensive island, Fenton e-mailed 1,500 students at the University of Iceland, asking if anyone had a place he could crash. Within 24 hours, he had more than 100 offers.
That experience and several others went so well that Fenton and three friends established www.couchsurfing.com, a social networking site along the lines of MySpace and Facebook but dedicated to creating connections between people looking for places to stay and locals willing to offer a free bed, a couch or a place to pitch a tent.
More than simply providing a place for people to crash, The CouchSurfing Project has adopted a mission: "To internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance and facilitate cultural understanding."
The site's membership has tripled each of the past three years. Nearly 350,000 people have joined, representing 223 countries and more than 31,000 cities and towns throughout the world.
Pittsburgh's couch surfing community numbers about 120, the majority of whom are willing to greet guests with a place to stay and an introduction to their city, serving as sort of goodwill ambassadors. Collectively, they claim to be able to accommodate as many as 100 visitors.
Recently the group held its first regional "meet-up," which attracted 35 locals and visitors from as far as Ontario, Canada, and Albany, N.Y.
Kelly Ryan, a graphic designer, helped organize the event. Since taking up couch surfing two years ago, the ebullient 29-year-old has traveled through Iceland, Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, Puerto Rico and the United States.
"My first trip was pretty much a life-changing experience," she said. "The level of mutual trust was amazing. Meeting so many great people and being open with them made me re-evaluate what I thought was normal."
Although membership in the CouchSurfing Project is free, there is a three-step verification process that tries to ensure applicants are who they claim to be.
It starts with a system to check the accuracy of the applicant's home address. The second step is an optional $25 payment submitted through an applicant's credit card. That transaction both locks in his or her profile (essentially piggy-backing on the credit company's security) and helps to offset application costs for the nonprofit organization.
Finally, registered members are able to vouch for others they have met and welcomed into the couchsurfing community, providing a portrait of what sort of guest or host the individual might be.
Surfers can search the list and request accommodation at a particular destination, but the final arrangements are always mutually consensual. The length of stay, usually a few nights, is worked out in advance. The accommodations are expected to be for free, although the surfer may compensate the host for food or other expenses. While couch surfers tend to be on the young side, plenty of boomers and seniors are also involved, particularly as hosts.