Social network CouchSurfing.com puts travelers or “surfers” in contact with willing hosts all over the globe. According to a spokesman, the site that launched in 2004 will register its two millionth user this month.
Andrew Polley had Westminster Abbey all to himself at morning’s dawn. Moses Allen stayed at an apartment so close to St. Peter’s Basilica that he could wander the Vatican before the flood of tourists.
For Polley, there were four-hour meals with friends in Portugal, spiced up with political talk. For Allen, there was an up-close tour of Stonehenge — so close he could touch the famed monument —and reading Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” while sitting in the ruins of the Colosseum.
Membership has its privileges — only in this case, Polley and Allen, both from Springfield, Ill., belong to the social network CouchSurfing.com, which puts travelers or “surfers” in contact with willing hosts all over the globe.
According to a spokesman, the site that launched in 2004 will register its two millionth user this month.
The premise is sort of “have couch, will travel.” Prospective surfers and hosts — you can do one or the other or both — post profiles about themselves. Would-be travelers traipsing around London or Paris or Route 66 can request stays for a night or a week, circumventing hotel or motel stays for a home-cooked meal or a pub crawl with newly made friends.
There are vouching and verification safety nets in place to ward off potential uneasiness. Users offer reviews for other would-be surfers to peruse.
Those who are part of the CouchSurfing phenomenon say it changes the way they look at travel.
“You’re no longer just passing through as a tourist,” says Polley, who spent all but two nights of a three-month tour of Europe in 2007 on strangers’ couches. “You’re part of that culture.”
“CouchSurfing is an authentic community,” adds Allen, who traveled in Europe in 2008. “It encourages people to leave their computer chairs and go out into the real world to live life to the fullest.”
‘A network of trust’
Polley heard about CouchSurfing from a friend. After setting up a profile and e-mailing his first host in Dublin, Polley said he grew nervous about whether contacts would respond or actually show up at appointed meeting places.
Every host, Polley says, followed through. One in Scotland gave Polley the secret hiding spot for his house key.
“You’re putting your trust in a digital profile,” says Polley, 27, a pilot for Air America, a contract company for Pictometry International. “I’m OK with that. I believe you can get a good feeling (from that.) It’s like getting a tenant in your house.”
“If you’re going to a church for a first time,” adds Allen, 26, a legal assistant for the Springfield law firm LaBarre, Young & Behnke, “you’re a stranger, but you’re more prone to trust (people there.) The same with the CouchSurfing community. It’s a network of trust because they’re vouching for (each other.)”
Despite glowing recommendations from travelers such as Polley and Allen, there is still wariness about CouchSurfing, particularly regarding safety issues.
“People think it’s like bumming,” Allen admits.
“I could bounce from couch to couch,” Polley says. “But it’s one of those systems that you take what you can. You don’t abuse it.”
Finances entered into the equation for Polley, who figures he saved about $4,000 — CouchSurfing hosts aren’t allowed to charge — on lodging costs alone during his European trip.
The method of travel may cut costs, says communications specialist Cesar Valentim, but hosts — most surfers reciprocate — spend more money.
CouchSurfers, says the Lisbon-based Valentim, need to have open minds about the experiences. But even he admits the concept isn’t for everyone.
“If everyone was willing to open their house, it would be easy,” says Valentim, who has hosted some 600 CouchSurfers over the past five years. “It’s for people who share the same principles, who are interested in meeting people and understanding cultural differences.
“It’s about creating good experiences.”
Polley’s experience in Europe led his parents to open their Springfield home to about 20 CouchSurfers — caddies from the LPGA State Farm Classic, Route 66 enthusiasts and empty nesters among them — over the past two years.
Rick Polley, manager of field services for the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives, admits the notion ran against his “this-is-my-castle-and-I-own-it” philosophy. Now the couple gets reviews like “best homemade tomato juice” and “just like going to mom and dad’s.”
“You’d like them to go away feeling welcomed here,” says Janet Polley, a secretary for State Farm.
Steve Gifford of Springfield has also hosted a number of surfers and is active with a Central Illinois group of about 35 CouchSurfers.
Hosting has given Gifford, 28, a park guide for the National Park Service at the Lincoln Home, a chance to show off his adopted hometown. CouchSurfers here have wolfed down Cozy Dogs at the Cozy Dog Drive In.
A Dutch CouchSurfer, Gifford remembers, had to politely tell people running a Dutch food booth at the Illinois State Fair that his country’s flag was being flown upside down.
“He took it OK. He just asked the woman behind the counter if he could have a word with her,” Gifford recalls.
Polley says his experiences are proof that offering your couch to a virtual stranger “isn’t so out of the ordinary.”
A few weeks ago, Polley opted to CouchSurf during a quick weekend trip to Kansas City. His hosts took him to a Kansas City Royals baseball game and out to eat afterward to celebrate a family member’s birthday.
“I’ve had trips catered around me, meals made for me,” Polley says. “People love to share their lives and host. It shows people are capable of pure generosity.”
Right frame of mind
As a student at North Park College, Allen traveled to Armenia and Zambia on mission trips. Out of school, Allen again got the jones to travel, but was looking for something more than the youth hostel experience prevalent in Europe.
“Every time I went to a foreign country, I always had friends there (through CouchSurfing),” he says.
Allen’s best advice regarding CouchSurfing? Approach it with the right frame of mind and avoid lofty expectations.
“You have to let yourself go,” he says. “If you’re not open to meeting new people, if you don’t take chances in trusting others, you’re not going to get far. If you’re not looking for the good in people, you’re never going to find it.
“But when you’re within that group of people with like minds, that’s where the fun begins.”
“I’m always excited going into (a trip),” Polley adds. “It’s like two people’s lives coming together.
“And it beats the monotony of four walls and a TV.”
Steven Spearie can be reached at email@example.com.
Founded: 2004, by American Casey Fenton
Number of CouchSurfers: Expected to hit the 2 million mark this month
Countries represented: 235
Average age of CouchSurfer: 28