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Around the world on 80 couches

Budget travelers make friends and save money by couch surfing.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 8, 2008



Los Angeles

When San Francisco Bay-area writer Kristin Luna wanted to tour Iceland, she was concerned about the high cost of food, lodging, and gas. So, like most of her 20-something cohorts, she turned to the Internet.

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But she didn't just look for any ordinary "budget" tips. Instead she went to the Couch Surfing Project (www.couchsurfing.com), a social networking travel site that connects empty couches with intrepid travelers from all over the world.

Ms. Luna quickly found a friendly Australian who happened to be staying in Iceland and who – more important – had space in his house, auto, and heart for a fellow globetrotter with limited means but a desire to make a new friend and learn about a different culture.

Anthropology graduate student Mauricio Hernandez followed a similar route when he went to Beijing this past year, snagging a soft spot in the front room of a French cultural worker named Emilie. She was willing not just to open her small apartment to a total stranger, but to escort him around the capital city's hutongs (narrow streets or alleys), show him the best restaurants in town, and invite him to return.

While the cultural exchange that enlivens the world of couch surfing is as old as human wanderlust, the phenomenon itself has moved into the 21st century with a formal movement with a website, a mission statement, precautions, and sophisticated referral and vetting procedures to protect the safety and good intentions of both hosts and travelers.

In short, says futurist and social analyst Marian Salzman, it is the universe of social networking itself, simply pushed into the real world.

"It's a new kind of social," says Ms. Salzman. Younger travelers "want to see the world in the way they live now, which is totally connected, with hundreds of casual friends."

It's a powerful, word-of-mouth way to make connections with people all over the world, says Cameron Siewert, content manager for the online travel site, IgoUgo.com. And it makes travel accessible in a way it hasn't been before.

Adventurous types have always relied on the sofas of strangers, she adds, but now, "the serendipity of this kind of spontaneous contact can actually be done ahead of time."

For the uninitiated, this headlong embrace of the unknown seems as though it would be rife with problems, most prominently safety concerns. And certainly there are cautionary tales: The American college student who couch surfed with a website member in Italy and was sexually attacked, not to mention the Norwegian travel mooch who couldn't seem to find another place to go after he landed on the divan of a student at the University of California at Berkeley.

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