Around the world on 80 couches
Budget travelers make friends and save money by couch surfing.
(Page 2 of 2)
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Beth Whitman, an experienced traveler and author of "Wanderlust and Lipstick: the Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo," recalls a woman who offered her a couch, but with whom she kept missing contact.
Ms. Whitman took the initiative and went to the address, "but found a dark trailer that just had a creepy vibe." She made other plans. When the woman finally surfaced, she was angry and demanding, accusing Whitman of bad faith.
But those stories are the exception, says Crystal Murphy, a volunteer who handles public relations for the Couch Surfing Project.
The five-year-old website is currently celebrating "its millionth positive recommendation," a reference to the peer reviews that members are supposed to write of their experiences of both surfing and hosting surfers.
The average member age is 26, although it ranges as high as 72, and surfers must be 18 to join.
While other clubs such as the Hospitality Club (www.hospitalityclub.org) offer similar global connections, "we're the ones with a mission to 'change the world one couch at a time,' " says Ms. Murphy with a laugh.
"The lack of a formal institution to screen and stand behind all the parties involved is a real drawback," says Adam Healey, CEO of VibeAgent (www.vibeagent.com), a travel site, about the pitfalls of couch surfing. Despite the peer reviews, "someone has to be the first one, and how do you know about them?"
Experience has also shown that the peer review system has its own limitations. There are examples of both surfers and hosts who, for fear of retaliation, were reluctant to submit negative stories after bad experiences, says Luna, the writer. "They don't want to worry about the trouble those reviews can cause."
The online reviews have subtleties, as well, she adds, so it helps to read them closely. "If a person's profile has no reviews and yet you know they've been surfing, then the absence of good reviews speaks pretty loudly."
Most seasoned couch surfers have a personal list of do's and don'ts. Ask a lot of questions, says Dawn Sebock of southern California, who has opened her home to couch surfers for the past year and a half. She says she serves as a host "to introduce people to our way of life and travel without leaving home."
Luna and Whitman both recommend screening potential surfers or hosts by meeting before committing, so there is room to back out, if necessary.
In the end, says Murphy, couch surfing is not as much about precautions and saving money as it is about expanding your worldview and sharing yourself with others.