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.
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.
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.