By Susan Donaldson James
Nancy Chuang was fresh out of graduate school last summer, tight on funds but ready for adventure. With her 50,000 frequent flyer miles, she spent seven weeks on a solo tour through the Middle East. In all that time, the 29-year-old Manhattan fashion designer never paid for a hotel room. Instead she relied on the hospitality of strangers.
Chuang found her overseas hosts—all male—by “couch surfing.” Visiting online bulletin boards and Web sites, she found free accommodations in private homes that ranged from her own room in a luxurious apartment in Luxor, Egypt, to a dirty sixth-floor walk-up in Istanbul, Turkey. Her Egyptian host behaved like a gentleman, picking her up at the bus station and giving her a guided tour of the city. A different host, however, followed her to her desert campsite in Jordan and made what she delicately termed “numerous awkward advances.”
But what had the potential for disaster turned out to be the vacation of a lifetime for Chuang. By staying in the homes of locals, she immersed herself in foreign cultures and gained a firsthand appreciation of the hospitality for which Middle Eastern families are known. “Ever since I’ve been home,” she said, “I have been dreaming about the next trip.”
Couch surfing, a travel phenomenon that is popular among young Europeans, is beginning to catch on in the United States, particularly among adventurers under 30. Travelers, or surfers, peruse the Internet for free lodging, often simply a couch. Most Web sites, including couchsurfing.com, can put surfers in touch with hosts who live within 200 miles of their destinations. Web sites allow surfers to post photos, interests and references. When a host responds with an invitation, the reservation is made.
“Young people are pushing the travel boundaries,” said Brice Gosnell, regional publisher of the “Americas for Lonely Planet”, a travel guide series. “Couch surfing is a great way to travel without being a tourist.”
The term was coined in “Couch Surfers,” a 1997 song about penniless freeloaders by the Canadian band Bran Van 3000. Today, couch surfing is increasingly popular among young travelers who embrace a philosophy that harkens back to their parents’ generation. As the Age of Aquarius meets the Age of the Internet, couch surfing goes beyond traveling on the cheap. Like Chuang, many surfers are eager to enter into the homes and lives of ordinary people and to form relationships with strangers from different cultures. And if they can change the image of Americans abroad, all the better.
That philosophy guides Casey Fenton, a 28-year-old activist and self-professed “son of hippies” who has surfed 40 couches worldwide. “Couch surfing is a social network for political change,” said Fenton, a computer programmer born in New Hampshire.
In 2004, Fenton founded couchsurfing.com with Dan Hoffer, a 27-year old business school candidate at Columbia. In a year, their Web site had registered about 30,000 surfers and hosts.
With Ivy League charm and retro sideburns, Hoffer has drank beer and played chess with an Indonesian farmer and danced aboard a cruise ship with Italian hosts. “Couch surfers are people who are willing to socialize with strangers, who have a fundamental faith in the goodness of humanity,” he said.
In the last year, Jim Stone, a 28-year-old Texan, has stayed on 90 couches in New Zealand, Europe and Australia. He is now surfing across the United States on a motorcycle, carrying a red blow-up couch. Nathalie Vielleux, 29, moved to Los Angeles to teach yoga after a monthlong couch surfing adventure from Montreal to California last March. “I was hosted like a queen,” she said.
One of her hosts, Alan Wilkes, 28, of Long Beach, Calif., learned Spanish in Madrid, attended a Woodstock-like meeting of surfers outside Paris and even met a Peruvian woman who is now his girlfriend—all through couch surfing. “It has transformed my life,” Wilkes said.
Hitchhiking for hospitality can be risky. But devotees argue that the rewards of cross-cultural understanding outweigh the occasional stolen iPod, hosts who can be grabby or worse. On her tour of the Middle East, Chuang asked for referrals from surfers who had previously stayed with her hosts, and kept on guard against “shady” offers. Always have a back-up emergency plan, Chuang and other veteran surfers advise, and give friends or relatives contact numbers.
“Like any type of travel, anything can happen,” said “Lonely Planet”’s Gosnell. “The key is to use common sense.”
Many Americans still prefer a safe tour of Paris to a solo trek through Nicaragua. But by breaking free of their hotels, “travelers can be diplomats,” Gosnell said. “It really helps with that global perspective to share with the world who Americans are—that they’re not out to make war with everybody.”
Mutual respect is key to successful couch surfing, Hoffer said. He recently was the host for French surfers who brought him a bottle of sesame oil as a gift. As a surfer, “It’s great if you can give something back,” he said. “Wash the dishes, do yard work, take (hosts) out to dinner, if you have the money.”
Kelly Helgans, 35, a San Francisco saleswoman for Sprint, had to impose a few rules on one couch surfer who overstayed his welcome. “When you’re part of a household, you need to be contributing,” she said. “You want to sit and watch TV, and there’s someone on the couch. They say they’re staying two weeks and it turns into a month.”
Chris Linton, 25, of Salt Lake City, keeps most of his possessions stuffed in a duffel bag in a locker while he surfs from one New York City couch to the next. “You have to be entertaining, because you’re living in the most social room in the house,” said Linton, a snowboarder who observes strict couch surfing etiquette. “I am a fly on the wall. I go to bed after everyone else, and I am cleaned up before they get up. I don’t want them to say, ‘It’s time to get rid of Chris.’”