An inventive alternative for university students with a panache for travel but limited finances, the online organization Couchsurfing enables members to crash with local hosts all over the globe at no charge.
The idea of a worldwide network allowing for not only a cheaper mode of travel, but also the formation of international friendships and exchange of cultures was conceptualized by founder Casey Fenton in 1999 and brought to fruition five years later. Since then, Couchsurfing's popularity has swelled to a membership of 6 million as of March 2013, with hosts in over 100,000 cities ranging from Budapest to Moscow to Rio de Janeiro.
Rachel Flannery, senior in art history, said she was slow to accept Couchsurfing as a reality.
"I was skeptical at first about the legitimacy of a program like this," Flannery said. "Being able to stay on a Parisian's couch for free sounded too good to be true. When my friend first told me about it and that she wanted us to try it, I said I wasn't looking to get murdered on some random psychopath's couch."
After doing some research herself on the organization's website however, Flannery said she felt reassured enough to give it a try last summer.
"We ended up connecting with a host in Paris, Anton, who had space to take both my friend and I in," she said. "He had pictures and a lot of positive reviews from Couchsurfers who had stayed with him previously. That and the fact that we got to talk to him prior to solidifying anything made me feel comfortable."
After having cemented dates to stay with Anton at his flat in the Marais quarter of Paris, plane tickets were purchased and Flannery and her friend were off.
"We stayed with Anton for a week and a half and had the absolute time of our lives," said Flannery, who has plans to couch surf again in Berlin this winter break. "Being able to stay with a local and have their insight and perspective completely revolutionized our whole travel experience. He took us out to his favorite restaurants and nightspots and we got to meet his friends, who were from all over the world themselves."
Being given an insider's look at one of the world's most beloved cities made all the difference, Flannery said, and convinced her that Couchsurfing is "the only way to travel."
"I've stayed at so many Marriott's and Hilton's, I've lost count," Flannery said. "They're all so uniform and monotonous and add nothing to your travel experience. Plus, when staying at hotels, you can be kind of forced to go through the tourist checklist of destinations, since you have no idea where else to go.
"Staying with a local allowed me to go places and learn things about Paris I would've never known of otherwise. I felt like I was able to truly immerse myself in the authentic culture."
Although monetary reimbursement is in no way expected for the use of a host's couch, proper surfer etiquette does encourage members to reciprocate by bringing a gift, cooking a meal or teaching a skill to their host. This is intended to contribute toward the cultivation of "sharing revolution," according to the Couchsurfing website, where there will be "a world made richer by travel, and travel richer by connection."
Part of this "sharing" culture includes the idea that, although not mandatory, couch surfers will facilitate by opening their couches to other travelers passing through their hometowns and become hosts as well. This process has the potential to be a rewarding experience in and of itself, according to Dan Hood, junior in printmaking.
"I've hosted people from all over the world," Hood said. "Brazil, Spain, Australia, parts of the U.S. I think a Canadian as well. I really like this program because of the experiences that you gain with people from all over the world."
Hosting people from different countries allows one to bring a little multicultural knowledge and understanding right into their Knoxville living room, Hood said.
"Sitting down with people from different backgrounds and experiences and getting to know each other and hear about their travels is inspiring and really cool," Hood said. "Get out there and experience the world."