Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Today's thrifty globe-trotters are choosing to crash on a stranger's couch instead of paying for a hotel

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When Steve Currie set off on a six-month global trek last year, he had neither the funds to sleep in hotels nor a desire to follow the beaten path to all the tourist traps.

Fortunately for the 24-year-old Winnipegger, social media has also hit the road.

Thanks to social travel websites like CouchSurfing.org, it's never been easier for budget-conscious travellers to satisfy their wanderlust and "do as the Romans do" without worrying where they're going to lay their head at night.

Rather than hotels, hostels, campgrounds and apartment swaps, they sleep on each other's couches.

Think Facebook meets Lonely Planet meets Meetup.com.

"The great thing about couchsurfing is you're meeting locals and not getting into the whole tourist world," says Currie, who travelled solo to Morocco, Spain, France, Italy, the Balkans, Greece and Turkey.

 

Here's how it works: Let's say you plan on travelling around Europe for two weeks. Simply log on to CouchSurfing.org and search for members in the cities on your itinerary. Contact a few interesting prospects, outlining your travel plans. Once your couch request is accepted, you and your prospective hosts can make arrangements online.

With a user base of more than four million people in 87,000 cities, there's bound to be someone with a place for you to crash.

That's what Chris Riofta, 30, was counting on when he posted a request ("Aloha! Last minute couch?") on the website's Winnipeg message board from the road in North Dakota last Thursday. And it worked.

In fact, since leaving home last October, the native of Kauai, Hawaii, has trekked across North America, mostly by bus and ride shares, and only had to sleep in a hostel five nights.

His original plan was a three-week trip to Bahrain to visit a friend, stopping in Washington, D.C., on the way home to visit another, but he was bitten by the travel bug along the way.

"I've just been going where the road takes me," says Riofta, who works as a tour operator back in Hawaii. To supplement his travel budget on the road, he also does voice-overs for a Kauai radio station using a USB microphone and his laptop.

But couchsurfing "has been the reason I've been able to travel this long," he says, sitting in an Osborne Village cafe wearing his CouchSurfing.org hoodie and trying to navigate the Winnipeg Transit website. (His emergency couch request landed him in St. Norbert.)

"I like hostels, too, but I really like couchsurfing because I want to see what kind of a lifestyle people have in their hometown, what they do for fun."

Michele Maettig, 23, who is from Hanover, Germany, and has been couchsurfing her way across Canada for the past six months, including four nights in Winnipeg recently, agrees: "I can get to know a city much better just being with the locals because travel isn't just about the places, but also the people you meet. And couchsurfing really supports that."

Couchsurfing.org launched in January of 2003 as a non-profit website to connect global travellers with locals free of charge. It was started by three friends, including New Hampshire native Casey Fenton, who got the idea when he bought a cheap airline ticket for a long-weekend trip to Iceland. While searching for cheap accommodations, he decided to send out emails to about 1,500 students in the capital city of Reykjavik, asking if one of them had a couch he could crash on. Within 24 hours, he'd received dozens of responses.

Apparently couchsurfers often get more (or less) than a couch. (A Mongolian farmer has reportedly hosted more than 100 surfers in his yurt.)

About a third of Currie's hosts put him up in a spare bedroom. Some, such as the 26-year-old Albanian banker, were "extremely dedicated" to the couchsurfing cause.

"He was taking in three or four couchsurfers at a time, so he had a miniature hostel going on, really, and would even make us meals," Currie recalls. "He just seemed to genuinely love hospitality."

In Madrid, Currie's host not only laid out a breakfast each morning, the 60-ish gent would also wait up, with a cup of tea, for him to return from sightseeing at night, worried that he didn't know his way around the city.

One of Currie's female friends did accept a couchsurfing offer where it turned out the host was a man offering up his bed -- with him in it.

The website does offer some safeguards to protect its members: Users post profiles on the site; every user is linked to other users in the system through a network of friend links, references and vouching; and they can vouch for each other and leave references for someone they've either stayed with or hosted, similar to eBay's rating system. (There was a recent post on the Winnipeg board titled "Be wary of this individual.")

In the couchsurfing community, hosting and surfing are deemed to be of equal value because both are necessary for "cultural exchange." So you don't have to do one in order to qualify for the other. Hosts are also prohibited from charging surfers, although the latter often show their appreciation through token gifts or a meal at a restaurant.

Gord Hoffman, a 44-year-old corrections officer, has opened his suburban Winnipeg home to couchsurfers half a dozen times, but has never surfed himself.

"I did quite a bit of travelling and backpacking in my younger days and I understand youth trying to travel cheaply," says Hoffman, adding he may consider using the service when he heads to Minneapolis for a cycling vacation this summer.

According to the website, CouchSurfing.org has facilitated some 4.3 million successful connections -- which may or may not have involved any couch sharing.

"My status for years was 'coffee or a drink,'" says Paul Friesen, a 29-year-old Winnipegger who couchsurfed for 46 days in Germany last year. He has since hosted three Germans here.

You don't necessarily have to couch surf or host to be part of the growing couchsurfing community, says the activities facilitator for the Pembina Trails School Division's international student program. Members can organize events in their hometowns to meet other local couchsurfers or to offer visiting surfers insider info about the best restaurants, bars and sight-seeing spots.

"There were a couple of times on my trip last summer when I didn't find someone to stay with but I still found someone just to meet with me or show me around."

Friesen is currently trying to start a Winnipeg Couchsurfers Book Club. (The first meeting was April 22.)

Maettig, meanwhile, says she looks forward to someday maybe offering her couch to a Canadian surfing in Germany.

"I can't wait. I would definitely like to give back all the friendliness I experienced to other travellers."

For more information, to www.couchsurfing.org.

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 5, 2012 E1

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