A few weeks ago, a female friend of mine traveled abroad to Europe for the first time. She went with just one other friend (also a girl), and they backpacked their way through Germany, Spain, and Italy. While planning the trip, she was understandably a tad nervous about where to stay, how to get around, general safety, and what have you. Since I have been abroad several times and lived in Ireland for five months, she turned to me for advice. We spent a lot of time talking Europe, and I even sent her a four page email that she lovingly referred to as a "manual" (I'm pretty sure she even took it over there with her). What can I say, I love to talk about traveling. Helping her plan her trip was part of what inspired me to start this blog. But I digress.
I knew going into the planning process that I was a much more high maintenance traveler than she would be. While I did stay in hostels and take the train, I was certainly no stranger to hotels and airplanes either. I like to save my pennies, but I think when you travel you need to embrace that you're there for an experience, so it's worth it to spend a bit more on a plane ticket if it's going to get you more time to explore, and hotels can offer more peace of mind over a hostel. I explained all this to her, but I knew she would be extremely budget conscience and probably skip the finer things anyway.
What I was not expecting, though, was for her to tell me she and her friend would be staying with random strangers. I assumed when she said "Oh, we're not staying in a hostel, we're staying with Joe Shmoe," that Joe was a friend of her travel companion. Maybe an old college buddy. Maybe a distant cousin. But no. Instead, Joe was some kid they found on the Internet. The Internet! Major red flags popped up. I've seen Taken. I know the drill.
Now, to be fair to my friend, she is extremely smart and resourceful. I trust her to research everything thoroughly and make good choices. However, she's a bit of a daredevil, and with that, she's far more trusting than I am. I'm deeply cynical by nature, so my first instinct is to assume anyone you meet online must be a crazy predator - especially someone of the opposite gender who's offering to let you sleep on his couch (tell me that's not good self-preservation). Therefore, I did take the protective friend approach and drill her about where exactly on the Internet she found her hosts and how she knew they weren't going to murder her while she slept.
My friend exposed me to the site CouchSurfing.org, which I have to admit, sounded completely shady to me. Surely this had to be just one step up from Craigslist, right? Heck, it's probably worse because they cut out all the crap for sale and get straight to the sketchy people offering their gross couches as a place to rest your head. So imagine my surprise when I visited the site and found that it's a fully functional organization. It's even been featured in the New York Times, CNN, the BBC, and TIME. What the? It almost concerns me more that major publications endorse this crime-ring masquerading as a legitimate method of travel.
With couch-surfing, people can advertise their homes and offer travelers a place to stay. Likewise, travelers can find free beds for the night. This process comes with a lot of trust on both sides, though. Hosts must feel comfortable letting complete strangers sleep under their roofs, and travelers must feel comfortable entering a home without knowing the person who lives there. To me, there are just too many opportunities for things to go wrong. Perhaps it's because I'm a girl, but I can't help but think what a pickle you'd be in if the person you hooked-up with didn't turn out to be who you thought. You've either shown them into your home, so good luck getting rid of them, or you're stuck in a place you don't want to be. Scary!
If you're more open-minded than I am, though, you may be able to see why this is actually becoming a really trendy and accepted way to travel. Now that we're in the age of social media, connecting with people all over the world is fast and easy. Divisions and barriers are breaking down as we all connect through the digital landscape. CouchSurfing.org is just another way to forge those connections - using the digital world as a means to translate interaction into the real world. Great travelers always say the best way to experience a land and a culture is by getting to know the locals, and couch-surfing certainly helps you do that. You're staying with a local, so assuming you find a good one, you've gotten yourself a guide and translator. It definitely makes for a more interesting stay than just retiring to a standard hotel room every night.
So here's an example of where first impressions can be wrong. I explored CouchSurfing.org - at least, I explored the site as far as I could without creating an account, so 1 point for security - and found that it was not as shady and doom-filled as I assumed. While participants don't have to undergo an in-depth background check or disclose their wrap sheet, there is a system of references and identity verification. At the very least, they ensure Joe Shmoe has provided his real name and address, and hopefully other people who have stayed with him (and survived to tell the tale) have written references about what a great host he was.
Getting back to my friend, she has since returned from Europe and therefore will not be starring in Taken 2: Couch-Surfing Gone Bad (phew!). In fact, she really enjoyed the experience. She got a free place to stay and a guide to show her some of the sights. I myself could still never be comfortable with this arrangement, but I'm glad she was able to get something out of it. If you're up for an added piece of adventure on your next trip - and unlike me you have faith in humanity - perhaps it's something to look into. It's the new hot trend in travel, but I'll still be the dork in the hotel.