Let's get this out of the way up front: Couchsurfing.org is not a scheme that allows you to "see the world for free."
Although it is a worldwide community of more than 6 million people in 100,000 cities who will open their homes to guests at no charge, Couchsurfing aims to bring like-minded, travel-obsessed people together for the sheer good of it—the cultural exchange, the personal connection. And one of the benefits is that you can obtain insider, locals-only travel advice before you leave home, and a comfortable place to sleep free of charge when you get to your destination.
I was skeptical. Though I'm not averse to sleeping on a couch—or even a floor—when duty calls, at heart I'm more of a comfy hotel bed kind of guy. Also, I seem to be hard-wired to fret about safety. (Family lore holds that one of my ancestors almost bought a ticket on Titanic but at the last minute was warned against sailing on a maiden voyage—that kind of epic save is tough to shake off.)
But Couchsurfing is not some fly-by-night fad. Founded in 2004, the company has successfully paired so many travelers with hosts around the world that at this point it's not even surprising to see Seth Kugal, the New York Times's Frugal Traveler columnist, mention it as a smart choice from time to time. As for safety, Couchsurfing requires members to register via detailed online profiles, and urges users to make contact early, get to know potential guests and/or hosts, and to report complaints. And some users simply rely on Couchsurfing as a source of travel advice, never actually meeting the people with whom they correspond.
Curious, I decided to grill a veteran. Kathryn Cooper, a New York City-based writer/photographer, has been using Couchsurfing for four years now and has a travel resume that would be the envy of any BT reader (or editor, for that matter). Here, Cooper's candid answers to my (and, I hope, your) top questions:
How did you get into Couchsurfing? "I was hanging out with a well-traveled friend in Brooklyn. He had maps all over his apartment and entertained me with his exotic travel stories. He introduced me to a group of Couchsurfers visiting from Europe and I suddenly "got" the whole idea: It's not just a way to travel for less, but to actually get a real feel for local people and places. And I could show people my city and my favorite hidden sections."
What was your best-ever Couchsurfing experience? "From learning to surf in California to hiking with wild elephants in India, I've had quite a few incredible Couchsurfing experiences. My most amazing, however has to be my trip last year through Nepal: a 15-day adventure that included motorcycle trips, visits to Tibetan refugee camps, and a hike up into the Himalayas where we met locals, heard their stories, and hiked up steep inclines with quite a few cows!"
What was your worst? "My brother and I were staying with a host down South who came back home in the middle of the night with a black eye and several cuts on his face—and a number of additional house guests. The next morning, he didn't even remember what had happened. We never felt in danger, but it was definitely my least favorite Couchsurfing experience."
Any advice for a Budget Travel reader who wants to give Couchsurfing a try? "My first piece of advice: Be open. Open to new experiences, new types of people, and more. I can truly say it's changed my life, the way I travel, the way I learn about a country. If all you want is a free bed, don't bother. And when people are skeptical, I don't mind at all: We're a wonderful community, but not everyone will approve of the idea. It involves quite a high degree of trust. If you do visit Couchsurfing.org and decide to join, fill out your profile completely—including likes, dislikes, pet peeves, and hobbies. It's a way for those you contact to really find out who you are."