By Sarah Cuiksa
Posted Mar. 29, 2010 5:00 PM
Traveling to another city or country, sleeping on a stranger's couch, and then getting to know them as well as some of your best friends may not seem like your run-of-the-mill travel experience. But for some, it is. In fact, it can become a lifestyle.
It's called "Couchsurfing," and is based off a web site of the same name. Members post profiles about themselves, detailing their personality and the exact accommodations they can offer and for how long.
You can search for and browse those people in a city you'll visit with available couches. Couchsurfers contact them and arrange dates. Expect to be greeted with open arms.
It's a concept that seems akin to extreme risk taking. Truthfully, it is.
"If you're not open to an experience it does sound kind of sketchy," said Kevin Eleazer, a couchsurfer and host.
But Couchsurfing.com verifies identities. Members can donate to the non-profit site and have their credit card information checked and proved.
References also play a large part in keeping members safe. After every couchsurfing experience—whether you are "hosting" or "surfing"—you're required to leave a detailed positive or negative reference, which appears on the member's page so future surfers can see it.
A quick browse through couchsurfer pages shows few, if any, negative references. The site touts itself as not just another Myspace or Facebook—it's a community of people trying to build meaningful relationships across communities, "one couch at a time."
Couchsurfing Across California
Yaki Cahoon, 31, couchsurfed at least once a month when she lived in California. She spent weekends riding her motorcycle up and down the coast, spending nights at Couchsurfing hosts' houses "just because they seemed cool."
"I've met a lot of crazy people and a lot of boring people, it was great. I've actually made a ton of friends that way, friendships I'll keep forever," Yaki said. "It's a social circle. It's a chance to meet people."
Yaki is now an administrative assistant at the University of South Carolina, but has spent years abroad, volunteering and teaching in Thailand and South Africa. Now that she has settled in Columbia, she's hoping to host as often as she's surfed.
Yaki believes the benefits of couchsurfing are more than just a cheap place to stay.
"If you have someone staying in your house for one night, my goal is to get to know them as well as I've known someone for one year," she says. "I want to know that person, who they are, how they think, because there's something in that person's soul that I can learn from."
Rugby and Ultrasounds
Mike Matese coaches women's rugby at USC, and plays on the city's men's league. In his day job, he handles ultrasonography at Palmetto Baptist Hospital. Matese has been couchsurfing for over a year, and considers it an experience everyone should try.
"My definition of couchsurfing... it's meeting people, getting to know different walks of life," Matese said. "I think if everyone couchsurfed the world would be a better place."
Matese isn't too worried about safety.
"You want to break into my house and steal my TV, go ahead," he said. "I'm not worried about stuff like that. I haven't had any bad experiences."
Matese has hosted many times, and explains that everyone he has met has left an impact on him.
"I had a fellow who was riding his bicycle from Ohio to South Carolina and he had been on the road for about eight months. He had called me from right outside here and he had rode in from Hilton Head. He stayed with me for about five days."
College…the Second Time Around
Kevin Eleazer, 25, graduated from USC with an English degree. He's now back at USC in the nursing program. After working several different jobs after college, he realized his best bet was a job that could guarantee employment. For Eleazer, career changes and couchsurfing go hand in hand.
"I like to jump into a new experience and not feel the ground beneath me," he says.
Eleazer has had his fair share of memorable couchsurfing experiences.
"The other guy I've hosted most recently was hopping trains across SC, which he did every year for three months. He just quit working and hops trains and couchsurfs," says Eleazer.
Eleazer is new to couchsurfing but knows it'll be his primary way of travel from now on.
More Than Just a Free Place to Stay
Couchsurfing.com has almost two million members worldwide, and over 100 in the Midlands. It's a trend that is only gaining in popularity, say couchsurfers. For some, it has become a lifestyle, the only way to travel.
But most couchsurfers agree once you try it, you'll become hooked. Not because your wallet won't get emptied, but because the experiences are always memorable and definitely unique.