CouchSurfing is an international non-profit network that connects travelers with locals in over 230 countries and territories around the world. Since 2004, members have been using the system to come together for cultural exchange, friendship, and learning experiences. Over a million people use this site.
Since the explosion of no frills budget airlines over the past few years, it has literally made the world much easier to access. However, even though there's a myriad of very cheap places to stay out there, it still all comes at a cost. It's one thing paying the equivalent of a few rounds in a bar for ones flight but what happens once you arrive in your country of choice eager to soak up it's cultural joys and pleasures? One could easily end up paying 10 times the cost of their flight for accommodation, rendering the whole process somewhat futile.
This is where Coachsurfing leaps in to save the day. It's concept is very simple; Create a profile and then contact people worldwide to request if you can stay with them. If they agree, make all necessary arrangements via the site and then simply turn up. You could literally get their couch to sleep on or if you're lucky, a bed. There's also a good chance they will take you out and about to show you their area and give you a taste of what living in that particular area is all about. This is an amazing opportunity to experience a side of a destination that as a tourist staying in paid accommodation, you would most probably never get.
Beyond the aforementioned, it's also a great way to make friends when moving to a new area/ country. I know that in my city, there are regular visits to bars, cinema, cultural events etc that are all organised directly through the 'Community' page on the site. I know from experience that moving to a new country can be a very daunting prospect when you know very few people, so Couchsurfing creates an opportunity that would otherwise make such meetings almost impossible.
CoachSurfing operates entirely virtually with staff members contributing from all around the globe, which certainly adds to it's popularity.
I personally like the user experience of CoachSurfing. Setting up a profile is relatively easy and doesn't take up to much time.
So for instance, if i were traveling from the UK to Sweden and wanted to stay with someone in Stokholm for a couple of nights, I simply go to the 'Surf/Host' page, type in my place of destination along with the dates I'll be visiting and simply wait for a list of results. Then I select people I like the look of from the profile results and simply contact them via the messaging system. The whole process is very quick and simple. One also has the opportunity to view their photos and references to help decide on who you feel will be a good 'host'.
I guess the obvious question that first springs to mind is 'how safe is it'? I have to admit, having first heard of this site a number of years back, I gave it a wide birth because my own paranoia overtook. However, a couple of my friends took the plunge and just went for it. They have 'surfed' 5 times in various countries and 'hosted' twice. Since they started they haven't looked back, they are totally hooked. They have said the experience they now get when traveling is so much richer and they get to meet people and experience a way of life that they otherwise wouldn't have been able to. They said that thanks to the 'references' and 'messaging' sections they felt safe taking the initial plunge to have their first 'surf'. They haven't had one single 'dodgy' encounter. Obviously it pays to use ones common sense but overall it seems that the users on the site all seem to share a universal goal; to enrich their cultural repertoire and meet exciting new people.
I would personally advise to keep away from the email updates relating to the 'Groups' section. I found my inbox was bombarded with emails regarding group meetings in my local city. In the end I had to change my setting because i was receiving so many emails. It's great to know what's going on but I would suggest following this via the Group updates on the Community' page directly.
I am a huge advocate of this site and the very fact that it exists is great. Sadly, if ever there was a site in need of an aesthetic overhaul, it's this one. It's reminiscent of the sites I used to peruse back in the 90's when the likes of Facebook & Twitter were nothing more than a glint in their Daddies eyes. I feel it's just bursting to have the 'Web 2.0' wand waved over it's tired and unappealing facade.
However, I must stress that Couchsurfing is a non-profit website and has got to where it's got on limited funds, so despite my rather rusty comments, I feel this does let them off the hook somewhat. It's just a shame that an otherwise near perfect site gets let down purely on appearance. I guess it just proves the old cliche that you should never judge a book by it's cover.
As an avid fan of traveling on a budget, the idea of 'CoachSurfing' is massively appealing to me. Thanks to the glowing reports from my friends, I am more than happy to take the plunge and pop my 'CoachSurfing' cherry.
Even though the site itself might not look amazing, what it has managed to achieve is great. I know from first hand experiences that the concept works 100%. If creating inspiring experiences for people all over the world is what they set out to achieve, then they have succeeded. Get involved! And just remember, use your common sense when arranging meetings.