Travel Smarter 2012: Use CouchSurfing to ditch your hotel addiction

Hotels are so passé.

How many times have you visited an exciting destination only to find you’re staying in a generic hotel room completely lacking in local flavor? When I visited Greece last month, I stayed in affordable, centrally located hotels in Athens and Sparta. While they offered good service at a fair price, they could have just as easily been in Los Angeles, London, or Cairo.

CouchSurfing offers a better way. With a bit of online networking you can stay in a local home, and it’s free! CouchSurfing is a social networking site linking up friendly people around the world. Once you’ve created a profile, you can search through profiles in your destination and request to sleep in their spare room or couch. No money changes hands, although guests often bring an inexpensive gift from their home countries or take their host out to dinner. It’s a fun way to make friends and makes traveling a richer and less lonely experience.

As I’ve mentioned before, even though I’ve never actually surfed a couch, CouchSurfing has been hugely helpful to me. When I moved to Santander in northern Spain, the local CouchSurfers threw my wife and I a welcome party and 25 people showed up. Soon we knew the best barrios to get an apartment, where to shop, and they hooked me up with a hiking group. The group for Cantabria is pretty active and in the four months I’ve been here I’ve been to several meetings and met lots of people.More recently, local CouchSurfers gave me a ton of information that helped inform my travel series on Greece. One memorable night, two Athenians showed me around the Exarchia neighborhood. We visited some great bars I probably would have never found on my own and I got insights into the life of an area noted for its activism. The two CouchSurfers showed me a park that had been slated to become an ugly parking garage until the locals took it over and turned it into a garden.

On a more somber note, they also showed me the spot where a fifteen-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot and killed by a policeman during a demonstration in 2008. The cop is serving time for murder and the spot where his victim died is now a shrine and political rallying point. Try getting that sort of information from your hotel’s concierge.

Couches can be found in some surprising places. One Gadling blogger has tried CouchSurfing in Haiti, and while I was in Ethiopia, I met someone who was going to stay with some expats in Somaliland.

CouchSurfing had a big year in 2011 that’s making 2012 the start of a new era for the organization. After having its 501(c)(3) charity status rejected, its owners decided to become a for-profit corporation. Currently, all revenues come from the verification service, in which members donate money in order to have their address verified, thus making them more trustworthy in the eyes of other members. There’s no word yet on how else the new corporation plans to make money. This change has not gone without protest, with many members pointing out that the website and network were built communally for free, and therefore should not be used for profit.

A more popular move last year was the creation of the CouchSurfing Cultural Exchange Fund, which offers grants for cultural exchanges between refugee groups and their new communities, classroom-based international information exchange and relationship building programs, and cultural understanding between ethnically or racially disparate communities.

CouchSurfing now has more than three million profiles in about 250 countries and territories–not bad for a group that only started in 2003. While you should always keep safety in mind when dealing with strangers, I highly recommend you try it. I’ve had nothing but good experiences.

[flickr image via CaseyDavid]

Couchsurfing: more than just a free place to stay

CouchsurfingHere at Gadling we’ve talked a lot about Couchsurfing, a very cool organization where members host each other. It’s an amazing example of how the world can work if you have a bit of kindness and trust. Millions of people have slept for free on millions of couches and made millions of friends in new places. I’ve been a member for a year and I’ve gotten a lot out of it, yet I’ve never once surfed a couch with them.

The two times I’ve used Couchsurfing have been when I’ve come up to Santander in Cantabria in northern Spain to explore the city in anticipation of moving there. Both times my wife was with me and she prefers hotels over couches, so we didn’t try to couchsurf. We both had great Couchsurfing experiences, though.

Before we visited last October I got onto the Couchsurfing Cantabria forum and announced we wanted to meet locals and learn more about life in the city. They organized a party for us and 25 people showed up! We got heaps of restaurant and bar recommendations, an invitation to a hike, and my wife got a list of local yoga studios.

We stayed in touch with the friends we made and this week we visited again. This time we got more suggestions of places to go, my son was introduced to a kid his age, and one of the Couchsurfers turned out to work for a rental agency, just the thing we needed! One well-connected woman is going to hook me up with a writer so I can tap into the local literary scene and a spelunker so I can get back into caving. Thanks to Couchsurfing, we won’t be moving to a city of strangers this September.

Couchsurfing puts you in touch with interesting, open people the world over. If you’re interested in exploring a new place to move there or just to visit, get your free membership and start networking!

Join a community of travelers – International travel tip

Travel communities such as Couchsurfing exist to connect travelers with locals.

By joining communities like these, meeting new people, and making new friends, you can experience each destination a little more personally, participate in more “insider” or “locals only” activities — and even save money. After all, locals know all the best places to eat, see, and visit — and they should know how to do it affordably.

Bonus: when you get home, you’ll have made new friends with whom you can correspond and visit again in the future.