Thursday, February 23, 2012

Riding the CouchSurfing wave

By Jen Jepsen, Guest Travel Columnist

When I mention that I enjoy CouchSurfing, what others usually picture is something from Princess Diaries 2 with mattresses sliding down staircases. There’s the usual odd glance or polite head nod.

So what is CouchSurfing really?

According to couchsurfing.org, “CouchSurfing is blazing the trail towards a better, friendlier world where people who are different from one another can find their similarities.” Basically, it’s a website where people from all over the world invite travelers to stay at their homes and spend time with them.

At first glance, that may seem like something way out of your comfort zone. It definitely was for me when I first gave it a go.

The first host I stayed with was in London — a young guy named Will who worked part time and hosted travelers while he wasn’t on his own trips.

After sleeping in an airport the night before, it was amazing to have a friendly face welcoming me into his home and cooking dinner with me. An Austrian girl and her German boyfriend also stayed with him while I was there.

What made that trip for me was meeting such interesting world travelers and talking until the wee hours about international issues, such as the global impact of 9/11 and hearing four different countries’ takes on the event.

It was an experience that could never have happened had I stayed at a hotel.

I’ve taken every chance to CouchSurf since. I’ve now surfed in three countries and recommend it for much more than just a free place to crash.

While CouchSurfing is an amazing chance to meet new and interesting people, it should still be done with caution.

Every member has a profile that tells about who they are and has references to people whom they know or have hosted.

This is your greatest asset.

Pay close attention to what others have said about their experience and only stay with people who have an adequate number of recommendations.

If any part of what others have said or if what the potential host’s profile contains doesn’t sit well with you, it’s easy enough to find someone else.

Once you find a match and email them, ask to meet them in a public place. This allows for another buffer for you to check them out and see if you feel comfortable before committing to staying with them. Creating a full profile for yourself will increase your chances of a host inviting you to stay.

I’ve CouchSurfed alone and have yet to have a problem, but it’s always wise to use caution. Also, make sure you have a thank-you gift for your host. It’s a part of the etiquette. If you’re still nervous, check out the website for more tips, tricks and safety suggestions.

CouchSurfing has changed my view of travel by making real connections with locals more accessible. It’s an adventurous option for budget wanderers who want more out of travel than just sightseeing.

Jen Jepsen is a senior English major at Pacific Lutheran University officially diagnosed with a bad case of wanderlust. Aside from travel and photography, her pastimes include dancing, hiking, Bananagrams and being vegetarian.