It's not sitting in front of the flat screen and flipping channels, neither is it standing on the living room's signature piece of furniture and pretending to ride a shore-bound wave. Couch surfing is a travel trend in which hosts open up their homes to adventure seekers free of charge.
"You can really get outside of your guidebook and into what the local culture is really about," says Heather O'Brien, media projects manager for CouchSurfing International Inc., the corporation that owns the leading couch surfing website, CouchSurfing.org. "And then when you’re not traveling you can have the world come to you. You can bring new friends into your life and show other people what it's like to live in your city, and you get to experience other cultures all from the comfort of your own home."
The couch surfing community
CouchSurfing.org, which went live on the Web for public use in 2004, has 4.4 million members. Nearly 2 million of them are willing to host surfers, more than 650,000 are couch surfing as you read this post, and more than 1 million of them are willing to meet up with fellow members of the CouchSurfing community to grab a coffee or sit down for dinner, according to numbers O’Brien sent to me.
"I think that gradually, what we've seen is this notion of staying with a family has grown completely apart from budget into a type of travel where you get more connected with a local place," says Robert Reid, U.S. travel editor for Lonely Planet, a travel guide publisher. "That’s why a lot of people of different demographics and ages ... are starting to think about different ways to get into people's homes and stay there, because it makes good travel sense."
For former couch surfing host Marian Goldberg, the experience is about the cultural exchange. Goldberg once hosted a woman from Hokkaido, Japan, one of the places she wanted to visit.
"I kind of like the concept of reciprocity," says Goldberg, a Rutherford, N.J., resident. "Everybody who's come here has been really great, they ask you, 'Well, do you want anything from where we're from?' I told (the couch surfer from Japan) I wanted some green tea, and she brought me green tea."
CouchSurfing has safety features for the most concerned of travelers, including vouching and verifying. Both couch surfers and hosts create profiles describing their background and personality and including photos. One of the key safety features of the website is referencing -- feedback people share about a couch surfer or host appears on that person's profile, according to an FAQ posted to the CouchSurfing website.
Matthew Kepnes, a couch surfer from Boston, says his most memorable experiences were in places such as Munich and Copenhagen, Denmark.
"It helps save money and you get to meet people that actually live where you're going and learn about what the locals do in town," Kepnes says. He also shares travel experiences and tips on his website, nomadicmatt.com. "It's a good way to really connect with the local culture.”
Aside from avoiding lodging expenses, couch surfing provides other financial and social benefits.
"When you have a local friend where you travel, you get some insider information," O'Brien says. "You get safety tips: Your new friend is going to tell you which streets are safe to go down, which bus not to go on at night or how much that taxi ride really should cost."
Ori Bengal, who couch surfed for more than five years, unintentionally stumbled upon the couch surfing trend in 2006. Bored of living in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he was trying to decide his next move.
"I decided, why not just go every place, and then I'll decide," Bengal says.
He knew he wanted to blog about his experiences, so his girlfriend gave him an idea.
"My girlfriend said to me, 'Why don’t you call it Couch Surfing Across America?' and I was like, 'Wow, that's a great name, forget Couch Surfing Across America, I'm going to get couchsurfing.com.'"
Bengal tried to register the domain, and was surprised by discovering that, at the time, more than 1 million users had the same idea about travel as he did, and they used CouchSurfing to map out their travel plans. Bengal only used the website a few times, but he practiced "freestyle couch surfing," showing up places and meeting people who willingly let him crash at their homes, and estimates he has done so 300-400 times. Bengal blogged about his couch surfing experiences on his website, couchsurfingori.com.
Reid, who has both "informally" couch surfed and hosted, believes the couch surfing trend is picking up speed.
"I'd like to think that it will be around for a little while. It was so hard to do five years ago, ten years ago, and now it's becoming increasingly easier," he says. "It's really been a little success story in travel."
Crissinda Ponder is a reporting intern for Bankrate. Follow her on Twitter @CrissiPonder.