Quintessential couch surfers experiencing the nitty gritty in Paris.

According to an Urban Dictionary post in 2008, “couch surfing” is “someone being dragged along a couch by a moving vehicle.” Since then, the increasingly popular networking site Couchsurfing.org changed the definition: The latest way to “surf” couches is on stationary ones in friendly strangers’ homes.

Basically, it’s a cheap way to travel: Users create an online profile and look for prospective hosts in their destination city to request a place to crash for a night or two. Travelers, usually young ones, can avoid hefty hotel and hostel prices and experience a new culture with a local companion. In other words, travelers show up in a new, typically foreign, city and sleep on a total stranger’s couch. It almost makes hitchhiking sound safe.

But “couch surfing” is actually safer for travelers, according to 21-year-old college student Lori, who raved about the “awesome” and “alternative” people she met as she “surfed” through Vienna, Rome, Paris, and Granada while studying abroad in Copenhagen last fall. Lori’s success with foreign strangers cannot be chalked up to mere luck, though. She spent hours on the site answering several questions about herself to create a thoughtful profile. She summed up her personal philosophy to “hakuna matata” and shared one amazing thing she’s done: a near-death experience in a mosh pit back in her “feisty days of punk and metal.”

Unlike Facebook, where — let’s be honest — it’s fairly easy to portray a somewhat misleading self-image, Couchsurfing.org encourages people to expose their “wackiness” and share with others exactly what they have to offer. To mitigate the risk factor, Lori said she usually requested to stay with women. Plus, she explained, “As a girl, you just don’t request to stay with creepy guys who have an incomplete profile.”

After hearing several of Lori’s stories, which included attending an underground, “crazy, anarchic place” with a lesbian couple in Rome and a one night stop in Paris with a “crazy smart” Russian woman who spoke seven languages, I spent some time on the site looking into the couch surfing community in Santa Barbara. Turns out, there are lots of people passing through our quaint, beachy community every day. In addition to requesting housing, users can use the site for anything from sharing surf knowledge to conversing about possible ride shares.

My roommate, Haley, also a Couchsurfing user, always joked that few surfers requested to stay on her couch while she studied abroad in Granada, Spain, last fall quarter. But as soon as she got home and updated her location to Santa Barbara, several people started contacting her, some of whom actually live in town and decided to use the site as an EHarmony supplement.

Creeps aside, she did manage to find a nice young French man, Alex, who requested to stay for two nights in our “beach bungalow.” He had heard great things about sunny Santa Barbara; he had even seen the soap opera. He planned to take the train up from Los Angeles for a couple nights. And my roommate missed Europe enough to agree to take in this fellow traveler.

Unfortunately, though, our new guest didn’t realize that even UCSB students don’t always party on Monday and Tuesday nights. Too bad he wasn’t staying for OTT College Night Wednesdays, we told him. We did buy a few beers, made him pesto pasta, and introduced him to our favorite new HBO hit: Girls. Turns out, Lena Dunham is not the voice of his generation.

To try and make up for the estrogen overdose, we put on Workaholics. Turns out Anders, Adam, and Blake’s debauchery do not exactly coincide with his idea of humor either.

But the next morning, we showed him downtown State Street where he enjoyed a big breakfast “by the sea.” Despite the fact that the Frenchman’s expectations about “couch surfing” might have included temporary party companions and mobile tour guides, he posted a decent review for my roommate: “She is a very funny and watchful person … and I was able to taste a big pancake with the ocean view.”

While drinking beer and watching TV in our college beach house may have been less eventful than he had anticipated, Alex’s experience in Santa Barbara was authentic. He could have stayed in a hotel on State Street and gone to Sharkeez on a Monday night with other out-of-towners. Instead, he hung with likeminded young people who loved to travel as much as he did and got a glimpse of a real weeknight college experience.

Essentially, Couchsurfing.org is based on reciprocity. After their stay, guests are expected to write reviews, positive, negative or neutral, on their host’s profile. Couchsurfing.org combines the personal profiles of Facebook with the consumer reviews of Yelp. The key to couch surfing is to find genuine people who take the time to fill out an extensive profile and have several positive reviews from previous interactions.

The whole idea behind the site is that hosts can provide more than a place to sleep. It’s about increasing cultural exchange and shrinking the globe — not by wars or consumer goods but by ideas and alternative experiences. There are of course horror stories that should not be disregarded. There’s always a risk — whether you’re a host or a guest. Taking that risk though will undoubtedly expose you to an experience that’s impossible to get from a hotel room.

Even if crashing on complete strangers’ couches isn’t for you, the millions of great stories about couch surfing should tell you one thing: people are people. There are plenty of generous and awesome individuals out there waiting to share their lives with a fellow traveler for a short time. If the Internet can facilitate cultural exchange and once-in-a-lifetime experiences on a budget, I’d say that’s a better definition for “couch surfer” than idiots riding down the street on a couch attached to a pickup truck.


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