Peer-to-peer travel: It’s a growing movement made possible by the Internet. Recently, we wrote about Airbnb.com (click here to read that). Here’s another, even cheaper and friendlier way to connect with peers – and their spare rooms or sofas – in the places you’re visiting.
You’ve got more friends than you ever imagined – about six million of them scattered in 100,000 cities throughout the world – and most are happy to welcome you into their home for at least one night, and to show you around their towns and cities.
They are all members of Couchsurfing.org, a “social” community of people of all ages who are interested in getting to know fellow travelers. Couchsurfing members act both as hosts who welcome others who are traveling and as travelers themselves who like to take advantage of free places to stay and/or local “friends” who’ll show them around.
Like Airbnb (click here to read about Airbnb on Senior Planet), Couchsurfing is a peer-to-peer accommodations site; it is set up to let potential hosts and guests connect with one another and organize stays. But unlike Airbnb, which is all about rental, Couchsurfing is free. The idea is to share and reciprocate.
Don’t have a couch, spare room or air mattress to share? You can offer to show someone around your city, meet a visitor for dinner or help a traveler figure out the bus routes.
Couchsurfing.org hosts local events, too, like pot lucks, where you’ll meet other members in your city. (Go to your city’s “Place Page” and click on “Events.”) Attending an event is a good way to get started, says Budapest-based marketing executive Andras Foldvari, 60 (click here to see his Couchsurfers profile). “You’ll become acquainted with fellow travelers and learn more about CS etiquette,” Foldvari says. “Friends you meet in person may also write a reference on your profile, which will help potential hosts feel more relaxed about accepting your request.”
While most couchsurfers are young, the number of seniors joining the community is growing. There are about 4500 members in the 50+ group. Checking in with them is a convenient way to find like-minded peers. If you know the city you’re interested in visiting, use the age and/or gender filter as a shortcut for browsing.
That said, though, here’s your chance to avoid ageism, so go for it if a potential host shares your interests, if not your age.
Couchsurfers Are Houseguests
“Couchsurfing is not for introverts,” Mike Hinshaw, 63, a retired businessman, says (click here for Mike’s Couchsurfers profile). He and his wife have hosted three guests ranging in age from 24 to 72 during his five months as a member, and he’s enthusiastic about meeting more surfers. To Hinshaw, who writes a travel blog, Nomadic Texan, part of the fun is cooking for guests, showing them around his hometown of Austin, Texas and hearing about their travels and interests.
Typically, a couchsurfer is treated like a welcome houseguest. That means you’ll want to act like one. You may help prepare dinner or clean up, mow the lawn or walk the dog. Hinshaw’s first surfer washed his car as a way of returning the favor of a four-night stay.
Foldvari, a CS member for six years, suggests offering a small gift, like a sampling of your own local food. “I bring Hungarian pork sausages or pralines for vegetarians,” he says.
Finding a Good Fit
If your travel style is more loner than social, you can still couchsurf; just say so in your profile so your host won’t be disappointed when you don’t want to swap traveler’s tales over a home-cooked meal. Likewise, hosts who don’t have a lot of time for schmoozing and touring will say so in their profiles, so sociable surfers won’t expect it.
About those profiles: The more information you convey about yourself, the better your surfer-host match up will be. Stating your age and other data is just the beginning. You’ll be asked to say something about specific topics, from your philosophy to the books and movies you like. Think of it as a kind of match.com without the dating.
How to Use Couchsurfing.com
The site is not especially friendly to those with limited Internet skills. For instance, there is no “search” box on the home page. Couchsurfing.com is being redesigned with the intention of being far more user-friendly by the end of the year.
For now, there’s a How It Works tab to help you navigate (click here to access How It Works). Plan to spend some time just roaming and playing armchair surfer. For instance, check out the Community Guidelines to learn about the couchsurfing philosophy (click here for Community Guidelines). You’ll find the “Be Considerate and Respectful Policy” there, too. Click here to see Stories – a selection of quirkly tales from sofas around the world.
Practice hovering, too – holding your mouse over a word or icon – to learn what various icons on a person’s profile mean. For instance, there’s an icon for showing if a host has availability; another indicates what special interest groups a member belongs to.
Staying with a stranger isn’t risk free. To be safe, click here to read the 8 Safety Basics steps and take them seriously. If you are a woman, staying with a family or another women is common sense. Still, stuff happens, which is why “Trust your instincts.” is safety step #1.
As part of the redesign, couchsurfing.org is exploring various certification options to enhance the site’s safety and trust features. Currently the “Identity Checked” icon means only that the name of the host/surfer matches his or her credit card. “Location Verification” means that the host’s address is for real. The references are really the best safety check at the moment, a Couchsurfing employee told Senior Planet.
Ready for Sharing
I’m a flower child at heart, and the more time I spent on couchsurfing.org, the more tempting being a surfer became. Since I get lonely when I travel for more than a week by myself, the idea of being welcomed into a local’s home and helped to navigate a city, particularly a foreign culture, is especially appealing. Plus, there’s something wonderful and heart warming about the sharing economy, whether it’s sharing a couch or a car. Thanks to the Internet, Woodstock Nation lives on!