A new type of tourism has been steadily growing over the last decade. It’s Couchsurfing, which is based on an online community whose main objective is to provide accommodation to tourists wishing to stay in the hometown of another member. What you may not know is that Couchsurfing actually has its roots in Iceland.
INSPIRED BY ICELAND?
Casey Fenton, an American, created the project in 1999 after finding a cheap flight from Boston to Iceland. Casey e-mailed 1,500 random students from the University of Iceland asking them if they could provide him accommodation. The avalanche of positive responses was the germ of a new philosophy of travelling. On the return flight to the US, he began to develop the ideas that led to the Couchsurfing project.
In 2003, Casey Fenton launched the site in beta and it was officially opened to the public in January 2004. Since its creation, Couchsurfing has been a non-profit organisation, funded entirely by the donations of its members. Some of them choose to make independent donations while others support the community by getting verified—the identity check that includes a payment.
MORE THAN FREE ACCOMODATION
Although it may just seem like a simple way to find a free place to stay, there is much more to this philosophy of travelling. “It’s about connecting with people and getting the local perspective when you travel. The free accommodation part is just a nice added bonus,” Icelandic host Auður Ólafsdóttir tells me. She has 35 references from other users on the site. All of them are positive.
Couchsurfing’s mission statement is to “create inspiring experiences.” The hosts have the opportunity to meet people from around the world without leaving home and the ‘surfers’, or travelers, can participate in the local life of the places they visit. Of course, hosts can specify how many days and how many guests can stay, and include other restrictions or interests.
But you are not required to offer your own home to be part of the Couchsurfing community. “Don’t offer your couch out of a feeling of obligation: that doesn’t make a good experience for you or for your couchsurfers,” the website says. Each user chooses what he or she wants to offer the community. “Being a member of Couchsurfing, you know that anywhere you go in the world, a friendly face is only a message away, even if you don’t host or surf,” Auður adds.
Stina Engquist, a Swede spending time going back and forth between her country and Iceland, uses Couchsurfing to meet people. “In the past years, I’ve lived in small rooms and shared apartments, which has made it difficult for me to host people. I have used the forum in order to know what’s going on in the town that I’m in, ask for and help out with tips and information, and meet people for dinners, parties and walks around town,” she says. “I’ve met lots of nice people. I’m sure I’ll stay in touch with some of them for a long time. I’ve received lots of good information about what’s going on, do’s and don’ts, and so on.”
In the community, you can find different groups about Iceland, including one to find housing. “I bought a bike and found my August accommodation through Reykjavík’s groups,” Stina says. If you search through posts, you can find valuable information to help you with your visit to the country.
In addition, the forum works as a meeting point between users. “In Iceland, it’s more active in summer than in winter time,” Katla Hólm tells me. Katla has 20 positive references, and has hosted around 30 travellers since she started to reply to requests seven months ago. “We need an official Couchsurfing place and I would like to have an event every-two-weeks meeting or something like that.”
There are many ways to harness the potential of couchsurfing. The photographer Fiann Paul is touring around Iceland with an outdoor art exhibition and uses Couchsurfing facilities to find the accommodation, also employing wooden surfaces of the town buildings or fences around the schools as gallery walls. “I decided that not only the content but also exhibition logistics and management field should become an art. I would like this exhibition to promote Couchsurfing awareness as an anti-commercial method of travelling,” Fiann says.
SECURITY & PRIVACY
Although staying in the house of someone you’ve just met online may seem foolhardy, the community has quite reliable mechanisms for avoiding shocks to users. “I’ve never really had a problem with anyone. I remember a couple of surfers that I just didn’t click with, but they were still quite polite and considerate and they didn’t give me any troubles,” Auður said.
Couchsurfing gives you the information you need to make informed decisions with a verification system and with references from other surfers. The verification involves paying a contribution to the site, the cost of which depending on where you live. In Iceland, you have to pay only $2.11 (around 240 ISK). This optional step gives you confirmation of the name and address of the person with the credit card and it can help users gain others’ trust.
Regarding privacy: members decide what they want to share with other users by customising their privacy settings. Through these settings, members can choose which personal information to display, who can see or search their profile and whether or not other members can see when they’re online.
WELCOME TO THE WHOLE WORLD
As of July 2011, there were over 3 million people registered with the site. Couchsurfers represent 81.722 towns in 247 countries. Around 20% of the users had registered their country as being the United States, followed by Germany, France, Canada and England. The city with the largest number of users was Paris, with 53.143 surfers, followed by London and Berlin.
Auður concludes, “I would recommend Couchsurfing to almost anyone. Staying with a local who can share their insider knowledge doesn’t only enrich your travel experience, but also enriches your life in general. Some of the things I’ve shared with my hosts and surfers have changed my life for the better.”
There is a world of cultures to discover. Couchsurfing lets you do it in a cheap way and provides unforgettable moments to tourists who might normally follow a typical guided tour.