After a long day of sight-seeing while traveling in Ireland, LSA junior Jacqueline Lantz did not retreat to a hotel or a hostel, but to a mattress in the kitchen of a stranger’s floor. Lantz is a member of a network of couch surfers – people who travel the world while relying solely on the hospitality of the movement’s other adherents.

Angela Cesere
CHANEL VON HABSBURG-LOTHRINGEN/Daily

Once a practice reserved only for old friends, family and drunken nights, crashing couches has been revolutionized by websites like www.couchsurfing.com – which, along with adding the convenience of online planning, introduces a communal aspect to what would otherwise just be finding a roof to cover your head.

The goal of what has been coined as the “Couch Surfing Project” by the website’s creators is less to save travelers a few bucks than to create international bonds between people who otherwise would never have met. For some University students who seek a “going abroad” or “crossing the country” experience for less money in a fraction of the time, spending a few nights on the couch of strangers can be an intensive encounter with another culture.

The couch surfing website is structured much like a typical social networking site, but with a heavy emphasis on travel. Members post pictures, their basic information and extra tidbits like “missions” (one surfer’s mission is “To get out of the black hole that is my hometown,” while another’s is “To have great people sleep on my couch, or guest bed if you look clean enough”), as well as extraordinary things they’ve seen or done, languages spoken and a personal travel map.

What members dubbed the most critical component of a couch surfing profile, though, is the references that other members write to vouch for (or against) a surfer after either hosting or being hosted by him or her.

For Walter Graf, an Engineering and LSA junior who has used the website, members’ responses to his couch requests have varied based on location. When trying to couch surf in Cologne, Germany, Graf said he sent out at least 20 requests with no response, whereas other times he’s only sent out a few and almost all responded yes.

What makes the Couch Surfing Project so unique, though, is that members are rarely just in it for the cheap sleep.

“The social aspect is huge,” Lantz said.

It’s understood that hosts serve as their guest’s personal tour guide at least for a short time, giving them a local look into the city. They go out to bars and restaurants, see the sites, and hang out at home together.

Graf said that hosts are happy to spend time with their guests – in fact, they even expect it.

“It’s not just a ‘show up late at night and leave super early in the morning’ thing,” he said. “They want something out of it, too. They want to meet new people and talk.”

The mode of travel offers a purer and simpler way to experience foreign culture than foreign exchange programs that are tethered by down payments and obligatory program events. Often, hosts will introduce their guests to their group of friends, which could with the right finesse become the surfer’s friends – a beneficial commodity in the realm of boundless world travel.

And even though the travel arrangements are founded on such limited information, the results as shown in comments on the website are overwhelmingly positive for both surfers and hosts. Rarely are negative reviews telling of theft or unsafe situations encountered.

“I’ve gotten along very well with all the people I’ve stayed with,” Graf said.

LSA junior Jenny Zhang, who couch surfed through eastern Europe with her boyfriend, said she thinks the success rate of couch surfing is so high because so far everyone involved in the project is of the same congenial mindset.

“The people that open up their homes are usually the same type of people,” she said. “They’re very warm and welcoming.”

Lantz echoed that sentiment, and added that the fact that the site is relatively under wraps might play a role in its success. While she encourages more people to participate, she’s also concerned that couch surfing might get too big for its own good.

“So far it’s been sort of a closed off, sort of a tight-knit community, so I’m afraid it might start to attract the wrong crowd,” she said.

In the movement’s current manifestation, lodging is without charge, but many guests try to show their host appreciation in whatever ways they can.

Lantz, who surfed couches in Ireland with her best friend from college, always made dinner for her hosts and made sure to leave the place spotless. Along with picking up the bar or dinner tab, some guests will even help around the house to say thanks. Lantz and her friend helped one host paint the ceiling.

And thanks to the wonders of e-mail and social networking websites, many hosts and guests continue to keep in touch with each other long after the couch has cleared. Lantz exchanges e-mails about once a week with a group of people she stayed with in Ireland.

Ann Arbor denizens and University students are opening up their homes to strange travelers, too. On the couch surfing website, there are currently 81 listings of people in the Ann Arbor area who are willing to share a couch.

Zhang and Graf have each received four requests for a couch. For Zhang, two of them simply didn’t work out, and one of them she rejected because the person didn’t have enough information on his couch surfing profile.

“I felt it was kind of creepy,” she said.

But Zhang and her boyfriend hosted a man from California who had an interview with the School of Dentistry. Though his time here was short, Zhang showed him around Main Street and State Street. They lunched at the iconic Blimpie Burger and wound up at BD’s Mongolian Barbecue for dinner.

While the Couch Surfing Project has served to promote the movement via the Internet, other University students still take the traditional “mysterious drifter” approach to securing a temporary bed.

Between papers and exams, LSA senior Zach Shell travels alone to college campuses across the country, by Greyhound buses, with no plans on what to do or where to sleep. He’s been to about 21 campuses to date.

Shell explores the city and campus during the day, meeting people along the way, and then goes out at night. He says he’s probably surfed about 50 couches, always by simply asking a college student he’s just met if he can crash there.

He said it’s all about having faith in the good will of people.

“It’s mostly people trying to help you out. That’s the whole theory behind the whole thing,” he said. “The confidence that I have in doing this is that if I’m a college student and you’re a college student, you’re going to try to put me up, and if you’re not the next person will.”

He’s stayed with everyone from his waitress at Olive Garden to a group of guys in the Christian Men’s Housing at the University of Washington.

“It’s just how you deal with it and who you meet along the way,” said Shell. “I like having no idea where I’m sleeping that night because I have to find it somewhere.”

Even though Shell has had his failures – including spending the night in jail, going to sleep in a park and waking up in the flatbed of a pickup truck as well as getting $900 stolen from him by the roommate of one of his hosts – he says that the people he meets and the stories he collects are worth it.

“The point of couch surfing is to meet people,” he said. “If you’re couch surfing with that mentality, you’re going to end up bringing people in. That’s just the whole beauty of it – to meet people you’d never meet under any other circumstances in places you’d never otherwise go.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *