Thursday, March 19, 2009

In which couchsurfing is explained

Our heroine realizes that travel is expensive (much, much more on this soon), and for this reason I would like to introduce the reader to one of the best new ideas for affordable adventuring -- couchsurfing.

Couchsurfing.com, to be precise. For the uninitiated, couchsurfing is a networking site, where anyone may list their couch as a place for a traveler to stay for free. So let's say you want to stay in Paris, which is notoriously expensive -- you could probably find a place on couchsurfing and not pay a penny (or euro cent. Whatevs)!

I've used this site and it has been wonderful -- I ended up staying on Grand Cayman with a great guy who took my friend and I around the island, and lived right on the beach -- literally. It was the kind of accomodation you could not find for less than your arm AND your leg, ordinarily. And it made the trip that much better -- finding local places like bars and restaurants, and having someone to call if things went wrong, and meeting someone who could actually teach me about the local culture and highlights and dangers -- way better than a guidebook.

Couchsurfing makes a lot of folks nervous, though. Understandable -- it seems totally counterintuitive to stay with a stranger in a strange land, and potentially unsafe. What I recommend is not doing it alone, particularly if you are in a place where you don't speak the language/are cut off from easy transport, etc. Also, you can submit reviews of your hosts to the website, which means that you can select a host that has given other travelers a good experience, and also warn others of any bad experience you may have had (and potentially have a bad host removed from the site). And for those who are really like me -- i.e. a woman who frequently travels solo, definitely read http://www.couchsurfing.com/tips_for_solo_women.html, as well as the other tips offered on the site.

What is the catch? Only a small one -- you are sort of expected to act as a hot to someone coming to your neck of the woods. I say sort of because, I'll be honest -- I don't do this. And if you are like myself, with a tiny apartment or an unpredictable work schedule, it's no problem -- you can always turn down people who write in to request to stay with you.

Not a huge fan of social networking sites myself, I generally find them vaguely useless (and our herine is often too busy conquering new lands to be boothered with them) but I will say that couchsurfing has won me over. I can't argue with the premise, making travel more acccessible to more people. And it serves another purpose as well -- making it easier to travel to remote locations.

Since anyone can sign up for couchsurfing, you end up with couches available from Antarctica to Vanuatu (interestingly, Vanuatu is apparently the happiest place on earth, according to a recent study. Don't tell Mickey). Personally, I am interested to see who the first user is to list themselves on "undersea features." Now, if only I could afford a ticket to Antarctica . . .

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