More riding the couch-surfing wave

BY ADAM SALAZAR | JUNE 26, 2009 7:21 AM

The dollar isn’t holding up abroad, but some manage to keep traveling cheaply, using strangers — and couches.

Millions of travelers are turning to “couch surfing,” considered an economical form of lodging. The concept is simple. After registering on the site, a person can host travelers on her or his couch and in turn, enjoy free lodging when globe-trotting.

The couch surfers have banded together to form a nonprofit organization.

Couchsurfing.org was spawned in Berkeley, Calif., in 2003 and it has garnered 284,295 surfers in the United States and millions worldwide. The nonprofit was formed in an effort to promote international cultural exchange.

Dozens of Iowa City residents are part of it, including UI senior Destiny Dodge, a member since January. Earlier this year, she heard about the group from an acquaintance while on vacation in Hawaii. She was intrigued by a recount of his Europe trip, with memories of couch surfing across the continent.

“I’d like to [couch surf] because it would be fun to travel and meet people,” Dodge said.

She has yet to actually “surf” on a couch, but she has hosted.

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Both the host and the guest must undergo a registration process for safety reasons. To prevent security threats to host or visitor, the organization recommends users send e-mails for arrangements through the website so staff can track any wrongdoings or vulgarities. A small hired staff and volunteers maintain the website.

Such information would have been useful for Jessica Hilt, a senior at the University of California-San Diego, who has couch surfed through Iowa City. Earlier this summer, she stayed one night in town for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.

Unlike Dodge, Hilt had a horrible experience when she agreed to host a young female from Illinois.
Hilt had heard about the website and organization in a magazine article and first couch-surfed in England with an English dancing troupe in 2004. She joined the online community in 2008.

What was supposed to be a three-day stay turned into a nightmare when the woman dragged three trunks of clothing into Hilt’s home, with the intention of moving into the area.

Hilt ejected her after the woman left in the middle of the afternoon to go to a local bar, then spent the night elsewhere.

“She went out for a walk and didn’t come back until 2 or 3 a.m.,” Hilt said.

Hilt said her other experiences with couch surfing have been beneficial and life-changing.

She has hosted an elderly couple from Arkansas who were on their way to Mexico to visit their marine biology station and a group of students from China, Taiwan, and Singapore on a study abroad exchange at the Grand Canyon.

“For me, couch surfing is about connecting with other human beings,” Hilt said.

The range of age for the average couch surfer can vary from the young college student to the elderly. To register, users must be at least 18 years old.

The couch surfing organization urges users to be cognizant of others’ interests and personality. The website recommends members should choose to stay or host someone that shares their same hobbies or ideals.

“The experience changed my life,” Hilt said.

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