CouchSurfing: Innovative new way to travel or dangerous death trap?

Story by Eric Larson

Hostels are so 2000. Sure, they’re known as the notoriously cheap go-to for accommodation when traveling; and yes, the recent films of the same name have made them a pseudo-cultural icon in today’s age. However, as of 2003, a new phenomenon called is quickly on track to becoming the preferred choice for travelers.

So what is, you ask? It’s a website geared toward anyone on the road. Similar to Facebook, everyone has a profile – if you’re planning to travel through a certain location, you can log into your account and search your destination’s area for fellow ‘surfers.’ When found, you can request to stay with them. Simple as that.

Now I’m sure you’re thinking: is it possible to be completely sure where I’m staying is safe?

Long answer: If the person is verified and vouched for, has a laundry list of positive comments from past surfers, includes a thorough description of their personality traits, and is not wielding a bloody axe in their profile picture … then maybe. Short answer: Not really.

But how could you call something an adventure without having the looming possibility of waking up as a lampshade in some psycho’s apartment? (Just kidding.)

In reality, there will always be an element of danger when you travel, regardless of your destination or past experience. Whether you stay at an upscale Hilton hotel in the middle of an urban area, or Bob’s Log Cabin Motel twenty miles into the forest, you can always rely on common sense to guide your judgment.

Add that to a large group and you’ve got yourself the CouchSurfing A-team, ready to experience travel from an entirely new perspective.

I first heard of this phenomenon when I studied abroad in the spring of 2009. With four weeks off for spring break, my group of friends and I were thrilled to backpack through as many cities as we could handle.

Unfortunately, our budget was of huge concern; living in Europe was expensive enough as it was, and the thought of paying for accommodations every night seemed implausible. Noticing our distress, a mutual friend recommended we check out CouchSurfing.

At first I was skeptical. I was well-versed in movies like “Hostel” and “Taken,” and being a life-long victim of a wild imagination, I found myself verbalizing every scenario that could possibly go wrong.

Upon searching for a place to crash in France, we came across a nudist – long brown hair, dark eyes, and donning only his birthday suit – that encouraged his guests to join him in “naked expression” upon arrival. To my utmost disappointment, however, he was out of town the week we were in Paris (whew!).

After an hour or so of searching, we finally decided to give it a shot in Munich, Germany. The host’s name was Jens, and, similar to it being our first time surfing, it was his first time hosting.

My group of five arrived in the city and met up with him outside the apartment. We made awkward introductions, engaged in awkward small talk, and had an awkward conversation over tea — needless to say, it was awkward.

After meeting his roommate Miguel, though, things began to pick up. The two took us out to a bier garten, and before long, everyone seemed to relax. My group talked about our traveling adventures, and Jens and Miguel talked about what it was like growing up in post-Nazi Germany. We walked the town, where they filled us in on local history and fun facts.

“Hitler once stood at this podium” or “touching the gold nose of this statue is a good omen” were only a few of the things we took away from our conversations. Miguel even joined us when we visited the concentration camp in Dachau, a few miles outside of Munich.

All in all, we ended up learning so much more than we would have if we had just gotten a hotel room. Free accommodation and an in-depth cultural experience? Now those are two birds anyone can get used to.

As I mentioned above, common sense is integral in making CouchSurfing worthwhile. I’m sure people have had negative experiences using it in the past, because, as any realist will tell you, the world has its fair share of creeps.

But the world has also got its share of fascinating people from diverse and intriguing backgrounds. And with good judgment and a large group to travel with, CouchSurfing makes it possible (through careful selection) to meet these people and explore the culture of another environment, even if it’s only for a night or two.

I’d recommend it to anyone: just be sure to be safe and smart before you surf.