It’s nine o’clock in the evening on a cold, dark sleety January evening and I find myself stood in a bus-stop in a non-descript badly-lit district of Bratislava. I’m waiting alone to meet a girl I met online when all of a sudden a hooded man appears from a side-street and shouts my name.
This is normally where the article descends into tales of honey-traps, beatings and robberies. On this occasion however the story is very different…
Igor approaches me, smiles, shakes my hand and invites me to follow him to his house where it’s warm, and I’m told a beer is waiting for me as well as some Slovak food prepared by his girlfriend. There’s already a towel on my bed if I want a shower.
Couchsurfing was officially formed in 2004 by socially conscious and well-travelled businessmen who, following a brief idea that came to one of the founders on a flight home, sought to connect local people and travellers in a way never before seen.
Couchsurfing.org is the central point from which the project is accessed and involves users signing up to secure and vetted profiles in a curious combination of Facebook, eBay and dating sites. The main purpose however is searching for or offering a place to stay for travellers. The unique thing however is there is no benefit to the user providing this service other than the chance to offer your own special brand of hospitality to your new companion, and the chance to search for couches of your own. There are no hotels, hostels or B&Bs in the search; it’s all about sofas, beds, spare rooms and inflatable mattresses.
It is maybe the lack of formality, the unknown expectation or reliance on human spirit and kindness that makes the concept so successful. It’s also a perfect situation for lone travellers to meet and connect with locals and receive some much-needed companionship that appeals to so many.
Far from the criticism of social networking sites like Facebook (everyone knows a relationship that’s been ruined, or the person who posts inane drivel 15 times a day), Couchsurfing seems to elicit only positive outcomes; engaging and connecting people, experiencing the real ‘life’ of a place, of not feeling frustrated by the normal tourist-routes and identikit hotel chains. After all how many visitors to York can say they have sampled life as locals know it in real homes in Clifton or Acomb? The experience says so much more about the soul of a city, and of the people who live there than a massive cathedral or a boat cruise ever could.
To gauge the scale and success of the project, in 2007 250,000 users had signed up worldwide in the first three years, whereas the last count in January this year showed there were 3.6 million signups, of which one million are said be active at any time. Growing from its US base, Couchsurfing now represents available beds, sofas, floors, mattresses and anything else sleep-on-able in 80,000 towns and cities as far away as York, Antarctica and unbelievably North Korea. And it keeps evolving…
Couchsurfing is now more than just offering a place to sleep; in a place near you groups of couchsurfers, locals and ‘natives’ will be meeting up regularly for ‘social-surfing’ on country walks, pub nights, meals, gigs, quizzes, language exchange and even knitting. You may be surprised to know that a number of One&Other writers and contributors are active Couchsurfers, or have met through third-party surfers too.
A little further from home Manchester hosts one of the country’s largest Couchsurfing festivals, attracting well over 100 people every year for three full days of activities and social events, where accommodation is obviously provided.
In a world seemingly so full of disconnection, lone-living, destructive social media, depersonalised hotels and saturated tourist trails Couchsurfing could be the revolution that travel needs, in a similar vein to the advent of youth-hostels which at the time provided the generations of yesteryear the chance to visit previously inaccessible places in a more relaxed and culturally vibrant environment.
So, as a resident of one of the UK’s most popular tourist cities with over four million visitors every year, why not join the revolution and offer visitors a personal guided tour of the city or allow them the chance to see ‘your York’. Or next time you’re in Bratislava, a night out in Leeds or anywhere else for that matter, give it a try; you will probably be pleasantly surprised by the experience. See the Couchsurfing website here.