Dude, can I crash on your couch?

If you're short on cash but high on camaraderie, check out these Web sites that will find you a place to stay on your travels.

Published November 17, 2006

NEW YORK - Jim Stone, a 29-year-old from west Texas, has been traveling nonstop since March 2004.

Sometimes in a pickup truck and other times on a motorcycle, he's trekked through much of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. But he's slept in a hotel just one night over that stretch of nearly 1,000.

That's because Stone is part of a growing network of people online who have gone a step beyond hotels, hostels and even apartment swapping in their travel planning: They sleep on one another's couches.

A number of Web sites have sprung up to help pair travelers searching for a place to crash and hosts with a spare couch. Sites like hospitalityclub.org, couchsurfing.com, globalfreeloaders.com and place2stay.net are often free, serving only as middlemen and offering tips on how to find successful matches.

The sites aren't moneymakers. They're largely the creations of 20-somethings bitten with wanderlust and the hope to help bridge together people from different cultures. They often depend on volunteer administrators to help manage the Web operations.

Stone uses couchsurfing.com, which got its indirect start years ago, when New Hampshire native Casey Fenton found a cheap airplane ticket to Iceland. In the few days he had to find a place to stay, Fenton happened upon the student directory of the University of Iceland.

Fenton sent e-mails to about 1,500 students, asking for a place to crash and within 24 hours received dozens of responses. Through staying with a local, Fenton said he was able to see their Iceland rather than merely the tourist's view.

Try couchsurfing

Besides the couch, hosts in couch-exchange programs often offer travelers a home-cooked meal, sightseeing tips or a new ear for stories.

But be careful not to abuse or become dependent upon the hosts' generosity, seasoned travelers say. Jim Stone, a 29-year-old west Texan who has been couchsurfing for more than two consecutive years, said the beginning is often the most difficult time for a couchsurfer.

Novices haven't built up any positive references yet, an essential part of building a reputation in the community. Veterans will naturally be wary of someone with no references, Stone said.

He suggested newcomers search for others within their own city and meet for at least a cup of coffee.

That way, rookies can begin to build some positive recommendations without even setting on a couch.