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Couch surfers enjoy the free spirit

Couch surfing Web sites are bringing together like-minded souls from around the globe who are willing to take travelers into their homes.

By Alexandra Zayas
Published February 27, 2007


Randi Krueger, 34, of St. Petersburg, welcomes visitors of all kinds to stay on her comfy queen-sized futon. Just leave your flip flops at the door.
photo
[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
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Back in the 20th century, when the world was smaller, people picked up hitchhikers and let them sleep in their Volkswagen vans in exchange for, perhaps, a song about peace. Or love.

Those people were hippies.

Then, the world got big - too big for people to assume everybody was into peace and love. In movies, serial killers picked up hitchhikers in exchange for, perhaps, a scream. Or a limb.

Those people, kids learned, were strangers.

But with the Internet, the world got small again. Now, people travel an information superhighway. They spread peace and love by inviting strangers to sleep over in exchange for, perhaps, good conversation and the hope their house guest can someday repay the favor.

These people are couch surfers.

On CouchSurfing.com, they find 172,784 friends.

They seek hostel-style adventure without the price or, for the most part, the need for shower shoes.

Create a profile including your life philosophy, places you've traveled and a photo. Decide whether you've got a couch to offer strangers traveling in your area. Then, browse the Web site's thousands of profiles for fellow couch surfers in 213 countries.

Couch surfing accommodations are always free - that's a rule. Often, couch surfers take their hosts to dinner, bring them gifts or wash their dishes. Hosts offer home-cooked meals and travel tips not found in Lonely Planet guidebooks.

The Web site was born when Casey Fenton, 28, a New Hampshire computer programmer, bought a cheap plane ticket from Boston to Iceland, but had nowhere to stay.

"What would I do when I got there?" he writes on his Web bio. "Stick it out in a hotel? A hostel? I thought about the idea of contacting someone on the Internet and seeing if I could hang out with them and maybe sleep at their house."

He spammed 1,500 students at the University of Iceland with personalized letters asking if he could crash in their dorms. Within the first day, between 50 and 100 people agreed. He chose one and had a great time.

"On the plane back to Boston, I thought to myself, 'That's how I want to travel . . . every time,' " Fenton writes. He launched the Web site in 2003.

These days, couch surfers speak 989 languages and come from 21,102 cities. They're babies with couch surfing parents, seniors into their 80s and everyone in between. Several live in the Tampa Bay area.

Meet some local couch surfers:

Randi Krueger, 34 South Pasadena

WHO SHE IS: Krueger is a Pilates and yoga teacher, a personal trainer and a massage therapist. She welcomes visitors of all kinds to stay on her comfy queen-sized futon - just leave your flip-flops at the door.

WHY SHE SURFS: "I saw it in a budget traveler magazine. It caught my eye. I love to travel, so it seemed to be exactly what I was looking for."

FAVORITE COUCH: Krueger stayed with a couple on an old coffee plantation in Costa Rica. When her back started to ache, her host took her to a chiropractor and "Snap, I was better."

TRUSTING THE SYSTEM: Krueger let a couch surfer stay at her home for two months to house-sit while she was out of the country. "You put out trust to get trust," she said. "So far, nobody's taken advantage."

NETWORK OF FRIENDS: Today, Krueger will start her life in Dubai as a yoga instructor. She has already found about 50 couch surfers in her area - all potential friends, she said.

The Robson family, Gary, 41, Yee-Chen, 39, and Ray, 12 Seminole

WHO THEY ARE: Gary has spent his life traveling since he served in the Peace Corps 20 years ago. He lived in Asia/Micronesia for about 10 years, where he taught, lived out of a backpack and stayed in huts and houses of every size. While traveling in Taiwan, he met Yee-Chen, a student from Burma. They married and had Ray in Guam. Now, Gary teaches education at St. Pete College, Yee-Chen teaches Chinese and studies education and 12-year-old Ray is one of the world's youngest chess masters.

WHY THEY SURF: The family has to travel at least once a month, all over the world, for Ray's chess tournaments. Three years ago, Gary spotted a line in Lonely Planet about couch surfing and joined.

WHERE THEY'VE SURFED: France, Switzerland, Manhattan, Minneapolis, Kentucky, Boca Raton, Asheville, N.C., and San Francisco

THEIR FAVORITE COUCH: A series of mattresses on the floor of a family's home in Thun, Switzerland. Every morning, the husband would wake up and bake fresh bread. At the end of their stay, the Robsons chipped in for groceries.

THEIR FIRST VISITORS: A couple from Port Charlotte rode their bikes to the Robson home in Seminole as a trial run for an upcoming European biking trip. Gary was the only one home. The couple treated him to dinner at a Thai restaurant.

UNSPOKEN UNDERSTANDING: "Anyone who would do this is like-minded interested in culture and exchange," Gary said. "We haven't had a bad experience. We have an advantage because we're a family."

Franklin Coleman, 65 South Tampa

WHO HE IS: Coleman is the choral director at Tampa Preparatory School, where he teaches AP music theory. He also plays the organ in his church, St. John's Episcopal.

ORGAN SURFING: Couch surfers helped Coleman find churches where he could give organ recitals on his eastern European vacation two summers in a row.

TOWN GUEST: Coleman traveled to the small Polish town of Pszczyna to stay with a 20-year-old couch surfer, his parents, grandfather and dog. His parents didn't speak any English, but his mom beamed when she met Coleman and made him dinner. The host said, "My father wants you to know we're proud to have you in this house." When they went out on the town, everyone greeted him as a guest.

FLEXIBILITY REQUIRED: While a couch surfer was having his home renovated, Coleman had to stay in a hotel. He also remembers when the Web site crashed last year, and hosts were unable to connect with surfers.

THE WRONG ST. PETE: A couch surfer who jumped for a last-minute cheap plane ticket to Russia found himself in a bind when he learned he'd booked a trip to Florida, instead. With not much time before he left, he messaged several Tampa Bay area couch surfers and secured a spare room in Coleman's home.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at (813) 226-3354 or azayas@sptimes.com.


On the Web

Plenty of options

Here are other Web sites like CouchSurfing.com:

HospitalityClub.org

GlobalFreeloaders.com

Servas.org

HomeExchange.com

Stay4Free.com

AffordableTravelClub.net

WelcomeTraveler.org

TravelHoo.com

For safety's sake

Web site administrators created several systems to let travelers know which surfers are most trusted. Members can "vouch" for other members. Only members who have been vouched for by three other members can do this. Then there's "verification," where administrators confirm a couch surfer's name and address.

Vouching and verification aren't required, but couch surfers who have those two added levels on their profiles have an easier time finding places to stay.

Still, couch surfers recently accused one of their own of check fraud and credit card theft. Web administrators sent out a warning notice with the accused surfer's photo links to his profile.

 

[Last modified February 26, 2007, 17:41:36]


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