FAQ on travel networking

A shorter version of this was first published in Sunday Times Travel magazine

What’s all this hype about couchsurfing?
If you’re tired of impersonal and expensive hotels, couchsurfing could be for you. Simply log on to one of the growing online databases – such as couchsurfing.com, hospitalityclub.org or bewelcome.org – and you’ll find hundreds of thousands of people willing to let you stay in their homes for free. Traditionally, you’d be bedding down on their couch – hence the name – but things have moved on: now you could find yourself sleeping in a hammock, an airbed and, in rare cases, even in your own ensuite.

Sounds to good to be true. Is it really free?
Most hospitality sites are free to join and users offer accommodation to other travellers for no charge. However, avid users prefer to think of it as a cultural exchange rather than freeloading. Lots of members host in order to create a network of friends across the world, so don’t expect to use their home just as a place to crash with no interaction. Also a small token of appreciation is advised, such as cooking dinner, buying lunch or bringing a gift from your home country.

Is it all about Couchsurfing.com?
Founded in 2004, Couchsurfing.com is the biggest, best-known and, debatably, the most user-friendly of the hospitality networks. In 2009, it was also the first to break the million-members barrier. However, it wasn’t the first hospitality network and it certainly isn’t the last. Servas dates back to the 1940s, while HospitalityClub.org began in 2001. One of the newest is SurfingSofa.com, a gay and lesbian network of Spanish origins.

Do I have to host someone on my sofa in return?
Hospitality tourism works on a pay-it-forward system. There is no obligation to host anyone in return, but a bit of give and take keeps the sites running.

Is it safe?
Most networks function as circles of trust, with profiles carrying testimonials from other members. Many also store exchanged messages as a safety measure, suggest exchanging passport numbers on arrival, or, in the case of Couchsurfing.com, allow you to pay a small credit card payment to verify your identity. If you want more assurance, try yoursafeplanet.com (which for a fee provides a vetted “friend at the other end”, rather than accommodation) or Servas (around US$25 per year), which is a free accommodation network, where all members must be pass a face-to-face interview before they join.

What if I’m just not comfortable staying with a stranger?

Couchsurfing.com now has an option to register as being available for a “coffee or drink”. If you meet in a public place, there is little to worry about and it’s also a much easier favour to repay. Informal city tours and house parties are great ways to get an alternative view of a place.

How do I get started?
Have a scout around the main sites, sign up by answering a few quick questions, then create your profile page, including a photo and a short bio to increase your chances of being hosted. It’s as simple as that. You’re now free to find potential hosts, and guests, in all corners of the world.

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