This article originally appeared on SeniorPlanet.org.
The booming “peer to peer” travel trend isn’t just for kids. Beyond the increasingly popular Airbnb.com, house swaps and home stays, there’s another friendly, cheaper way to connect with your contemporaries — and their spare rooms or sofas — in the places you’re visiting.
Thanks to the phenomenon known as couchsurfing, you can get yourself connected to some 6 million people in 100,000 cities throughout the world who are happy to welcome you into their home for at least one night and take you out on the town.
They are members of Couchsurfing.org, a social network of people interested in getting to know fellow travelers. Members are both host and traveler in a system that allows them to take advantage of free places to stay and/or local “friends” who’ll show them around.
Like Airbnb, Couchsurfing is a peer-to-peer accommodations site; it is set up to let potential hosts and guests connect with one another and organize stays. But unlike Airbnb, which offers fee-based rentals, Couchsurfing is free. The idea is to share and reciprocate.
Don’t have a couch, spare room or air mattress to share? You can offer to guide someone around your city, meet a visitor for dinner or help a traveler make sense of public transportation.
One way to get involved is by attending Couchsurfing.org events, like potlucks, where you can meet other members in your city. (Go to your city’s Place Page and click on Events.) “You’ll become acquainted with fellow travelers and learn more about CS etiquette,” says Budapest-based marketing executive Andras Foldvari, 60. “Friends you meet in person may also write a reference on your profile, which will help potential hosts feel more relaxed about accepting your request.”
Couchsurfing for Grown-Ups
While a majority of couchsurfers are young, there are some 4,500 members in the 50-plus group — and that number is growing. Checking in with them is a convenient way to find like-minded peers. If you know the city you’re interested in visiting, you can use the age and/or gender filter to narrow your search.
“Couchsurfing is not for introverts,” says Mike Hinshaw, a retired businessman. He and his wife have hosted three guests ranging in age from 24 to 72 during his five months as a member and he’s enthusiastic about meeting more ’surfers. For Hinshaw, who writes the travel blog Nomadic Texan, part of the fun is cooking for guests, showing them around his hometown of Austin and hearing about his guests’ travels and interests.
Typically, a couchsurfer is treated like a welcome houseguest. That means you’ll want to act like one. You may help prepare dinner or clean up, mow the lawn or walk the dog. Hinshaw’s first ’surfer washed his car as a way of returning the favor of a four-night stay. Foldvari, a CS member for six years, suggests offering a small gift, like a sampling of your own local food. “I bring Hungarian pork sausages or, for vegetarians, pralines,” he says.
Finding a Good Fit
If your travel style is more loner than socializer, you can still couchsurf — just make a note in your profile so your host won’t be disappointed when you don’t want to swap traveler’s tales over a home-cooked meal. Likewise, hosts who don’t have a lot of time for schmoozing and touring will point that out in their profiles so sociable surfers won’t expect it.
About those profiles: The more information you convey about yourself, the better your surfer-host match will be. Stating your age and other data is just the beginning. You’ll be asked to say something about specific topics, from your philosophy to the books and movies you like. Think of it as a kind of online dating without the actual dating.
The site presupposes a certain level of Internet savvy. For instance, there is no “search” box on the home page. Couchsurfing.com is being redesigned with the intention of being far more user-friendly by the end of the year.
For now, there’s a How It Works tab to help you navigate. Plan to spend some time roaming and playing armchair surfer. For instance, check out the Community Guidelines to learn about the couchsurfing philosophy. The site also has a “Be Considerate and Respectful Policy” as well as a section for stories, a selection of quirky tales from sofas around the world.
Staying with a stranger is never entirely without risks. Be sure to read the 8 Safety Basics and take them seriously. If you are a woman, staying with a family or another woman is common sense. Still, stuff happens, which is why “trust your instincts” is safety step No. 1.
As part of the redesign, couchsurfing.org is exploring various certification options to enhance the site’s safety and trust features. Currently the “Identity Checked” icon means only that the name of the host/surfer matches his or her credit card. “Location Verification” means that the host’s address is for real. According to a Couchsurfing employee, checking a host’s references is the best safety precaution at present.
Dianne Lange is a veteran health and lifestyle writer who loves to travel. She is a regular contributor to SeniorPlanet.org.