SOMERVILLE -- On a recent Saturday morning, five twentysomethings huddle in a cozy living room to map out their day. Two are from Montreal. Another is from Chicago. The hosts, Jesse Fenton and Erin Benoit, have lived in the apartment for three years. The guests have had plans to visit for more than a month, but their only contact with their hosts has been through computer screens.
The five met through CouchSurfing.com, an online network of travelers, mostly in their 20s, who are tired of staying in hotels and hostels and who want to see the world with a free place to crash -- often on someone's couch. But what sets CouchSurfing.com apart from a bevy of similar free services such as hospitalityclub.org is its focus on its mission, which according to the group's website "is not just about free accommodations" but about human interaction.
"It makes the world a smaller place," says Benoit, 25, a medical technologist at Boston Medical Center. "Eventually, we'll have friends all over the world."
Hosts offer the use of their couches, bathrooms, kitchens, and spare beds. They sometimes provide meals and even the use of their cars. They give their guests tips about local attractions and often show them around. Still, CouchSurfers end up doing much exploring on their own, since most hosts have jobs and other commitments.
CouchSurfing.com tracks the number of registered users and how many cities are represented, but it also follows the connections and friendships that have been forged. According to its website, nearly 240,000 friendships have been created so far among more than 285,000 registered users. At the end of each stay, surfers and hosts are asked to evaluate their experiences. Jesse Fenton's brother Casey, a New Hampshire resident who founded CouchSurfing.com with three friends in 2004, said 98.8 percent of users have rated their experience a positive one.
CouchSurfing.com doesn't require its users to commit their couches. Upon registering, users have the option of simply saying they'd be available only to meet for cup of a coffee, assuming the traveler finds somewhere else to stay. But the point is the same: encouraging people to reach out to one another.
"I don't necessarily believe that CouchSurfing can put an end to world war," says Casey Fenton. "But as the world becomes more and more globalized, there are more opportunities for issues and misunderstanding. The more we network and the more we understand each other, the better chance we have of this world being a better place."
Fenton, 29, hatched the idea for the website after planning a last-minute weekend trip to Iceland. Instead of booking a hotel, he e-mailed 1,500 Icelanders through the University of Iceland student directory, looking for a place to stay. Within days, he received more than 50 responses offering free digs. "When I was leaving there after the long weekend, I said to myself, 'This is how it should be every time I travel,' " he says.
CouchSurfing.com has grown into a global nonprofit organization with hundreds of volunteers. Experienced CouchSurfers can become "ambassadors" for the website, organizing events for local CouchSurfers to get together. Fenton says he spends 70 to 80 hours a week working with the group, and pays himself $2,000 a month.
CouchSurfing has become a family affair for the Fentons. Casey has recruited his parents and brother as hosts; Jesse has hosted more than 125 travelers. Jesse, 27, a supervisor at Au Bon Pain headquarters in Boston, and his girlfriend, Benoit, have had a variety of visitors, from a mother and daughter who traveled from India to a man from San Francisco who dubbed himself "Crash."
"He was dating a dominatrix at the time," says Jesse. "So he had a leather collar and padlock. But he was a great guy. He had an extra ticket to a Red Sox game while he was up here, and he brought me."
Such experiences underscore CouchSurfing.com's mission of fostering appreciation for other cultures and points of view.
"Part of what makes CouchSurfing great is that it's kind of random -- you don't necessarily know exactly what you're going to get," Casey Fenton says. "But for me that's actually kind of exciting. I enjoy the challenge of meeting someone who's not like myself and trying to understand and get to know them."
Fenton admits that CouchSurfers and their hosts may not get along. While such instances are rare, Fenton suggests that CouchSurfers line up an alternative place to stay.
CouchSurfers are also aware of the potential for theft and other issues, but they say the website is designed to avoid such problems. It provides safeguards for hosts and surfers. For a $25 fee, the website's administrators verify bank accounts and mailing addresses, to prove that users are who they say they are. References on each user's profile build confidence among other surfers. Members are also given the opportunity to reach the highest level of verification available called "vouching," in which they are essentially "vouched for" by three CouchSurfers who themselves have been "vouched for" already.
Michael Atlas, a Northeastern University student who joined the website in March, has hosted 14 CouchSurfers, from Singapore to Iran. While he says at first he was nervous about the risks, he says it comes down to using common sense. "If you take the time to research the person beforehand by reading their references and checking their profile, you already know who is coming," he says. "It's tough to believe the kid you're meeting at the airport is getting off a plane from China to come here and steal my
Mimi Young of Chicago, who slept on the couch during her stay with Jesse Fenton and Benoit, agrees that by the time CouchSurfers reach their destination they are already familiar with the hosts. "You're already in constant communication with them through e-mail, and you've already researched their profile, so by the time you finally meet you feel like you already know them," says Young, who has CouchSurfed through London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Brussels.
Vincent Fugere, a 23-year-old graduate student from McGill University in Montreal who slept in the couple's spare bedroom, says CouchSurfing has changed his perception of the United States. "Americans aren't as bad as the press makes them out to be," Fugere said jokingly. "I thought all Americans carried guns -- obviously that is not the case."
The United States has the most CouchSurfers, with nearly 73,000 registered users, and France follows with 23,000 users. There are surfers all over the world -- 194 in Afganistan, 38 in Iraq, three in North Korea, and two in the Gaza Strip. Boston has the 12th largest community of CouchSurfers, with 700 travelers and 500 hosts.
"We're still maturing as an organization, but over time we will make a difference," Casey Fenton says. "People use CouchSurfing for different reasons, whether just to travel or to connect with people in a strange place. I think most participate to learn as much as they can about other cultures -- and about themselves."