Becca Barnard never knows what to expect when she arrives at a total stranger's front door, jet-lagged and in need of a couch. But usually she finds they are only too happy to give her their spare keys, extra towels and free rein in their kitchens.
The recent Arizona State University grad, who is currently surfing a couch in Granada, Spain, discovered this year that she could save money – and make new friends – using couchsurfing.com, a website that connects travellers to people in 230 countries with a free couch.
"It's like Facebook," says Barnard, 24, who's originally from Los Angeles. Travellers connect through social networking discussion groups and can plan social events around the world, she explains. "Generally, you stay with people who have larger profiles, or who have similar interests or interesting things to say. It creates a couchsurfing chain."
Since she started travelling in April, she has surfed couches in seven countries – and has found many of them to be quite "comfortable." Her host in Munich took her out for an authentic German breakfast, her host in Prague showed her the cheapest place for a Pivo (beer) and her host in London served up a six-course meal.
"In our generation, a lot of us are more open to new things and more trusting than our parents, so we're not suspicious of people," Barnard says. "We trust other travellers because everyone knows how it is to be out travelling the world and needing a place to stay."
So far, that trust hasn't let her down too badly. The worst experience she can recall is being asked to vacate her Munich digs – an attic draped with red velour – so her host and his girlfriend could use "the love nest" for a while.
The average age of a surfer is 26. And roughly 75 per cent of the site's users are under 30.
But, surprisingly, couch-surfing isn't just for young, single travellers with strong backs. There is accommodation for entire families – usually a room rather than just a couch – and more than 4,000 users listed on the site are over the age of 60.
New Hampshire resident Casey Fenton hit on the idea of starting couchsurfing.com while travelling to Iceland, one of the most expensive countries on the planet. He emailed 1,500 students in Reykjavik for a place to crash and received an overwhelming response.
The experience inspired him and three friends to create a website with a mission "to internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance and facilitate cultural understanding," and he firmly believes "the surfing of couches" is a means to those ends. Couchsurfing.com spokesperson Trent Collins says its real goal is "to change the world, one couch at a time."
Surfing experiences vary greatly. Sometimes you get a couch, other times, your own bedroom. Sometimes, it's much more "rustic." But hosts will tell you in advance what to expect – usually. When avid surfer and Toronto resident Tim Pass arrived in Portland, Ore., he was informed the apartment didn't have a couch yet. He ended up tossing and turning on a wooden floor all night, without even a blanket or pillow.
He went online the next day and found a much more welcoming host. He stayed there for a week, and he's repaying that kindness by showing his host around Toronto this summer.
Pass thinks of it as couchsurfing "karma."
"It's just cool to help someone out," he says. "I've been in the situation where you have no money and need somewhere to stay... If you're like `Oh man I spent $6 on lunch and I'm over my budget,' at least you know you have a couch to sleep on."
The site claims more than 600,000 users worldwide and a stable of couches in more than 44,000 cities in 230 countries. Meanwhile, its popularity continues to grow, and summer is, of course, its busiest time. Last week alone there were almost 23,000 real-life introductions and 8,129 new couches.
Canada is the fourth-most-popular destination for surfers, with more than 39,000 travellers landing on Canuck couches. Toronto is the 10th-most-popular city on the site, one of two Canadian cities in the top 10 (Montreal is third).
Collins says the most serious problem he's heard of from fellow surfers is petty theft. In fact, as of July 1, couchsurfing.com boasts over one million positive experiences reported on the site.
University of Toronto graduate Liz King has surfed couches in Japan, Switzerland, Thailand and Greece, and says the site creates a circle of trust based on user references and links to people who can vouch for the couch host.
"I always choose hosts who have well-developed profiles and extensive references, and try to get to know them a bit over email," says King. "When I arrive in a city, I meet them in a public place first. There is always the option to politely decline the invitation and leave."
King says that, in addition to saving money, couchsurfing offers a much more intimate and memorable travel experience, and a chance to make new friends.
"I've been able to meet amazing, open-minded and inspiring people from around the world," she says. "People I am lucky enough to now count as friends."