You may have heard of the CouchSurfing project. A young traveler was heading to Reykjavik a few years back and rather than staying in a random hostel, he took it upon himself to email 1,500 students at the University of Iceland, boldly asking if he could crash on their couch. He had a great response with 50+ offers of not only free accommodation but more importantly, local guides who could share some sights and insights that a typical tourist might miss. The light bulb went off and the “couchsurfing” phenomenon was born. There are now over 900,000 registered users from 232 countries sharing homes and friendship around the globe.
Not surprisingly, this kind of grass-roots hospitality exchange appeals to the younger demographic – casual, carefree backpacker types looking to save a few bucks and make a few friends as they trip around the world. However, CouchSurfing is not the exclusive domain of the young and childless. There are a growing number of family hosts and travelers who are riding the wave too.
Right now there are close to 2000 members in the community’s Family Group, and plenty more whose profile indicates that family travelers are welcome to stay. Currently the median age for CouchSurfers is 27, but give it a few years. As these youthful nomads grow up and start families of their own I predict that the percentage of family CouchSurfers will increase. After all, just because you become a parent doesn’t mean the end of wanderlust or the desire to meet friendly people from all over the world.
Now the idea of opening your home or taking your kids to be house guests of foreign strangers may not appeal to everyone. Heck, staying with friends and relatives is stressful enough for some of us. How do you know you’ll hit it off with a host/guest, and what about the question of safety?
CouchSurfing addresses the safety issue through a system of references, friend links, testimonials, vouching and verification. It’s not iron-clad, but it creates a circle of trust that provides some level of confidence (kind of like eBay ratings). You have plenty of opportunity to communicate with a potential guest/host prior to making arrangements so if you sense an incompatibility, go with your gut. There’s never any obligation to open your doors or to accept an offer to stay.
I can see some great benefits to CouchSurfing with children. Ideally your host/guest will have similar aged kids of their own, which means instant playmates and unique cultural experiences for all. There may be some awkward shyness at first, but children usually get over that quickly and even language barriers are a non-issue after a while. Kids are the greatest icebreakers and provide a point of commonality amongst parents regardless of their cultural background &nash; plus you’ll all be aware/tolerant of the noise, mess, moods and needs that come with the territory. Now you might not click with everyone you meet this way, but you and your children will definitely learn and grow from the experience. Resort trips and hotel stays just don’t provide the same authenticity or opportunity to form international friendships like this.
I’m thinking of peppering our upcoming round the world travels with a few selected home-stays, not as a cost-saving measure (although that doesn’t hurt) but to expose my girls to the reality of life behind the tourist curtain, an obstacle that’s sometimes hard to break through when you’re a traveler abroad.
The general idea behind CouchSurfing is not new. Servas has been promoting cross-cultural understanding and global goodwill through hospitality exchange since 1949. CouchSurfing just leveraged technology through web 2.0 networking and community building to take things to the next level. Hospitality Club and BeWelcome are similar organizations worth checking out.
Well said! I’ve been Couchsurfing with my family for the last two years and can personally tell you how much it has enriched our travel experiences.