Tourists, like neo-liberals, are all for doing more with less. It’s a natural human impulse to want to see the world, and to do it as cheaply as possible. Parsimonious traveler that I am, New York’s vertiginous hotel prices long kept me away — that is until I heard about a new travel craze that puts would-be visitors in touch with like-minded people and their spare beds (or, more precisely, couches).
‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ I wondered as I got online and found a couple in Brooklyn willing to house a struggling arts journalist and his girlfriend for a weekend. Random strangers, an air mattress in Williamsburg, no private space — in retrospect the danger signs should have been flashing bright amber, but I was too excited about CouchSurfing in New York to notice, or care.
Set up five years ago by Casey Fenton, a 27-year-old from Hawaii, CouchSurfing has a simple concept: instead of paying a packet for holiday lodgings, enjoy free hospitality from one of the 780,000 CouchSurfers registered in more than 180 countries.
Underpinning the system is a philosophy reaching well beyond free accommodation. ‘Surfers’ can bring their host gifts, cook dinner or offer to help around the house in return for a bed and expert local knowledge, but the most valuable reward most users seem to get from the site is the exchange of ideas and cultures, and the creation of international friendships.
Joining is straightforward. Sign up, create a profile, populate it with witty aphorisms and photographs of yourself looking friendly and you’re ready to begin contacting members in places you want to visit. (Although some hosts prefer that a friend who’s also a member vouches for you, so they know they’re not getting a psychopath.)
The basic house rules are easy, too. Be a respectful guest (a gift often goes down well but is not obligatory), clean up after yourself and, if other surfers are coming to your area, and it suits you, reciprocate.
It might all sound a bit too rough and ready, but if you don’t have a phobia about staying with strangers, then CouchSurfing can be a great way to travel – and to save money. In the past year I’ve slept on floors and couches and made friends in Germany, Spain and the UK.
I soon realize, however, that New York poses quite unique problems for would-be CouchSurfers. First off there are just so many couches to choose from. Iceland has less than 500 registered hosts, in New York there are well over 6,000 putatively willing to have a guest.