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NEWS, TIPS & BARGAINS | THE INTERNET TRAVELER

Short of cash and need a free place to flop? Try couch surfing

August 01, 2004|James Gilden | Special to The Times

If the high price of hotel rooms has got your get-up-and-go down, if you're looking for a more meaningful interaction with cultures than the occasional bonjour or "g'day, mate" or if you're curious about other people and are willing to open your home to near-strangers, www.couchsurfing.com may be just the website for you.

Couch surfing is not, as the name may suggest, loading the divan in the back of the woody and hanging 10 from it at Zuma Beach. CouchSurfing is actually a global online network of travelers who have offered or are seeking couches on which to sleep. For free.

This project -- a variation on the old home-swapping idea -- is the brainchild of entrepreneur Casey Fenton, 26, of Anchorage. "It is an attempt to bring together the most interesting people in the world," Fenton said of the nonprofit site he launched in December.

Interesting people -- at least people with interesting comments -- do populate CouchSurfing, which requires registration. One member, whose screen name is ChrisRay, describes his current mission as "swinging from branch to branch across the planet -- you know, like a monkey with a passport and really long arms."

The nearly 2,800 members represent 76 countries and 1,200 cities. To overcome the language barrier, the English-language site can be translated into 13 tongues, including French, Spanish and Chinese. Members' average age is 29, but some are as young as 18 (the minimum age), and one is 78.

Members can indicate easily on their profiles what kind of people they want to host, and there's no obligation to invite someone if the couch owner feels uncomfortable with the potential guest. The first contact is usually by e-mail.

Jason Meneses, 24, one of about two dozen members in the Los Angeles area, joined in February and was soon e-mailed by Philippe Borsoi and Claire Bolze of Grenoble, France. The couple, who had won free airline tickets from France to the U.S., had a limited travel budget.

Borsoi was contacting CouchSurfing members in California. The two had decided to plan the trip around the answers they received, Borsoi said in an e-mail interview. Meneses' answer caught his attention.

Before Meneses agreed to host Borsoi and Bolze, they explored whether they'd be compatible temporary roommates. "We chatted a few times online," Meneses said. "It was a little awkward at first, but we got along really well."

They agreed on a date in early April. Despite some initial trepidation, all agreed it worked out well.

The issue of security is perhaps the biggest obstacle for would-be couch surfers. Borsoi e-mailed his family when they got settled, just to let them know everything was OK.

Fenton said he thinks his system for security works well.

"We try to take a holistic look at who someone is," he said. E-mail and physical addresses can be verified, and members can vouch for one another. "Vouching is like a handshake," he said. "It says, 'This is a trusted member, not someone who is randomly signing up.' "

I visited Meneses' apartment in Hollywood to, if not surf, at least sit. His large sofa could comfortably sleep a person of average height. (His guests from Grenoble slept on a futon in the living room.)

Borsoi and Bolze, who also looked for places in San Francisco and near Yosemite, said they would couch surf again, and Meneses said he would offer his couch to other travelers.

His plans include a visit to France next year. In Grenoble, at least, a couch awaits.

Contact James Gilden at www.theinternettraveler.com.

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