As an eighteen year old with a long ten months of full-time retail work drawing to a close behind me, my final eight weeks before departing for university were an exciting prospect. My gap year had been more shelf stacking and sassy customers than backpacking and charming locals, but I hoped to change all that. I only had two limitations: money and company. My year out had been lucrative, but most of that was already sunk into university housing, books and booze so finance was thin on the ground. My friends had for the most part jumped straight into university, and the ones that hadn’t were happy to spend their final months drinking cheap beer and watching television; international adventure was a tough sell. So I was left with a dilemma: how to throw poverty, solitude and wanderlust into a pot, without ending up back at the British Embassy? The answer was CouchSurfing.
For the uninitiated, CouchSurfing is a website started four years ago where strangers open their homes to travellers looking for a place to stay, for no charge. Built on a foundation of trust, my 'old world' view would have condemned the idea to failure. Surely the inevitable crimes would slaughter its reputation. Yet years later, it now has three million active users, a rapidly expanding presence and a near impeccable safety record. It has housed and cared for me across a vast continent, introduced me to people who will remain friends for years to come and saved me a lot of money.
My chosen destination ended up being America, where I planned a 14,000 mile cross continental Greyhound odyssey. Launching in Manhattan, I would follow the East coast down to Virginia, before cutting up and through the Midwest towards Colorado, California and eventually Oregon. My final hurdle would be a 65 hour non-stop jaunt from Portland to Chicago – no sweat. I stumbled across the website after a brief recommendation from a distant friend, and it seemed a little ominous. Craigslist with a passport doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, but needs must so I dove in. Its mechanism is simple but sound; you create a profile that exists almost solely to contain references written about you and your character. You have three options: positive, negative and neutral; and under that umbrella have space to embellish on what that person has to offer as a guest or host. It’s simple but the safety record speaks for itself, and with three negative responses getting you kicked off the site it’s hard to get a really strong murder streak off the ground.
The CouchSurfers who hosted me were consistently fantastic ambassadors for basic humanity; people who had a genuine love of their environment and local culture, and were keen to share it. It was the perfect way to skip the foreplay in any new location and cut to the core of each city I visited; a core usually guarded by a tough outer skin of local learning curve. I instantly knew the best bars, beaches and beers; which museums to visit and which tourist traps to avoid. You could dabble in the student scene, interact with young professionals or if you felt a little classier stay with the growing number of wealthy retirees opening their doors to CouchSurfers around the world.
By the end of the trip I realised that CouchSurfing hadn’t just saved me money, it had opened a world of intensely personal interactive travel that totally destroys the traditional paradigm built around gilded resorts and air conditioned tours. You end up with cities that would normally be treated as flamboyant caricatures of themselves but through CouchSurfing can instead reveal living breathing metropolises with their own character and traits hidden below the museums and monuments prowled by tourists. CouchSurfing is safe, cheap and most importantly an incredible way to experience the world, the places within it and the people who define it: give it a shot, you won’t regret it.