Wed May 23, 2012
Couch-Surfing: Global Travel On The Cheap
Originally published on Thu May 24, 2012 9:14 am
Nearly 4 million people are members of CouchSurfing.org and can find a host in every country — including North Korea — free of charge.
New Yorker staff writer Patricia Marx became a member recently and stayed with seven friendly strangers, from a graduate student in Iowa City to a couple in Bermuda in their 60s. She wrote about her experience for the magazine.
"I'm somebody who doesn't even like to share a place with myself, so the thought of staying with perfect strangers and having to be nice was awful," she tells NPR's Neal Conan. "But I kind of liked it."
Conan talks with Marx about why people, on both sides of the couch, use the service, and the surprising moments in her couch-surfing adventures.
On how couch-surfing works
"They have a big website, and in order to register, you are asked a lot of questions. You don't have to answer them all. But if you do, then I know more about you. And it's like applying for college. You have so many essay questions. You have to give your mission and your favorite movies and where you've traveled. So if you're smart about checking people out, you can figure out who you like. ...
"You can be exclusively a surfer or exclusively a host, and some people prefer to be one or the other, or they don't have the facilities to open up their home. I stayed with someone in San Francisco who had, gosh, I would say, two surfers per week at least and traveled extensively and never stayed with people. The only people he met had stayed with him, but he would never stay with a stranger."
On sussing out red flags in potential hosts' profiles
"There were a lot of people that I rejected that would probably be great for other people, but not for me. There was a love-a-tarian. I thought, no. Anybody who said the word party too much, I stayed away from because, you know. 'Burning Man,' I stayed away from, 'In it for the journey and the lovin' and the laughter,' I stayed away from."
On how traveling from couch to couch is different from vacationing at hotels
"I wouldn't even have gone to Iowa City, and I saw everything about Iowa City. San Francisco, similarly, I've been there once or twice, but I stayed with a fantastic guy who walked me around the city and told me about things I would never have known and have since forgotten, but they were interesting at that time. I stayed at a commune in Palo Alto and that was wild. There are about 20 people, and everybody's bedroom was everybody's bedroom."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
As the summer travel season takes off, hotels and resorts will start to fill up, cruises will get booked, some may decide to go visit their friends or family, but there are other travelers out there who will choose instead to sleep in the homes of strangers as they practice the art of couch-surfing. On the hospitality exchange network CouchSurfing.org, four million members can find a place to stay free of charge almost anywhere - yes, California, Mexico, Australia but also North Korea, Pakistan, Antarctica.
New Yorker staff writer Patricia Marx recently joined CouchSurfing.org, and one of her hosts described the experience as a blind date where the person brings the toothbrush. We want to hear from people on both sides of the couch, so surfers, hosts, what surprised you about your experience? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Patricia Marx joins us now from our bureau in New York. Her piece "You're Welcome: Couch-Surfing the Globe" appeared last month in The New Yorker. And nice to have you with us today.
PATRICIA MARX: Thank you.
CONAN: And what was the first couch you ended up on?
MARX: The first couch I ended up on was in Iowa City, and it was - I had my own room, actually - my own room that I shared with beer-making equipment.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARX: It belonged to a physics student at the University of Iowa. And she was great.
CONAN: Was she using the beer-making equipment at that particular time?
MARX: Not while I was sleeping there, but, yes, it was a hobby of hers.
CONAN: Oh, good, oh, good.
CONAN: And the experience of visiting perfect strangers, well, some people might find that a little intimidating.
MARX: How about me? I did. I'm somebody who doesn't even like to share a place with myself. So the thought of staying with perfect strangers and having to be nice was awful. But I kind of liked it. I picked very good people, as you can do on the site.
CONAN: How do you do that?
MARX: They have a big website, and in order to register, you are asked a lot of questions. You don't have to answer them all. But if you do, then I know more about you. And it's like applying for college. You have so many essay questions. You have to give your mission and your favorite movies and where you've traveled. So if you're smart about checking people out, you can figure out who you like.
CONAN: And that's not just for would-be surfers but for hosts too, so...
CONAN: ...you're going to know what they're like.
MARX: You're going to - and you're going to know what everybody who met them thinks about them too because they get grades like eBay.
CONAN: Ah, so little reviews of every place. So does that relieve the feeling of, eh, this might not be safe?
MARX: Very much so. I mean, there was a time when instead of couch-surfing, you would stay with a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend, and somewhere along that link, maybe somebody wasn't even a friend, but a neighbor or somebody they were on the bus with. And this is a much safer way to go about it, I think. You're much more vetted.
CONAN: And as you went through this experience, did you find that most of these people were younger and offering foldout couches, or were they a variety of people?
MARX: Well, everybody is younger than I am by this time.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: That's not.
MARX: The average age is 28. You know that's not quite true. The average age is 28, and I'm not 28. And I decided that I would just lie about it because I thought if they saw how old I really was, they'd think, oh, I don't know. We don't have a defibrillator, so we don't want her...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARX: ...to sleep with us. But in fact, when I went to this first person, this physics student in Iowa City, and I confessed, the first thing I said was I'm not really that age. I'm nine years older because I didn't want go 10 years older, so I thought nine was the...
CONAN: Nine. That's...
MARX: ...smallest of all - 9.99.
CONAN: ...the whitish side of lies, yeah.
MARX: And she just laughed, and she said, you know what, to anybody in her 20s, 40 or 50 is the same thing.
CONAN: Just beyond oblivion, yeah.
MARX: I forgot the question. I hope that I answered it.
CONAN: That's OK.
CONAN: But were people older or younger in terms of being hosts?
MARX: Oh, they were even older than I was. I picked a couple of people that were older than I was. And their - the average age, as I said, is 28, but there are 80-years-old people on the site.
CONAN: We're talking with Patricia Marx, a writer for The New Yorker, who's gone on to write a piece about her experiences as a surf coucher(ph), a couch-surfer. Excuse me. Surf couching, I think, is probably something different. In the meantime, if you have that experience either as a host or as a surfer yourself, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll start with Wendy(ph), and Wendy is calling from Corvallis in Oregon.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Wendy.
CONAN: What was your experience like?
WENDY: It was great. I've had a - I've stayed with people in Italy, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island. In the United States, I've had people stay with me who were from different places. And there's also a website - I was telling my guys there's a website called warmshowers.com that's primarily...
WENDY: ...for bicyclists that's the same thing.
CONAN: So there are - if - what particular niche you're in, you can find a connection ability, but what's the best thing about it, Wendy, other than a free place to stay in Italy?
WENDY: Well, you get to meet - the people I stayed with in Italy, one was from Latvia and one was from New Zealand. You meet people from all over the world. They give you wonderful information. I went over to Croatian and somebody - I couldn't stay with him, but he gave me huge amounts of information. So it's a really great way to - there's - you can say that someone can stay at your house, or you can say that you're willing to meet somebody for coffee, or you can say you're willing to take them around town. So you can join at different levels. And so as somebody going to that place, you can use that person as a resource.
CONAN: And so not make the commitment of the spare room.
WENDY: Right, exactly.
CONAN: But, Patricia Marx, you said in your piece - you cited people who said, look, we only get two weeks of vacation a year. We can bring the world to us.
MARX: Yes. It was ordering in fun, someone said.
CONAN: And the price, of course, is free, except the price of incessant sociability.
MARX: Yeah, that was - that's a big price. It wasn't so bad. I theoretically didn't like it. In practice, I liked it. Wendy had said that there's warmshowers.com, which I ran into someone who used that. There's also what they call - something like DogVacay where your dog can essentially couch-surf if you're going away and you want your dog to stay with someone in the city.
CONAN: Wendy, thanks very much. Where are you going to go couch-surf next?
WENDY: I'm thinking about Burma.
CONAN: Burma, all right. Thanks very much. Good luck.
WENDY: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Connor(ph). Connor with us from Berkeley.
CONNOR: Hi there.
CONNOR: Yeah. I just wanted to comment. I did some couch-surfing a few years back in Morocco, and I just thought it was a really great way to get to see, you know, parts of the country and parts of local life that you won't be able to see staying in a hotel or anything. In fact, we actually got stay in a traditional dwelling outside the town of Meknes, and they actually have these caves. They're homes that are built back into a cave, and we got to stay there for three days with the family, and it was just a really enlightening experience to see how these people live.
MARX: I just read about a person in Petra, Jordan, who allows surfers to stay with him and he's had 1,200 visitors into his cave.
CONAN: Petra, the amazing archeological site in Jordan. As you were couch-surfing there in Morocco, I presume those people were interested in talking to you to find out more about Berkeley, California.
CONNOR: Yes, indeed. Their - the guy that I stayed with I think actually couch - he brings in people a lot. I think it's sort of something he enjoys doing. And the one thing that I've - I didn't find it to be a problem, but in less developed areas of couch-surfing - and I've had friends say this as well - it is still free, but, you know, there were times when I felt when we'd go out and, you know, I would pay for lunch, or I would, you know, get some food for the family to bring home and that sort of thing. So it is a slightly different relationship maybe in a more developing region of the world than it would be couch-surfing here in the Bay Area, which I've done as well, which is, you know, a little bit more on equal financial footing.
CONAN: Is it ever awkward if, suddenly, you wake up and breakfast is on the table that - am I supposed to partake? Should I pay for this?
CONNOR: It can be, I think, especially in a country where the traditions are different where I don't necessarily speak the language to speak to all the family. That can be a little bit awkward, but also kind of fun, you know. So it is providing the different experience that I think is a really great thing to get to see.
CONAN: Patricia Marx, did you bring house gifts over to your hosts?
MARX: I brought house gifts. You know, if you - if any exchange of money and you're out of - and you're kicked off the site. But I gave them a book and a box of chocolate cookies and a - I think it's $100 trillion bill from somewhere.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: But not worth...
MARX: But it wasn't worth $100 trillion.
CONAN: Was not worth $100 trillion.
CONAN: Connor, thanks very much.
CONNOR: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Chris(ph), and Chris is on the line from Oakland. Chris, are you there?
CHRIS: Oh, I'm here, yes.
CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead.
CHRIS: Hi. My experience of couch-surfing is I went to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and stayed with a guy and ended up becoming really good friends. A total stranger when we met on the site, but we became friends with he and his ground of Chinese-Malay people. And we went to - we ended up actually going to Penang to participate in a marathon with him later on. But, yeah, the couch-surfing experience for me was great. It was not very awkward. I could see it being awkward, but in our case, we're still buddies. We're friends on Facebook and we just talked today, actually.
CONAN: And you had set this up, presumably, before you went to Indonesia - Malaysia rather?
CHRIS: Actually, while we were in Malaysia, we were traveling just as a lot of people do, backpacking, and we emailed him maybe a couple of days before we got to the capital in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, and he responded with an address, said, come on by. And what's really funny is the first night we stayed, 15 minutes after we get there, he says, hey, you guys you want to go a Chinese wedding? And we were invited to a big engagement party, and it was just - some experience that we would have never got without experiencing couch-surfing.
CONAN: That's an astonishing - those are the kinds of experiences you can't get just dropping by.
CHRIS: Right. It was amazing. It was great. And being friends with him and everything still is worth it.
CONAN: I was wondering, Patricia Marx, seeing the town differently than you would if you stayed at the Hilton or the Motel 6 for that matter.
MARX: Well, I wouldn't even have gone to Iowa City, and I saw everything about Iowa City. San Francisco, similarly, I've been there once or twice, but I stayed with a fantastic guy who walked me around the city and told me about things I would never have known and have since forgotten, but they were interesting at that time. I stayed at a commune in Palo Alto and that was wild. There are about 20 people, and everybody's bedroom was everybody's bedroom. And someone was outside on a bike blender. They're making a smoothie, which is making a - the smoothie device was powered by the bike.
CONAN: By a stable bike...
MARX: Mm-hmm. But I didn't go to any Chinese weddings.
CONAN: No. No Chinese wedding, that's a pity. There's still time...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: ...even as old as you are. We're talking with Patricia Marx...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: ...of The New Yorker about couch-surfing. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go next to Barney(ph). Barney with us from Boulder - or is it Marney(ph).
MARNEY: Hi there.
CONAN: Marney, go ahead. I'm sorry.
MARNEY: That's OK. I was calling just to say that my son, who's 18, was a couch-surfer this past fall as he traveled through Eastern Europe. And as a parent, I was a little tentative about his taking this route, but the richness of the stories and the experiences that he brought home were just incredible. And the people that held him as I would like for my child to be held by strangers was great.
CONAN: So your initial doubts utterly resolved.
MARNEY: Well, you know, he was 18. In Eastern Europe, he was traveling everywhere, from Stockholm. He started in Stockholm, Croatia, Slovenia, ended in Turkey, was in Romania, did Habitat for Humanity in Romania, and it was a huge trip. So as he put it together, yes, I was a little concerned, but an amazing, amazing experience for him.
CONAN: Marney, we've got this email from Wade(ph) who writes: Another very important part of the safety of this is you can leave and read comments from either perspective, making decisions based on what you learned in those comments.
So as Patricia Marx reminded us earlier, there is an aspect of safety in this.
MARNEY: Absolutely. The only thing that I would have wished more for is the Internet communication piece as more hit or miss when you're doing couch-surfing. Whereas when he interspersed it with youth hostels, we had more regular contact with him. So that made it a little bit more - just a little scarier for me, but in the end, such a great experience, and I look forward to opening our home to someone in the future.
CONAN: Patricia, you were about to say?
MARX: I already forgot it. But it is remarkable how many - I've really heard almost no bad experiences. The other day, I heard about somebody who met somebody and married him but...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARX: They had met at a meet-up. Because, as one caller said, in addition to albeit to stay with people, you can have lunch with them, you can go to parties, and this person went to a meet-up and met somebody and ended up marrying him.
CONAN: Marney, thanks very much for the call. Is your son going to go back on the couch-surfing route again?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much.
MARNEY: Thank you.
CONAN: This is from Sara(ph): I'm a 31-year-old female, and I've been on couch-surfing four years and hosted a total of nine surfers in Oklahoma and Connecticut, never had a bad experience. It's usually an incredible one, filled with great conversation. I keep in touch with several male and female. Earlier on, it was more international travelers. But now that the word is out, you see many Americans traveling for business, college interviews, moving for a job. I'm about to move back home to Oklahoma and hope to have my first experience surfing rather than hosting.
So this is an exchange. People do it both ways.
MARX: They do and you're not obligated. You can be exclusively a surfer or exclusively a host, and some people prefer to be one or the other, or they don't have the facilities to open up their home. I stayed with someone in San Francisco who had, gosh, I would say, two surfers per week at least and traveled extensively and never stayed with people. The only people he met that had stayed with him, but he would never stay with a stranger, as he said.
CONAN: We only have a few seconds left, but were there any red flags in the profiles of the host that said - you said, uh-uh, not going there?
MARX: Well, the - I - there were a lot of people that I rejected that would probably be great for other people, but not for me. There was a love-a-tarian. I thought, no. Anybody who said the word party too much, I stayed away from because, you know. Burning man I stayed away from, in it for the journey and the lovin' and the laughter, I stayed away from.
CONAN: I can understand that. Patricia Marx, thanks very much for your time.
MARX: Thank you.
CONAN: Patricia Marx with us from our bureau in New York. You can find a link to her piece on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, why so many people are unhappy with hospitals. It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.