As part two of our budget travel special, Peter Geoghegan jumps on board travel’s latest trend, couchsurfing
What if I said you could travel anywhere in the world and not pay for accommodation; that you could leave your Lonely Planet at home and be given a personalised itinerary of everything to see and do? Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, no, actually. Provided you don’t mind staying with strangers, CouchSurfing could be your ticket to a cheap and completely unique holiday experience.
Website www.couchsurfing.com was set up four years ago, as a not-for-profit social networking site that aims to connect (usually single) travellers to people with a spare bed – or couch – for a couple of nights. However, 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.
Creating a profile on the site is quick and free, although some hosts prefer that a friend who’s also a member vouches for you, so they know they’re not getting a psychopath. Having uploaded a friendly-looking photo, I pick a destination. Recent economic problems mean a week in Iceland seems suddenly affordable. Within hours of firing off ‘can I surf your couch?’ emails to Icelandic hosts, I have accommodation set up the whole way around the island and am ready(ish) to take a plunge into the unknown.
Rule number one. CouchSurfing hosts are probably the most laidback people you will ever meet, and they understand how unreliable planes, trains and automobiles can be. So when delays in Glasgow affect my flight and I arrive at my Reykjavik host Sigrun’s house at five in the morning, she doesn’t bat an eyelid, she just lets me in, shows me her couch and shuffles back to bed.
I learn rule number two in the time it takes my rucksack to touch the ground. If you place a high premium on privacy then CouchSurfing is probably not for you. Sigrun’s living room has no doors, and I have plenty of cats for company.
And four-legged friends may not be your only companions – the following night in Akureyri, 250km north of the capital, I share one rather cramped bedsit with my host, Elin, and two other CouchSurfers. That’s when I learn rule number three: unexpected fellow CouchSurfers can be a blessing in disguise. The Polish couple on the floor across from me in Elin’s poky basement have a rental car and plan to spend the next day driving around Myvatn, the spectacular lunar landscape used as a training ground by astronauts and ask if I fancy joining them.
Sitting in one of Myvatn’s famous hot mud springs, getting to know my new CouchSurfing friends , I realise this is about more than just a spare bed. It gives you an improved belief in human nature and the kindness of strangers and – probably most important of all in these cash strapped times — it shows that you can still see the world without it costing the earth.