Last month, the free accommodation-swapping network Couchsurfing.com hit a major milestone— it signed up its millionth member, only five years after its inception.
The occasion was celebrated with a “Million Member March” through New York City, where thousands of Couchsurfing.com members trekked from Queens to Times Square and beyond in a city that is notorious for its pricey accommodations.
For those who aren’t aware, Couchsurfing.com, whose motto is “changing the world, one couch at a time” is a non-profit organization that connects travelers with hosts from all over the world who have a free couch, bedroom, or place to pitch a tent in their yard.
It is astounding but somehow not surprising that the group, founded in April 2004 by four former dot-commers, has grown by leaps and bounds in such a short amount of time—in fact, membership has literally doubled every year since its inception.
Crashing on other travelers’ couches was a practice that was already de rigeur in the backpacker community, but Couchsurfing.com just formalized it, gave it a name, and made it much, much easier for travelers to connect with each other.
Although the primary member base in the early days was young backpackers, the demographics have changed somewhat as membership has risen. In 2007 the average age of a couch surfer was 25, but by 2009 it had risen to 27.
Couchsurfing.com ambassador Antoine Rolland said that the hosts tend to be older, between 25 and 35, while the majority of guests (44 percent) are generally in the 18-24 range.
“Hosts are more often working people with jobs, who host since they aren’t able to travel at the moment,” he said.
Though membership still skews toward the younger end of the spectrum, there are plenty of 30, 40, and 50-somethings in the mix. At last count there were even 235 members between the ages of 80 and 90.
Word-of-mouth and lots of recent positive media coverage have definitely turned couchsurfing into a mainstream cultural phenomenon and attracted older travelers. But Rolland says that the organization is not in danger of becoming inundated with recession-starved vacationers seeking a free place to stay, despite the fact that the one million member milestone was reached in the middle of an economic meltdown.
“Crisis is not what brings people to couchsurfing – it’s the desire to see the world and meet new people,” Rolland said, echoing the company’s mission of promoting cultural exchange, understanding, and creating a better world. “You get something for something.”
That reciprocity is a key tenet of Couchsurfing.com, and one that helps deters freeloaders who might want something for nothing. You must participate as both host and guest to be a member of the site, unlike some of the organization’s competitors.
Though he doesn’t think Couchsurfing.com will continue to expand exponentially every year, Rolland says that membership will swell as more and more people in underserved countries jump on the bandwagon.
“I don’t think there will be a million more in 2010, but there is no end to the growth,” he said. “Asia is a little weak but has been improving a lot, and Africa is too.”
So if you’re an adventurous but penny-pinching type with some flexibility as far as where you’re willing to lay your head at night—it could be a couch, but it could be a castle— couch surfing might be something to consider. Obviously, a willingness to host interesting people from all over the world in your own home is a prerequisite.
If not, there are other options. Globalfreeloaders.com is similar in concept to Couchsurfing.com but is not as strict about the reciprocity rule.
There’s also AirbedandBreakfast.com, which offers travelers the opportunity to rent a room in someone’s house at a very little cost.
Many monasteries will also let you lodge for next-to-nothing, and home exchange is a totally cost-free option that is popular with families with small kids.
By Karen Elowitt for PeterGreenberg.com.
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