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Couchsurfing

This veddy British guest bed belongs to a 33-year-old Welsh doctor living in London, offered through Couchsurfing.com (Photo courtesy of the host)
This veddy British guest bed belongs to a 33-year-old Welsh doctor living in London, offered through Couchsurfing.com

Couchsurfing and other hospitality networks allow you to sleep for free in other member's homes

What is CouchSurfing?

CouchSurfing networks—there are several, but Couchsurfing.com defintely came up with the best name—each consist of millions of people all around the world willing (indeed, eager) to let total strangers stay with in their spare bedroom or fold-out couch absolutely for free.

This is basically a variant on the time-tested hospitality clubs. Those have been around since the 1960s, offering free lodgings to a group like-minded travelers who join, pay a membership fee, and receive a catalog of willing hosts.

Well, the Internet has ended the days of paying annual fees for a printed catalog. (Those traditional hospitality clubs do still exist, and are profiled here.) With the new model, you just sign up, log in, fill out a Facebook-like profile, and start searching for free places to crash.

CouchSurfing networks are for people who are just looking for a spare bed or fold-out sofa for a night or two while they travel the world, making it a godsend for itinerant beach bums, neo-hippies, dirt-poor students, and other cash-strapped travelers.

Are there rules for Couchsurf stays?

Every host sets his or her own rules, but:

In general you can stay as long as you like—or at least as long as your potential hosts are willing to put up with you—but remember that old saying about fish and houseguests and be polite about the amount of freeloading you do in any one spot. Two to four days seems about average.

With some networks, you don't have to offer to be a host yourself—though that is expected; in others, you must be open to hosting (or at least offering to meet with a visitor for a coffee or something, even if you can't put them up for the night).

Of course, any host has the right to accept or decline any request.

Are there really that many Couchsurfing spots out there?

Tons.

Couchsurfing.com alone has 12 million members in 200,000 cities. 

At last check, Couchsurfing.com in the the U.K. offered more than 130,000 hosts in London, and nearly 5,000 in Oxford.

How much does CouchSurfing cost?

CouchSurfing networks don't cost a penny to join, and you stay for free.

Though they don't require that you give your hosts a gratuity, be polite and at least offer to pay for any meals (plus phone calls and the like you might make from their home). Also, its always nice to bring a token gift when you arrive—as you would as a guest in anyone's home. (Bottle of wine should do it.)

How safe is CouchSurfing?

You can keep much of your personal info and e-mail secret, communicating via the site to work out where and when to meet your hosts.

You do have to be comfortable with the prospect of staying with (or hosting) a perfect stranger, but these groups do tend be self-policing.

Most networks have a system of verification and then levels of trusted-ness, and the open "comments" feature is quick to pounce on anyone who turns out to be a crummy host or terrible guest,

Where can I find willing hosts?

There tends to be much more availability in cities than in smaller towns, and the clientele does tend to skew younger (nearly 3/4 are under 30), but anyone is welcome—and the personal profiles make it easier to find a better match.

(Note: these sites go out of their way to avoid being used as dating services—not that true love might not flourish on someone's spare couch.)

What is a Couchsurfing stay like?

"Would you like to go to a party?"

I had barely met my host for the evening—a 30-something producer of science programs for RAI, the Italian state radio network—and already he was inviting me to a party at a friend's house.

That's how, within two hours of arriving in Rome, I found myself up playing a key role in a surprise party subterfuge. I was the ruse for why my host had to pick up a friend on the far side of town before taking her to "dinner" at a mutual friend's house. See, the surprise party was for her, and her friends and co-workers needed time to set up.

I spent the rest of the evening in a lovely Roman apartment, eating cheese and focaccia and canapés, drinking fine wines, and hobnobbing with staffers from the Italian equivalent of NPR.

After the party wound down, my host drove me back to his apartment (conveniently located across from a Metro station a few blocks from the Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura) where he quickly made up the fold-out sofa in his living room, asked what I'd like for breakfast in the morning, then showed me how to log onto his WiFi network before bidding me goodnight.

I have never, not once, checked into a hotel and been invited to a party by the desk clerk.

Oh, and did I mention that all of this was free. I spent the night in Rome—where the cheap hotels start around $100—and didn't spend a single euro cent.