CouchSurfing is a bit like a slacker version of an hospitality network, only without a formalized in a charter or fee to join

My FREE room for the night in the apartment of a friendly Italian radio producer in Rome, courtesy of
My FREE room for the night in the apartment of a friendly Italian radio producer courtesy of

"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. (Sorry, I don't have a good Paris Coursurfing story; this one will have to do.)

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 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 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.

Couchsurfing networks & resources
  • ( - As of spring 2012, more than 4 million members in 251 countries and more than 86,000 cities on all seven continents (yes, there's even a woman at McMurdo research station in Antarctica). In France: 335,197. In Paris: 515. The median age is people in their late twenties—though there are more than 870,000 in their thirties, 30,800 in their sixties, and more than 800 octogenarians.
  • The Hospitality Club ( - 647,229 members in 230 countries, including 57,228 in France, of which 6,892 in Paris.
  • Global Freeloaders ( - 82,456 members in 215 countries, including 2,347 in France, of which 743 in Paris. Must be ready to host others.
What is CouchSurfing?

Though there are several networks out there, the one called definitely came up with the best name, so by the power vested in me as a travel journalist, I am hereby promoting the term to become the official title for this form of travel.
CouchSurfing networks—there are several—each consist of roughly half a million 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 networks. 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 networks 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 couch to crash on for the night 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 really that many Couchsurfing spots out there?

I went and out of the 515 people offering free lodging in Paris was everyone from a 20-year-old student to a 28-year-old marketing consultant to a 37-year-old special education teacher to a 44-year-old writer to a 51-year-old massage therapist.

France actually has the third highest number of Couchsurfers in the world: nearly 400,000 total.

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.

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.

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.)

» More lodgings in Paris:,,,