A place to crash

The CouchSurfing Project offers that, and then some

Justin Cory gives the mattress resting against the wall in his Portland, Ore., backyard a good sniff. He’s pretty sure it hasn’t been rained on and it doesn’t smell like mildew, so he offers this or the floor of his basement bedroom for us to sleep on. We take the mattress.

It’s not the Hilton, but the price is right: free.

Welcome to The CouchSurfing Project (www.couchsurfing.com), the Web site that links travelers from all over the world with people who are willing to host them. The accommodations may lack the comfort and predictability of the big chain motels, but the service more than makes up for that by exposing travelers to local culture and new people. With the current state of the economy, couch surfing can be a cheap alternative to staying home.

Signing on to CouchSurfing is no more difficult than making a MySpace or Facebook profile, only the end product is much less narcissistic and has a very specific, useful purpose.

Technically, this was Cory’s first hosting experience through the Web site, but he feels he has a lot to give back.

“I spent a lot of time on people’s couches when I was touring with bands, so it seems karmic to return that favor,” says the 24-year-old vegan anarchist who recently moved from Arizona to Portland.

The site is about more than just finding a place to crash. It provides a chance to meet locals, share stories and exchange ideas and bridge cultural gaps.

The Web site was officially launched in 2004. Its main founder, Casey Fenton, tired of running the tourist rat race, e-mailed more than 1,500 Icelandic students asking them if he could stay with them on his weekend trip to Reykjavik. His experience was so positive, he decided to help create The CouchSurfing Project.

Of course, staying with a complete stranger can be daunting, so the Web site has a few tips to help assure traveler safety. Essentially, the project is a community-based network that functions on trust.

Staying with someone should be based on reading references left by other travelers and direct correspondence via the Web site. Another tool aimed at safety is to become a “verified member,” meaning the site has verified and matched the name of the surfer associated with a credit card or bank account with their physical address.

Dean Otness, 25, another host in Portland who has traveled all over the country as a couch surfer, says that just like with anything, people have to trust their instincts.

“You can get a feel for someone from looking at their profile,” he says. “I have definitely said no to people before, not even because they seem creepy, but maybe just because their interests were very different from mine.”

When paying for a room you may get a few extra towels, an ice machine and arguably clean bedding, but it is hard to imagine a Holiday Inn offering vegan quinoa burritos and beer at 2 a.m., or taking their customers on a 4 a.m. urban art stenciling mission.

Couch surfing may not be for the overly shy or cautious, but it offers affordable adventure and instant friendships as an alternative to increasingly homogenized, prepackaged tourism.