By Mark Hopkins
My friends were getting married in New York City and I was determined to attend. My bank account had other plans.
New York is many things, but it’s not cheap. In 2008, the average hotel room cost more than $300 a night. A one-week stay would cost more than a month’s salary, even if I didn’t eat, drink, take the subway or see a Broadway show. My wedding present for the happy couple would be two paper clips knotted into the shape of a heart. Awww.
Just as my dreams of a New York vacation started to crumble, my roommate asked a fateful question:
“Do you mind if some girl from Montreal crashes on our couch?”
She had signed up for CouchSurfing.com, an online haven for cash-starved travelers that allows them to bypass hotels and search for a friendly stranger with an empty couch. We were friendly. Our couch, vacant.
I had heard of CouchSurfing before, but I hadn’t signed up because, frankly, it sounded sketchy. It’s one thing to give visitors a warm welcome to your city; it’s another thing entirely to give them a house key and free reign over your living room.
On the other hand, this could be a handy solution to my New York dilemma.
“Sure,” I shrugged. “She’s not a serial killer, right?”
The key, radical assumption is that CouchSurfing users aren’t serial killers. That people are, on the whole, nice.
While CouchSurfing has an optimistic outlook, it isn’t naive. There’s a three-level verification system, where the website confirms your name and address, and a vouching system, where members who have already proven themselves as trustworthy can “vouch” for you. Travelers and hosts also have the opportunity to comment on their shared experience. When you look at a CouchSurfer’s profile, you can read feedback from other members.
After a quick perusal of her profile, we determined that Montreal girl wasn’t too creepy. A week later, she arrived at our door, eager to surf on our virgin couch cushions. Then she asked another fateful question: “What should I do in Calgary?”
My instinct was to launch into a well-worn cynical tirade. “In Calgary? Pfft—downtown is a ghost town after five o’clock, the nightlife is a joke, and if you’re a vegetarian? Good luck.”
Then I paused and noticed her smile, eager to explore the wonders of a new city. I thought about why I had chosen Calgary as my hometown, and the floodgates opened.
“The Calgary Zoo is pretty cool, or the Glenbow Museum. There are some great shops in Kensington...oh, and you have to take a walk through Prince’s Island Park! Hey, actually, I’m going to a party tonight. Do you want to come?”
My friends were fascinated by this daring woman who had entered my home sight-unseen. “So, you didn’t even know Mark before you arrived?” By the end of the night, she had a host of excited tour guides vying to share their vision of Calgary with her.
I realised that my initial analysis had been wrong. CouchSurfing wasn’t for cash-starved travelers; it was for open-minded explorers.
I opened an account and started hunting for a couch in NYC, which proved to be a challenge. New York is one of the website’s top destinations; finally, a young guy in Manhattan offered me a place to crash. On the cab ride to his mystery address, I braced myself for a rat-infested mattress with questionable stains and a maniacal Bush-voting host.
Instead, I hit the jackpot: a private guest bedroom in a stunning East Village penthouse condo, with a giant flat-screen television, a sprawling kitchen and not one but two rooftop patios, one overlooking the other, with a garden and a barbecue. My two generous hosts pointed me to the East Village’s vegetarian hotspots, taught me to navigate the subway and took me for hangover brunch at the Life Café (as seen in RENT).
It only took one week, a Central Park wedding and a pull-out couch to completely transform my ideas about travel. Adios hotels, sayonara hostels—I am a CouchSurfing convert.
Calgary doesn’t have quite the same appeal as New York City, so travelers aren’t exactly pounding down my door. Every couple of months, though, a query will appear in my inbox: “I’m visiting Calgary. Is your couch available?”
The answer is a wholehearted, “yes”.