These couch potatoes not sad sacks
Crane Sorensen thinks there’s no better way to see the world than from the lumpy comfort of a stranger’s couch.
Sorensen, 26, is a member of the internationally popular Web site, Couchsurfing.com, which is a social networking site for travelers to not only make friends, but bunk for the night in strangers’ homes free of charge.
“It’s not just a place to save on a hotel expense, but it’s really more about the people you meet and the ideas you have to share,” Sorensen said.
He spent the last week of December traveling in Russia. He used the site to find people who could help him see and understand the “real” Russia.
Although he saved $500 on the cost of the trip, the experience he received, courtesy of his hosts, was priceless, he said.
One host in Moscow worked for Nestle and was an artist who offered herself as a free guide to the city’s famous art museums. Another worked for the United Nations’ cultural group UNESCO. They shared beer and pizza in her apartment while she explained the culture and politics of the country, Sorenson said.
In St. Petersburg he was hosted by a woman named Lola, who worked at the State Hermitage Museum, one of the most famous museums in the world. Lola gave Sorensen a behind-the-scenes tour, something few American tourists would ever have the opportunity to do.
Sorensen said he rang in the new year with another family, drinking vodka and setting off fireworks.
“If you’re up for learning about different cultures, it’s a unique community that provides interesting connections,” Sorensen said.
He joined Couchsurfing.com last October, offering a pull-out couch and guest bathroom to anybody who might be passing through Grand Junction. He provides clean sheets and towels, plus hotel soaps and tiny shampoo bottles.
His first guests were members of an indie band who were playing coffee shops on their first American tour. Sorensen let them wash laundry, and he cooked them dinner.
“I was nervous, but it turned out to be really great,” Sorensen said of his first couch surfing hosting experience.
Since then, he has hosted people from Woodstock, N.Y., Germany, Denmark, and students from Colorado State University.
Sorensen said he works long hours in the oil and gas industry, but he tries to supply his guests with maps and ideas of things to do during their stay in Grand Junction.
“I’m not stingy with my food or anything. They can use my place however they need to, and I try to show them as much as I can when I’m here,” he said.
Sorensen said Grand Junction is a popular overnight stop for travelers, because many are coming from Moab and heading to Denver.
The people who have stayed in his home have been “more than kind,” cleaning up after themselves, offering to pay for drinks, and leaving thank-you cards.
“They have all been very interesting people,” Sorensen said.
He has been most surprised by the fact all of his guests have been highly educated people in their 20s to mid-30s. Sorensen said he believes the people who use Couchsurfing.com are really looking to meet people, rather than take advantage of free accommodations.
“And it’s definitely not a dating Web site,” he emphasized.
The Couchsurfing Project is the largest hospitality exchange network in the world with 1.5 million members in 231 countries, according to Wikipedia.
It was started by Casey Fenton in 2000, who planned a trip to Iceland. Fenton e-mailed 1,500 students at the University of Iceland, asking for a free place to stay and general friendship. He received more than 50 offers for free accommodation, prompting the idea for Couchsurfing.com.
The site faced a number of setbacks in the past decade, including a complete termination in 2006, but it was relaunched by dedicated users who believe the project can change the world “one couch at a time.”
Users must first create a profile, similar to the social networking site Facebook, explaining who they are, where they live, and what kind of accommodations, if any, they have to offer.
Those who have surfed can leave comments regarding their experience with a host. These comments cannot be altered by the host, leaving a trail for other surfers to follow. It equals a rating system that surfers can use to determine with whom they’d like to stay.
“You want people to say good things about you,” Sorensen said, “so you can keep surfing.”
Safety is an issue that all couch surfers take into consideration. “It requires a leap of faith to invite a stranger into your life,” Sorensen said, adding it helps to believe that most people are fundamentally good.
The site did report the rape of a female traveler last March in the United Kingdom by a male Moroccan national.
Couchsurfing.com also provides connections to travel guides, business forums, bar crawls and camping trips. Annually, there are two events that bring couch surfers from all over the world together in one country. Istanbul is the chosen city for 2010.
As one user said, “I think it does a wonderful job of making the world a smaller place, and of allowing people to see new places for what they really are.”
Sorensen said he plans to visit all seven continents before he turns 30. He hopes to use Couchsurfing.com to connect with people in Latin America this fall.
“Travel is a way I can understand the world that we live in, and (couch surfing) helps me get a more well-rounded experience of a country,” Sorensen said.
His most important travel rule: “After three days, it’s time to surf on!”