You’re 19, in a foreign country, and standing on the doorstep of someone you don’t know. As soon as you ring the doorbell, that someone becomes your friend, tour guide and host for the next few days. All you can hope is that you accurately interpreted their online persona as a suitable stranger to live with.
It may sound like the beginning of a Dateline special on overseas abductions, but it’s the experience Belmont junior Jill Barrett took in the spring of 2011 as a couch surfer. And she calls it the best thing she’s ever done.
“I was the most nervous, uptight, planning person, and couch surfing totally cured me of that,” Barrett said. “It taught me to loosen up, take things as they come, enjoy each moment, and really accept people. I saw just because someone’s a little out there doesn’t mean they’re not awesome.”
CouchSurfing is an online organization that connects travelers worldwide, aiming to create “a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter,” according to its website.
Barrett joined the online community in December 2010, just before leaving for her study abroad semester in Angers, France. While abroad, she had long weekends and a few breaks that she used for her travels.
For her first few surfing adventures, she went with Belmont student and then-junior Rachel Martino. She called her first CouchSurfing experience in England the greatest first experience anyone could have. Messaging her hosts-to-be through the site before her stay, she was comforted with assurances like, “We treat couch surfers like family,” “everything’s going to be taken care of,” and “we believe in the human experience, in trust.”
“It just felt so honest,” Barrett said.
But isn’t that dangerous? CouchSurfing, after all, clashes with the old mantra of don’t talk to strangers.
“My parents were concerned for my safety, but I don’t want anything to happen to me, either,” said Barrett.
CouchSurfing.org and Barrett both confirm that the best ways to be safe is to actually read through your host’s profile, and follow your instincts.
“You have to make a decision based on someone’s profile, so references are a big deal,” Barrett said. “If there’s a negative reference, don’t take it lightly. Take it as a warning from your friend who’s gone there before. And negative references go to the top, too, so you can’t miss it.”
Still, there’s an element of uncertainty to meeting someone you’ve only interacted with through a few online messages, Barrett said.
“When it comes down to it, you’ve got to trust people and hope that they come through,” she said.
Experienced hosts with good references usually do, in outstanding ways.
“The free place to stay is a major bonus, I couldn’t have done two-thirds of what I did without it,” Barrett said. “But the people that do CouchSurfing are so eager to share their culture and hear about yours that it makes staying at a stranger’s house feel like you’re going to stay with a friend, without even knowing them.”
CouchSurfing not only provides a free place to stay, but also to make personal connections with the hosts. The faux pas: treating their home as a hostel and neglecting a relationship with a host are considered bad manners and will garner bad profile references.
“If someone is from Thailand, traveling in France, the host would expect them to make a Thai dinner or something,” Barrett said. “It’s a shared experience.”
In all, Barrett surfed more than 15 European couches that semester, and left each with hilarious stories, surreal experiences and friends.
“That’s what you remember in decades, not what museum you went to,” Barrett said. “The important thing is having interpersonal experiences that enrich you emotionally, culturally, and spiritually, and broaden your horizons. I don’t think there’s any better way to travel.”