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Duluth 'CouchSurfers' link frugal travelers

It's defined as lodging at a stranger's house while traveling. Arrangements are made online. Duluth CouchSurfers will meet in the hallway outside Fitgers Brewhouse at 7 p.m. today If you're late, ask for Mel's table. It's International CouchSurfi...

It's defined as lodging at a stranger's house while traveling. Arrangements are made online.

Duluth CouchSurfers will meet in the hallway outside Fitgers Brewhouse at 7 p.m. today If you're late, ask for Mel's table.

It's International CouchSurfing Day, and the local CouchSurfing Ambassador, Melissa Schneider, has called a meeting.

Couch surfing is staying at a stranger's home (on their couch, perhaps) while traveling. These stays are arranged through membership in CouchSurfing, located at www.couchsurfing.com .

New members and those interested in learning about CouchSurfing are welcome to come to the meeting, Schneider said.

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Do people really do this? Just ask someone in Paris or Dusseldorf or London or Istanbul if you can stay with them? And does it work?

Schneider, 25, said it does. She joined CouchSurfing in preparation for a trip to Europe in 2006. During her journey through Norway, Scotland and Germany, she said she stayed with many CouchSurfers and had only good experiences. In some cities she wasn't able to arrange a stay, and instead slept in hostels. But mostly, she said, she could find people who welcomed her into their homes.

"You go on the Web site and run a search -- people are grouped by gender and age, place, whether or not they have references, interest groups -- and send them a message through the Web site. Their response will turn up in your e-mail inbox." All the communication goes through the CouchSurfing system, so you don't know anyone's address or phone number until they send it to you. CouchSurfing has a system for verifying addresses and names, and many members vouch for other members -- reporting on their experiences to the network.

Another Duluth member, physician Aga Bednarz, 32, joined CouchSurfing when she lived in Ann Arbor, Mich. She said she moved here about eight months ago and took her CouchSurfer identity with her. She has hosted several travelers, including a former Duluth journalist, now of Cincinnati, who returned and went snowboarding with her at Lutsen. She has also had many foreign adventures using the service.

She recently went to Argentina, and in preparation sent a message to the kite-boarding interest group on CouchSurfing, asking if anyone wanted to do kite-surfing in Argentina. She did find people to stay with in Buenos Aires, but she also was contacted by a Londoner who wasn't going to Argentina but wrote that the trip seemed very tempting. They eventually arranged a mutual trip to Venezuela. When they were kit-surfing, she said she got in trouble in the water and he saved her life.

"So this person I never met, now I'll know him the rest of my life," Bednarz said.

The organization is primarily an online community, but there are groups all over the world that sometimes host get-togethers, like today's meeting at Fitgers.

The group's founder, Casey Fenton, started the group almost by accident. He had an airline ticket to Reykjavik and no place to stay. So he "spammed 1,500 students in Reykjavik," he wrote, and received several invitations for accommodations, and also personal tours of the city. He realized what a force for international understanding this could be, and launched the beta version of couchsurfing.com in 2003. A couple of incarnations later, the organization has grown exponentially.

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ANN KLEFSTAD covers arts and entertainment for the Duluth News Tribune. Read her blog, Makers, at duluth.com, and at Area Voices on duluth newstribune.com. Reach her at aklefstad@duluthnews.com .

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