March 29, 2007 — -- Want to see the pyramids in Egypt, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the glaciers in Alaska -- and never pay for a hotel room? In January 2004, four 20-somethings started a Web site to help other people do just that. The site is CouchSurfing.com.
The concept is simple. Log on to the CouchSurfing Web site, pick your destination and find somebody there who will allow you to crash on their couch. You shouldn't have a hard time finding a host, says co-founder Daniel Hoffer.
"We [have] close to 200,000 members, and they are in more than 200 countries," he says.
But don't expect the Ritz. On a recent visit to CouchSurfer Alex Fisher's apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, "Nightline" saw a typical CouchSurfing situation: a cramped, one-bedroom apartment with a futon in the corner. This week, Fisher's apartment is host to two young women from Toronto -- Amanda Charrion and Silvia Yee.
"It's very good for the shoestring traveler," Charrion says about her CouchSurfing experience. "It allows me to go out and visit new places and see new things where I don't have to worry so much about the cost of everything."
And it's not like they're without the hotel benefits of a concierge. Fisher is the perfect host, offering all her CouchSurfing guests maps and restaurant recommendations.
"Helping people out, I just think that's great," she says of her motivation for hosting. Including Charrion and Yee, Fisher has hosted about 37 CouchSurfers to date.
But while it all sounds great up until this point, there are some questionable issues. It's not your couch, it's not your blanket and you don't really know too much about the person who is sleeping in the next room.
Besides an identity verification check that you must go through to join the CouchSurfing network, there's really not too much security. And the only way to check out your host or guest is by reading online reviews written by previous roomies.
"Nightline" was told time and time again that even petty thefts were minimal. And the Web site claims that only 0.2 percent of the CouchSurfing experiences are negative.
That might not be enough to convince everyone that CouchSurfing is safe. Charrion and Yee are both new to CouchSurfing, and say their parents were worried.
"They could be crazy," Yee says, explaining her parents' worry about her host. "They might chop people into little pieces. But it hasn't happened."
It hasn't happened … yet. So why not do a criminal background check for more safety?
"A criminal background check would be great," Hoffer agrees, "but since we are in 213 countries at last count, it's hard to run a background check in Somalia or Thailand."
Charrion loved her CouchSurfing experience and says the uncertainty about her host didn't scare her at all.
"I mean, you get to know the person," she says. "You can talk to them online, … get to know a little bit about them before you step in the door."