Bum­ming off friends around the world

The Washington Times Weekly - - Page Two -

NEW YORK (AP) — Jim Stone, a 29-year-old from west Texas, has been trav­el­ing non­stop since March of 2004.

Some­times in a pickup truck and other times on a mo­tor­cy­cle, he has trekked through much of the United States, Aus­tralia, New Zealand and Europe. But he has slept in a ho­tel just one night over that stretch of nearly 1,000 days.

That’s be­cause Mr. Stone is part of a grow­ing net­work of peo­ple on­line who have gone a step be­yond ho­tels, hos­tels and even apart­ment swap­ping in their travel plan­ning: They sleep on each oth­ers’ couches.

A num­ber of Web sites have sprung up to help pair trav­el­ers search­ing for a place to stay and hosts with a spare couch. Sites such as hos­pi­tal­i­ty­club.org, couch­surf­ing.com, glob­al­freeload­ers.com and place2s­tay.net are of­ten free, serv­ing only as mid­dle­men and of­fer­ing tips on how to find suc­cess­ful matches.

The sites aren’t mon­ey­mak­ers. They are largely the cre­ations of twen­tys­some­things bit­ten with wan­der­lust and the hope of help­ing bring to­gether peo­ple from dif- fer­ent cul­tures. They of­ten de­pend on vol­un­teer ad­min­is­tra­tors to help man­age the Web op­er­a­tions.

Among the big­gest is hos­pi­tal­i­ty­club.org, a site founded in 2000 by Veit Kuehne, who was then a 22-year-old busi­ness stu­dent. Mr. Kuehne wanted to use the In­ter­net’s reach to help fos­ter the ideas of a group called Ser­vas, an in­ter­na­tional peace or­ga­ni­za­tion that en­cour­ages cul­tural ex­changes through travel.

The site grew to 1,300 mem­bers by 2002, 100,000 mem­bers by Jan­uary 2006 and 200,000 by Septem­ber.

Mr. Stone uses an­other site, couch­surf­ing.com, where mem­ber­ship has cat­a­pulted to above 128,700 since start­ing in Jan­uary 2004.

Its mem­bers, such as hos­pi­tal­i­ty­club.org, stretch across the globe: Al­though the United States has the largest num­ber of mem­bers, mak­ing up about 25 per­cent of couch­surf­ing.com’s to­tal base, Europe over­all boasts 41 per­cent. The av­er­age age is 25, though 43 per­cent of mem­bers are be­tween 18 and 24.

Couch­surf­ing.com got its indi- rect start years ago, when New Hamp­shire na­tive Casey Fenton found a cheap air­plane ticket to Ice­land. In the few days he had to find a place to stay, Mr. Fenton hap­pened upon the stu­dent di­rec­tory of the Univer­sity of Ice­land.

Mr. Fenton sent e-mails to about 1,500 stu­dents, ask­ing for a place to stay and within 24 hours re­ceived dozens of re­sponses. Through stay­ing with a lo­cal, Mr. Fenton said he was able to see their Ice­land rather than merely the tourist’s view.

Couch­surf­ing.com de­pends largely on mem­ber do­na­tions to pay the op­er­at­ing bills.

Aside from ask­ing whether the ser­vices are re­ally free, one of the top ques­tions on most of the sites’ fre­quently asked ques­tions is some vari­a­tion of: “Is this safe?”

Sites do of­fer some safe­guards to help mem­bers: Mem­bers can vouch for each other and leave ref­er­ences for some­one they’ve stayed with or hosted, sim­i­lar to EBay’s rat­ing sys­tem.

But Web sites warn that they are not li­able for any pos­si­ble dan­gers that could arise be­tween host and trav­eler.

As­so­ci­ated Press

Jim Stone, who is from Texas, found a place to lay his head at the San Fran­cisco home of Sierra Melcher. Mr. Stone has been trav­el­ing since 2004, us­ing couch­surf­ing.com to find places to stay.

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