I’m in Istanbul and I can’t get chicken soup out of my mind. No, not the brothy kind – I’m not hungry. I’m talking about the cliché, the balm for your weary soul. I’ve found my chicken soup. Except in Istanbul the chicken soup is a couch. And despite the declamations of Ecclesiastes, there is something new under the traveler’s sun.
In July 2006 I had just completed a 10-month stint teaching English in Kyrgyzstan and planned to travel through Georgia and Turkey for a couple weeks on my way back to the United States. I had seemingly limitless travel options but limited travel funds. I had to find ways to save money. Accommodations, as any traveler knows, will quickly destroy a budget, especially in cities, so finding cheap places to stay became my internet search obsession. While I was exhausting Google permutations of hostel + cheap + clean, one of my co-workers offered a solution that has changed the way that I look at travel.
She told me about two websites: couchsurfing.com and hospitalityclub.org. Both are social-networking sites with the goal of connecting travelers with locals who offer free accommodation. You join both by simply creating a user name and filling out a profile. Once you’ve registered, you can tap into a network of over 320,000 people worldwide (including Antarctica, if you’re ever doing some freelance Emperor penguin research). You are never obligated to accept a request to stay at your house, and let’s face it: you probably won’t ever be asked if you live in a small town in the U.S. Members list preferences and restrictions on their profile page. Some limit your stay to two or three days, some leave it open-ended. Who you choose to stay with is a matter of looking at the profile pages and pictures and finding the person least likely to be a serial killer.
I decided to use the two websites to find a place to stay in the cities I would be visiting – Tbilisi, Trabzon and Istanbul. If you couchsurf, you need to be patient and persistent. You should start contacting people at least three or four weeks before you plan to arrive. This gives them time to accept or reject, and you time to look for other options if they’re not available. I had to contact six people before I found a place to stay in Istanbul; however, the first person I emailed in Trabzon was available. Having made all my “reservations”, it was time to see how this couchsurfing thing worked in reality.