Having grown considerably over the last couple of years, couchsurfing now claims to have more than 4 millions members in over 80,000 cities. With it’s unusual concept of free accommodation the company also gets the occasional media appearance.

Couchsurfing states its mission as promoting inter-cultural understanding, but what sticks with many people is the free accommodation. Mainly the ‘free’ part. In a city like Bangkok the hosts (i.e. people who provide a place to stay) get flooded with requests while ‘locals to hang out with’ might only get one request per month. That might not say too much about the couchsurfing corporation but certainly about the understanding of its members.

Last year couchsurfing turned from a non-profit into a for-profit corporation, a step that caused widespread dismay in the community. Couchsurfing itself tries to conceal the truth somewhat by labelling itself as a ‘socially responsible B corporation’. Yet it remains a fact that they got more than $7m in venture capital and now need to generate revenue. Lots of it.

What pissed many people off was the fact that volunteers spend thousands of hours building the website and the community and suddenly the fruit of their work belongs to a million dollar company and their founders. When that happened, I read up on some background stories and found out that couchsurfing has a long history of lacking transparency and neglecting its users’ opinions. At that point I asked them to refund a donation I made a few months ago, which they did.

All that being said, the community and the opportunities offered are still amazing. Since I started my trip last autumn I stayed with three hosts and met up with about a dozen locals. Some of the experiences I had with them easily make the highlights of the last two years.

When it comes to staying at other people’s places or having foreigners stay at one’s place, safety is always a concern. In 2009 a case made it to the media where a female couchsurfer had been raped by her host in Leeds. There have been more reports in the community but couchsurfing didn’t do much to investigate the matter and certainly didn’t go public with it either (they still need to make millions of dollars with their concept of free accommodation).

There are safety measures however. Every member has a list of references, that give a rough idea of what other people think about the person. In addition to that, it would probably be the easiest for single women to stay with and host only other women.

The the bad things aside, I highly recommend to see couchsurfing as an opportunity to meet locals, hear their stories and try their food. Especially those locals that don’t have a couch to offer (and thus don’t get many messages) are keen on meeting people from other cultures and I’ve been shown an amazing hospitality. Most of them treated me like a guest and wouldn’t even let me pay for dinner.

Also, if it wasn’t for couchsurfing and the people I met through the site, I would have had a far worse time in Auckland.

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