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Couchsurfing lets people travel cheaply

Updated: 2013-08-18T02:33:25Z

By TREY WILLIAMS

The Kansas City Star

Sitting across the room from her wall-mounted TV is a brown leather couch, the arms covered with duct tape hiding gashes left by her two huskies, Ryder and Duke.

It’s this couch that Jerice Anterola, 26, makes available to people who are practically strangers and need a place to sleep in the Kansas City area for a few nights.

“It’s about meeting new people,” Anterola said.

Anterola is a “couchsurfer,” the name for people who open their homes or sleep on other people’s couches themselves when traveling.

They have couchsurfing.org, which organizers say is growing quickly.

The Internet community that started in 2004 now has more than 6 million “surfers,” said Marian Schembari, social media manager for couchsurfing.org.

“We have about 2,000 new members a day,” she said.

The network, which spans 100,000 cities around the world, allows members to take in different cultures and lifestyles for free while traveling domestically or abroad.

Surfers and hosts create profiles that express what they like and dislike, their lifestyle and who they are. Then, when traveling, they fill out a couch request for wherever they’re going and it’s either accepted, denied or sometimes ignored.

Most couchsurfers say the more detailed the request, the more likely it is to be accepted by someone offering up a couch. Once the request is accepted, the surfer and the host message back and forth mainly to establish a basic comfort level.

“If someone asks me for a place to stay the night before or even a week before and it’s just, ‘Hey, I need a place to crash,’” Anterola said, “sometimes I won’t even respond to that.

“To me that’s not the purpose of this site.”

For the recent University of Missouri-Kansas City graduate, it all started during a trip to Germany to visit her brother and backpack through Europe. They didn’t stay at any hostels –– instead they spent the nights with people they had just met.

“I didn’t really understand what was going on,” Anterola said. “My brother was just like, ‘We’re staying with these people.’

“It was just really interesting and weird to be sleeping in such close quarters with people that you don’t even know.”

Anterola has hosted 11 people since her first trek through Europe, and for her it’s about the connection, the friendship between the surfer and host –– a common theme among couch surfers. She shows them Kansas City — barbecue, Westport, Sporting KC — and even introduces them to her friends.

Her friends, though, don’t understand the attraction of couchsurfing.

“It’s odd to them,” Anterola said. “I keep trying to tell them it’s about the experience you get through it.”

It’s not weird sleeping under the same roof, just doors away from a complete stranger, welcoming them into your life.

“Usually we’ll just have a classic conversation,” Anterola said, “as if longtime friends had just met.”

With members worldwide, for some couchsurfing has become a way to learn about new cultures, religions and languages.

Each city has its own page on the site where members post events to get the couchsurfing community together –– a couple in Kansas City gathers people to teach juggling, eat pizza and have a good time.

Daniel Maenle, a 29-year-old former theology student, has been a member for almost eight years. He’s hosted more than 200 surfers and said he’s a better person because of it.

“This gave me the ability to meet people from different backgrounds and religions, and it’s changed my life,” Maenle said. “Instead of a religious person, I’ve just become a humanitarian.”

For members, danger isn’t really a concern, and their safety is rarely in question.

Maenle said the people in this community want it to work. They use a rating and comment system to grade surfers and hosts, and anyone with a bad rating is not likely to get a sofa for the night.

“There are about 5 million surfers worldwide with fewer than 5,000 negative stories or bad experiences,” Maenle said. “I understand people don’t want to let strangers into their homes.

“But I think for me, it’s more, ‘I don’t want to let bad people into my house.’ There are a lot of good people out there, you just have to give them the opportunity.”

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