When Swedes Robert Zettinger and Anton Appleberg arrived in the United States for a four-month-long road trip that spanned 25 states, they had their backpacks and a return flight home but not a single hotel reservation - though not for lack of planning.
The two Stockholm-area natives banked on finding free lodging with strangers during their first trek through America, and they weren't disappointed. Townspeople across the country threw open their doors, eager to offer a spare bed, couch or even floor space to the two seemingly perfect strangers.
Zettinger and Appleberg are among a growing population of travelers using online hospitality exchanges like CouchSurfing.com to find free lodging and see more than just obvious tourist attractions in cities they visit. With more than 275,000 current members worldwide, CouchSurfing.com is one of a handful of travel-friendly social-networking groups that aim to fulfill a backpacker's every need.
"I don't think couchsurfing is at all about finding somewhere to stay, it's more about discovering new places and cultures," said Zettinger, a 28-year-old computer software programmer.
He recalled staying with a young woman in St. Louis, Mo., who took the two men to a Cubs v. Cardinals baseball game.
"We had no clue as to the rules and tactics of baseball.," Zettinger said. "Luckily, two or three parties of people around us engaged greatly in explaining it all. Apparently the joint task of explaining baseball to Swedes overshadowed the rivalry between Cubs and Cardinals fans."
Similar to social-networking giant Facebook, on whose platform a travel-networking feature recently launched, the aptly named CouchSurfing.com's concept is simple: create your free profile, browse others' in cities you plan to visit, request a couch and surf away. Joining does not oblige a member to serve as host; you can surf others' couches without offering up your own.
The site's concept developed in 2003, when New Hampshire native Casey Fenton traveled to Iceland. Looking for a place to crash while there, Fenton sent a mass email to relative strangers looking for accommodation, and was surprised by how many positive responses he received.
After returning to the United States, Fenton asked longtime friend Daniel Hoffer to help him launch the nonprofit Web site, and Hoffer agreed.
"I think in a day and age of growing online communication and global conflict, there's an increasing need for real-world connections and intercultural understanding," said Hoffer, a marketing executive for a software company. "CouchSurfing provides those links."
Nearly 105,000 couches around the world are up for offer on the site, and approximately 25 percent of members are U.S.-based with a median age of 26. On average, more than 4,000 new memberships are created weekly.
While users can find mattresses in Mauritius and daybeds in Brunei, the site isn't limited to accommodation. Couchsurfing.com offers companionship, too: it's possible to contact locals willing to show you their city's sites, join you for a cup of coffee or hit the town with you at night.
Andrea Perullo, a 25-year-old acupuncturist in New York, rarely plays host due to her cramped living quarters. Instead, she likes to show visitors her local's version of New York.
"A 'typical' week for me could include dinner with an Argentine, drinks with a Danish couple or clubbing with a bunch of rowdy Italians," she said, laughing.
Of course, not everyone is as keen to take a chance in the company of a complete stranger as Perullo and the two Swedes have been. Non-members often question the security of couchsurfing, as anyone with Internet access can join and may have less than honorable motives. To be sure, CouchSurfing.com stresses that it is not a dating site, nor does it encourage dalliances among members; most other travel-networking sites have similar guidelines.
"Romance will occur, and we recognize that," co-founder Hoffer said. "What's important is that this is not the purpose of CouchSurfing.com and members recognize that we are not a dating site. We can't tell people what to do. We simply tell members looking to use the site for romantic purposes to please go elsewhere."
The site's moderators do what's necessary to try to prevent possible mishaps. A list of references on each member's profile left by other members is one way to screen potential hosts or guests, and a new level of security - a three-part verification system - has recently been added to further insure members' safety.
And members, including New York-based computer consultant Bastien Genefort, will vouch that they've never felt their safety has been compromised while couchsurfing.
"The whole concept is to trust somebody you don't know, not fear them," Genefort said. "The security system is first and foremost you. The references are there for a reason. The more references someone has, the more people they've met and more active they are."
As the couchsurfing concept gains popularity and acceptance, the idea has been emulated across larger social-networking sites like Facebook.com. Recently, the travel-search company SideStep.com acquired TripUp, which devised a service, CouchSwap, that launched on Facebook.com and allows users to find lodging through their various friend and network connections.
The premise is similar to that of CouchSurfing.com: post a picture and description of your available couch and TripUp will plot it on Google maps for anyone in your extended network to see.
"When you view a profile and connections on Facebook, you feel more comfortable because that person has a lot of connections and that means they put themselves out there," said Brian Stolte, director of product management at SideStep. "On CouchSwap, you get your own friends' opinion on the couch and person, and we think that's more powerful. One review from a friend is better than 100 reviews from someone you don't know."
As the couchsurfing trend gains momentum, it's clear members come from all walks of life. However, they do seem to have one thing in common: the aim to tear down cultural barriers, defy negative stereotypes and promote global unity.
"Couchsurfing is all about meeting people. To me, it's trying to counter this idea of fear of foreigners, fear of your neighbors, fear of everybody," Genefort said. "You shouldn't join only to be hosted and save money. You should join to know about other people from all over the world."