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Have couch, will travel

Squeezing 150 people into Vince Peiro's flat in the foothills of the Swiss Alps would be a very tight fit — hence the tent city sprouting outside in the July evening sunshine. Peiro was hosting a party for members of www.couchsurfing.com, an increasingly popular Web site that matches up travelers with locals offering a spare bed or couch for the night — for free.
/ Source: Reuters

Squeezing 150 people into Vince Peiro's flat in the foothills of the Swiss Alps would be a very tight fit — hence the tent city sprouting outside in the July evening sunshine.

Peiro was hosting a party for members of www.couchsurfing.com, an increasingly popular Web site that matches up travelers with locals offering a spare bed or couch for the night — for free.

Couchsurfing, which people can use to find somewhere to stay or just a local guide to a city, has more than 300,000 members worldwide, with up to 10,000 more signing up each week.

"I traveled for nearly a year in 1998 and I was often surprised by the hospitality I received all over the world and especially in the Middle East," said Peiro, in his early 30s.

"Complete strangers invited me to their home, let me rest, fed and watered me and sent me on. One way to give that back is certainly by hosting couchsurfers."

Peiro would normally put people up in his living room, in an old farmhouse in rolling fields overlooking the first ridges of the northern Alps. But for the party, numbers dictated that most visitors had to bring their own tents and hope it stayed dry.

Most guests, largely in their 20s, came from Switzerland or neighboring countries, but some came from as far afield as Australia and Pakistan to stay with him in the small town of Gossau.

For the party Peiro simply posted a note well in advance on the Couchsurfing Web site with details of when, where and what to bring and people arrived to taste his paella, in what has become an annual Couchsurfing social event.

Other Web sites like www.hospitalityclub.org and www.place2stay.net offer a similar service to Couchsurfing and online social network Facebook has recently introduced its own "couch swap" function.

For years companies have arranged house swaps, where people exchange homes for a cut-price holiday, but on a far more formal and rigid basis.

Travelling in your own home
Couchsurfing.com was founded in 2004 by American Casey Fenton, who came up with the idea when wondering what to do and where to stay on a last-minute weekend in Iceland.

He used the University of Iceland's student directory and emailed 1,500 students asking for a place to stay, receiving about 100 offers. After meeting plenty of locals, he wondered why every journey was not like this.

The site's instructions are fairly simple — sign up, create a profile, plan a trip and send an email to potential hosts, or offer to host some surfers yourself.

It is completely free but accepts donations from grateful travelers which the site's owners say cover costs.

Pervaiz Nadir, one of Peiro's guests from Pakistan, said visitors who stayed at his home in Islamabad "don't know of these places (to visit) but I know them very well. If you meet me you will learn about the culture.

"There is no substitute for meeting the person," he said.

While most people turn out to be genuine and generous, there have been abuses, such as a visitor in the United States who wrote dud checks and stole credit cards.

Couchsurfing has safety features, based on each member leaving references about experiences with other surfers — bad as well as good — and a system to verify names and addresses.

Privacy settings also allow members to restrict how much information about them is available online.

The Web site sent a warning email last year asking any members who had been victims of a crime to leave a factual, negative reference on the relevant profile to alert other users.

The site suggests various ways to help your host including household chores or making dinner. But many members say hosting is half the fun.

"Having people stay with you in a weird way is like visiting the place (they are from)," said Dule Misevic from Serbia, who lives in Zurich. "It's kind of like traveling in your own home."