Tuesday, 26 June 2012

ITTP Prague TEFL: Monthly Guest Writer

With quite a few of our international clients taking their ITTP courses on limited budgets (think student loans back home scenario), and at the same time harboring a strong desire for travel, we thought that for this month's guest writer article that we would approach a service which provides a solution to this conundrum. This btw is a tried, tested and recommended service which both my friends and I have used in the past in various locations around the world. As an example, my friend Bob a few years ago (before he headed back home over the pond for good) used this service to hook up a few nights free stay over New Year's, sleeping on the couch in a loft apartment in an expensive section of one of the most expensive cities in the world (The West Village, NYC). June's Monthly Guest Writer is a representative from that online service and that online service is CouchSurfing. We would like to thank CouchSurfing for taking the time to contribute to this article, and special thanks goes out to Meredith for her time and for making this piece possible in the first place. This article takes the form of a Q+A and appears unedited:

1. How long has CouchSurfing been around?

Our beta launch was in 2003. At that point, the team was a small group of volunteers. To give them the chance to test the system and figure out what was working and what wasn't, at the outset the only way to become a member was to be invited by another member. Everything went really well, so in January of 2004 the site became open to anyone who wants to join and has remained that way ever since.

2.  What is CouchSurfing?

CouchSurfing is a community of people around the world who share a love of travel and an interest in the world around them.

The heart of what brings the community together is hospitality exchange. That means that when I travel, I can write to other members and ask if they would be willing to let me stay at their home, for free. It gives you a whole new perspective on the place you're visiting. One of my favorite experiences as a surfer (that's the guest) was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. My friend and I were passing through for one night and a couple hosted us. I was living in New York at the time and the farm the guy had grown up on was bigger than Manhattan! I got to ask all about it; how many kids did he go to school with, what did he do for fun, all kinds of things I would never have the chance to talk about otherwise, having spent most of my life living in cities.

And on the flip side, I can let travelers stay with me. I personally actually enjoy hosting even more than surfing; I've hosted between 50 and 100 people in 8 different cities. I'm still in touch with many of my surfers. One of the best experiences was when my roommates and I hosted a young Australian couple in New York on New Year's Eve. Our plan was to have a few friends over for a quiet evening. But then our surfers went to the dollar store and found this amazingly cheesy plastic faux-mural of the Time Square New Year's party. We put it on the wall and that changed the whole night. We ended up having a fairly large party, and J & D, who were amazing photographers, documented it all. That was a year and a half ago and I still check their blog and talk to them on Facebook from time to time.

Finally, there are also events (we call them "activities"). These are really fun and actually the best way to learn about CouchSurfing and get involved in the community. An activity can be as simple as a few people getting together to go to a museum, or as complex as a four-day campout with hundreds of people. Most large cities in the world have a weekly gathering; Prague's is on Thursday.

3. How does it work?

Anyone is welcome to join! Just go to the homepage and sign up. At that point you create a profile. It's really worth putting some time into this. It's not like other social networks where you just add your name and a photo. Your profile is what people look at when they decide whether they'd like to host or surf with you, so it's important to be honest and give a good amount of information. Definitely having two or three photos and a good description of yourself is helpful.

Once you're set up, I usually recommend going to an activity first. It's a good way to get a feel for the community without pushing your comfort zone too far. It's also a good way to get some references — these are kind of like reviews that members write describing their experience with one another. It's much, much easier to find a host or surfer if you have a few of these.

In general, how you participate is entirely up to you. You don't need to host in order to surf, or vice versa. Some people primarily host, others primarily surf, and others enjoy the activities the most. Just explore!

4. What sort of people CouchSurf?

Sometimes I refer to CouchSurfers as "socially adventurous": we're people who really enjoy meeting new people and learning from them, and have fun when we try new things.

Other than that basic similarity, we're a pretty diverse bunch. As you might guess, it's most popular with people who are in their twenties and thirties. Younger people have a bit more flexibility in their lives and that makes it easier to host or surf. But we also have a growing number of families who use CouchSurfing to help their children learn about the world, and older people who have begun to realize that you are not necessarily sleeping on a couch in the literal sense when you do this. If you're in your fifties and you write to someone else in their fifties, chances are you're going to be staying in a home that's quite similar in comfort to your own.

5. Is it safe to CouchSurf?

Any time you travel or meet new people, it's important to make careful decisions. The CouchSurfing website is designed to give you a lot of information to help you make those choices. Before you choose to meet someone, you should read their profile carefully, including the references from other surfers. If someone has a well filled out profile, photos, and a lot of good references, meeting that person is similar to meeting a friend of a friend. You can't know 100% that this person is trustworthy, but you have a very strong set of information that recommends them.

6. Where can you CouchSurf?

Just about anywhere! We have members in 90,000 cities in 230 countries and territories. There are even CouchSurfers living in the research stations on Antarctica.

7. Where are the more popular places to CouchSurf?

The cities where people request to stay the most frequently are, in order: Barcelona, Madrid, Stockholm, London, Istanbul, San Francisco, New York, Prague, Paris, and Berlin. The cities with the largest populations of CouchSurfers are, in order: Paris, London, Berlin, Istanbul, Montreal, New York, Buenos Aires, Barcelona, Melbourne, and Moscow.

8. What is planned for the future of couchsurfing.org?

Right now we're working on a major site upgrade. Our existing site is still built on the same foundations that our co-founders created back in 1999. The internet has changed a lot since then and it's time for us to catch up. We're going to make it easier for people to find one another and things to do. We recently launched our first mobile app and that's an area we're hoping to do a lot more with. So that's the future of the website. For the future of the community, I think it's just going to be more of the same! Great people meeting one another and learning about the world.

Meredith Hutcheson
Member Communications Coordinator

Hezky den!/Lovely day!