The idea of a "sharing economy" is as old as time. Wayward wanderers have been knocking on strangers' doors since before we had doorbells. But new digital services such as Couchsurfing and Airbnb have helped travelers connect with willing hosts in private homes. Airbnb has a nightly rate, Couchsurfing does not.
As a sociological experiment, NPR asked people to send in their funny and unusual experiences while using these services. We received scads of responses and came up with an incomplete list of 5 Things Couchsurfers Should Be Prepared For – when bunking down in strange places.
And, come to think of it, in life.
1. Always Expect The Unexpected — Such As Love
When 30-year-old Callie hosted Jake Sharon, a male couchsurfer, during a comedy festival, she was surprised when the guy who showed up didn't look or act like his profile information. However, she quickly changed her mind after receiving complimentary tickets to his comedy show and seeing how animated he became on stage. Jake stayed a few extra days and came back to see her two weeks later. The couple married in September of 2012—just over a year after their first meeting.
At a meet-up for couchsurfers in Cincinnati—an opportunity to connect with like-minded people similarly passionate about travel – Kyle, 28, and Alexis, 30, met up. When they married in September 2013 in Wisconsin, their wedding celebration contained a crucial obligation for the guests who came from as far away as Alaska and India: Everyone had to camp in Kyle's mom's backyard for the entire weekend. Kyle and Alexis Kleinbeck affectionately termed the campout "Occupy the Waukesha Suburbs." It was, they say, "the best party we'd ever been to."
2. Watch For Animals Crossing – And Doing Other Things
When one thinks "fully furnished," felines don't always come to mind, but that's exactly the purr-quisite that Blanca Valbuena and her boyfriend, Antonio Evans, got with their Airbnb apartment in Paris. A week before their arrival, they agreed to watch the host's cats and subsequently became acquainted with the pets' habits of drinking from the kitchen faucet, drinking from the tub faucet and sleeping in the closet on their clothes. In the end, any tension between the cats and the guests was solved by the tactical purchase of an iPad game — for cats.
Natalia Lusinski, the self-professed "Queen of Couchsurfing" has had a few encounters of the animal kind while surfing more than 200 couches over the course of four years.
One time, she roomed with Dusty — a bird whose owner fed him a steady audio diet of a "love song station" so he'd "sleep better." Lusinski herself had a sleepless night in the home of a host who told her not to be alarmed if a raccoon waltzed in through a faulty front window at some time during the night.
The Couchsurfing Queen, whose adventures have been chronicled on her website and in various publications, has also come to terms with "snoring dogs, diabetic/throwing up cats, hamsters running in their wheels all night, lizards who need me to feed them live worms and crickets" among other creeping, crawling critters.
3. A Home Is Not Always A House
Not everything listed on Airbnb is a traditional house. Abby Schachter's and Rishi Sekar's first experience with the website was a treehouse in the Bay Area. The couple fondly remembers ordering Chinese food in the fully furnished perch and feeling the treehouse sway in the wind as rain poured down.
Alex Pena found couchsurfers in a Bedouin cave in Petra, Jordan and wrote about the experience for CNN. Others have found themselves guests on the water — like Emma Meyer, who "surfed" two days on the Irish Sea in a century old sailboat owned by five Norwegian friends.
4. Art-To-Art Encounters Can Result In Creative Exchanges
When people sleep on strangers' sofas, often the experience that is shared goes deeper than lodging. Sarah Gothie stayed in the Lake District of England while doing research on Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter. The 10-day trip culminated with writing a children's book about the host's cat in the style of Ms. Potter. As a gift, Gothie left her host a copy of Edward Gorey's The Doubtful Guest and in turn received a poem in the style of Gorey about her trip.
For Bryoney Hayes the exchange of art came in the form of a free Phish ticket. The sharing economy goes way back with Phish fans — who refer to the gift of a ticket to a first-time concert goer as a "miracle." When Bryoney hosted Lori, a photojournalist who was following Phish on tour, Lori took her along to the Portsmouth, Va., concert and scored her a "miracle" outside the venue.
Couchsurfing in Charleston, S.C., with two friends, Julia Feeley learned the true meaning of improv comedy's old "yes, and" rule — which encourages you to say yes to someone's suggestion and build on it — when a man offered to host them on the condition that they attend his improv recital. They agreed, and capped off the night with a toast to "yes, and" with their host and other performers.
5. Sometimes Motion Leads To Emotion
The practice of surfing couches gives the peripatetic a peek inside someone else's space — but, depending on the circumstances, it also offers the guest and the host a glimpse of each other's lives: their joys, their griefs and everything in between.
Patrick McAlvey, 28, was hosted in Fort Lauderdale by a guy named Jeff — who was opening up his best friend Gary's home to travelers as a memorial after Gary's death. "I made a strong connection with Jeff, his friends and Gary, who I learned so much about during my time there," says Patrick, "I felt strongly connected and grateful to Gary, despite never meeting him." Patrick even flew back to Fort Lauderdale two months later to help throw a pool party at the house before it was sold.
To look into the world of couchsurfers is to see a world largely without itinerary or overexpectation. For some, finding one's way to a host's house — where everything is a virtual unknown — adds another layer of hassle to travel. For others, the quirkiness of staying in a strange place is part of the journey.
Austin Fassino, 23, is an advocate for improvised adventure: "A lot of people can't quite understand why I would want to go half way around the world just to see a waterfall, or a giant carrot, or eat ice-cream, or go to another bloody castle."
It's all about connections, Austin says. "I'm doing it because I'm going with this person who I just met two hours ago and if I didn't go with them, I'd have nobody else to see it with ... You remember that person and that night for the rest of your life."
His experience echoes Couchsurfing's list of five core values, especially number two: Create Connection. "Connection makes us happier; we need more of it," say Couchsurfing's founders, trusting their users will surf happily ever after.
Daisy Alioto, formerly of NPR, is a news assistant at Law360.
The Protojournalist: Experimental storytelling for the LURVers – Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers – of NPR. @NPRtpj