What is your travel style? Do you pack light or insist on traveling with at least half your wardrobe in your suitcase? What dictates your choice of accommodation, the thickness of your wallet or an interest in mingling with the local people?
No matter your traveling preferences, chances are there’s an online platform designed to cater to each of them. However, two such popular websites, CouchSurfing.org and AirBnB, have recently made news headlines for somewhat scandalous events. CouchSurfing, once a non-profit hospitality exchange platform that has since become for-profit, and AirBnB, which allows members to rent out their properties to travelers for specific periods of time, both offer similar services, yet they couldn’t be more different in terms of the values they embody.
As an experienced Couchsurfer, I can attest to the fact that using this service has been more about connecting with the local culture and people than anything else. It is an experience that can positively change one’s outlook on travel and there’s no turning back once you’ve been exposed to this side travel culture. In fact, CouchSurfing.org, as a platform, offers more than simply tools for finding places to stay. Members also organize local events within their city communities, which all happen without a single financial transaction online.
The idea of being a couchsurfer may appeal to the budget-conscious traveler, but so would AirBnb. However, the communal nature of CouchSurfing isn’t as amplified on AirBnB. The latter site appeals to the traveler who prefers paying a small fee for the privacy of his or her own room/apartment to bunking for free on a makeshift bed in someone’s living room.
Since AirBnB’s members charge lower rental rates relative to hotels anywhere, facilitating such a service between hosts and guests is the company’s claim-to-fame and competitive edge. In light of the recent rental scams that have severely tarnished the company’s reputation however, one wonders why either of these services, although convenient and pocket-friendly, would be chosen over safety-guaranteed hotels.
Nevertheless, I argue that CouchSurfing can make travel more pleasurable. Far more stimulating than watching TV in a dreary hotel room, it was my experience with my hosts that really gave me much to write home about. Your day’s excitement doesn’t just stop upon returning to your host’s house. There are always things to talk about over meals and drinks, and sometimes your host is nice enough to show you around the community or give you tips on exploring it.
Moreover, I have always felt a sense of safety; both hosts and guests are required to follow the code of “CouchSurfing etiquette,” which essentially boils down to respecting the host’s living environment by keeping it clean, respecting privacy and not taking undue advantage of their hospitality. Also, CouchSurfing.org has superior member support and stringent monitoring of communication between members as well as verification procedures. Since the company’s employees and volunteers do not themselves act as an intermediary between members’ surfing requests and acceptances, it is up to both the host and guest parties to ensure that they select and approve the right people they want to host or be hosted by. There is only the optional $25 verification fee that members can pay to the company to display them as verified members, symbolized by a green checkmark on their completed profiles, which verification requires the submission of a legitimate home address. All of these procedures serve to establish an inherent “trust network” between CouchSurfing members. Ironically, a service that facilitates transactions between members, such as AirBnB, may be considered more secure, however, it’s CouchSurfing that takes the cake in the security department.
Other similar platforms like Hospitality Club and Global Freeloaders have emerged along with these unconventional travel networks, but unfortunately their success has been slow to manifest, and without the viral popularity of CouchSurfing or AirBnB these sites haven’t garnered much attention.
Even though AirBnB provides mansions for accommodation, in stark contrast to the meager couches and sleeping bags of CouchSurfing hosting scenarios, the rental scams revealed lax management and poor customer service facilities, suggesting that AirBnB doesn’t stand to gain much future support. Despite all their problems, however, AirBnB has received additional funding for its expansion goals, including an international agenda. Another testament to the site’s success is the emergence of ‘clone’ services copycat sites that are trying to compete with AirBnB. It is also a service to which less daring travelers are turning in these hard economic times. Now that CouchSurfing faces member uproar after heading in the for-profit direction, it will be interesting to watch the innovative ballgame between these two companies play out.