- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) — Jim Stone, a 29-year-old from west Texas, has been traveling nonstop since March of 2004.

Sometimes in a pickup truck and other times on a motorcycle, he has trekked through much of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. But he has slept in a hotel just one night over that stretch of nearly 1,000 days.

That’s because Mr. Stone is part of a growing network of people online who have gone a step beyond hotels, hostels and even apartment swapping in their travel planning: They sleep on each others’ couches.

A number of Web sites have sprung up to help pair travelers searching for a place to stay and hosts with a spare couch. Sites such as hospitalityclub.org, couchsurfing.com, globalfreeloaders.com and place2stay.net are often free, serving only as middlemen and offering tips on how to find successful matches.

The sites aren’t moneymakers. They are largely the creations of twentyssomethings bitten with wanderlust and the hope of helping bring together people from different cultures. They often depend on volunteer administrators to help manage the Web operations.

Among the biggest is hospitalityclub.org, a site founded in 2000 by Veit Kuehne, who was then a 22-year-old business student. Mr. Kuehne wanted to use the Internet’s reach to help foster the ideas of a group called Servas, an international peace organization that encourages cultural exchanges through travel.

The site grew to 1,300 members by 2002, 100,000 members by January 2006 and 200,000 by September.

Mr. Stone uses another site, couchsurfing.com, where membership has catapulted to above 128,700 since starting in January 2004.

Its members, such as hospitalityclub.org, stretch across the globe: Although the United States has the largest number of members, making up about 25 percent of couchsurfing.com’s total base, Europe overall boasts 41 percent. The average age is 25, though 43 percent of members are between 18 and 24.

Couchsurfing.com got its indirect start years ago, when New Hampshire native Casey Fenton found a cheap airplane ticket to Iceland. In the few days he had to find a place to stay, Mr. Fenton happened upon the student directory of the University of Iceland.

Mr. Fenton sent e-mails to about 1,500 students, asking for a place to stay and within 24 hours received dozens of responses. Through staying with a local, Mr. Fenton said he was able to see their Iceland rather than merely the tourist’s view.

Couchsurfing.com depends largely on member donations to pay the operating bills.

Aside from asking whether the services are really free, one of the top questions on most of the sites’ frequently asked questions is some variation of: “Is this safe?”

Sites do offer some safeguards to help members: Members can vouch for each other and leave references for someone they’ve stayed with or hosted, similar to EBay’s rating system.

But Web sites warn that they are not liable for any possible dangers that could arise between host and traveler.

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