Couch surfing helps Lincolnites travel

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Sissy welcomes guests staying in Eileen Durgin-Clinchard’s home.

Story and photos by Jessica Heerten, News Net Nebraska

Eileen Durgin-Clinchard pulled out her guestbook and a stack of photos tumbled onto the couch of her Lincoln home.

There’s Hiroko and her volunteer group headed for Africa, she said.

And the Illinois couple, originally from India.

And Manuella, the girl from Argentina.

About once a month, complete strangers stay on Durgin-Clinchard’s third-floor futon, eat a home-cooked breakfast in her kitchen and sign her guestbook.

Durgin-Clinchard isn’t running a bed and breakfast. She’s a couch surfer.

CouchSurfing.org is an international website that connects travelers with hosts offering a free bed, couch or floor for the night. But for Lincoln couch surfers, the organization is about more than just providing or receiving free lodging.

Durgin-Clinchard has been a member 2007.

At 80, Durgin-Clinchard, who both hosts and travels by couch surfing, is older than most, but her view on traveling is right on target with members: She could stay in a hotel, but she would rather not.

“You don’t meet real people in hotels,” she said. Couch surfing allows her to experience a city in an entirely different way. And when people stay with her and share their experiences, she can travel vicariously, Durgin-Clinchard said.

Justin McDowell, a 28-year-old designer for the Arbor Day Foundation, has a similar perspective on couch surfing.

“I like the community, mostly,” McDowell said. “It’s cheap, which is a big part of it,” he said, adding that he buys dinner for his host, which still costs less than a hotel. “But mostly it’s the community and seeing how people live their lives around the world. You get to see the world from a local perspective,” he said. “The stuff you can’t get in a guide book.”

On a recent trip, he stayed in Laramie, Wy., where his host took him to a bar filled with cowboys, country dancing and barstools topped with saddles—not a place he would have found on his own.

McDowell has hosted people in his apartment more than a dozen times. When he hosts people, he takes them to the Hi-Way Diner for magic toast—toasted bread coated in butter, sugar and cinnamon. He gets his friends to show visitors the “haunted” parts of Lincoln.

“You get to show your slice of life,” he said. “Whatever you’re interested in, people are interested in seeing a bit of it.”

McDowell has been a member since 2007, but the site has been around much longer. The idea came to founder Carson Fenton in 1999. Instead of springing for a hotel or even a hostel on a trip to Iceland, he began randomly e-mailing University of Iceland students, asking for a place to stay. In the end, he contacted 1,500 students and received more than 50 offers of free accommodations.

On his return flight, Fenton began planning the website that would eventually become CouchSurfing.org. The site launched in 2004 and today has more than 2.3 million members.

Members of the site maintain a profile, sharing their interests, experiences and references provided by previous hosts.

While membership to the site is free, for an optional $25 donation, administrators of the site will check a member’s identity through his or her bank. Verification, along with good references, helps offer reassurance to potential hosts.

When traveling, members can search for hosts by destination. Members send a request to a potential host, introducing themselves and requesting specific dates. The host is then free to reject them or welcome them.

To the uninitiated, the idea of staying in a stranger’s home, or allowing a stranger to stay in theirs, can seem frightening. Durgin-Clinchard hears it from friends: “You’re so brave.” But she doesn’t see it that way at all. “I’m not stupid,” she said.

With her first houseguests, she arranged for her son and daughter-in-law to drop by—just so her guests would know she had people looking out for her, Durgin-Clinchard said. But the experience was good and became the first of many.

Since then, she has worked out a screening system. She looks carefully at references—and sometimes even the reference’s references—how many times the member has been vouched for and what the member’s profile says about who he or she is.

She’s turned down a few people because she didn’t feel comfortable. But every hosting experience she’s agreed to has been a positive one, she said.

While the most active cities are predictable–Berlin, Buenos Aires, London, New York City—Lincoln has 233 members, the most of any city in Nebraska.

In Lincoln, hosts receive one to two requests a month, and in the Midwest, no one stays too long.

“This is flyover country,” McDowell said.

McClure is couch surfing in Lincoln through November.

The low number of requests creates a different couch surfing environment. Brett Dye, a Lincoln host who used couch surfing to travel through Europe, said the Lincoln hosts tend to be friendlier than those who get a lot of requests.

Italy, for example, is a big tourist destination. The CouchSurfing population there receives so many requests, finding a willing host can be difficult, Dye said. After awhile, he gave up trying to couch surf there.

In Lincoln, the responses are quick and generally positive, said Dustin McClure, a 23 year-old from Chicago, who is couch surfing in Lincoln.

Response time wasn’t the only difference, McClure noticed. The Lincoln CouchSurfing group isn’t much of a community, he said. Other cities have regular potlucks or meetings for hosts and visitors in their city, but Lincoln rarely does that.

Despite the lack of community, CouchSurfing membership in Lincoln is strong. And those involved feel rewarded by it. The people they meet often become more memorable than the trip.

McDowell couch surfed when he traveled to Texas for a comic book convention. His most lasting memory from the trip: dancing like Muppets in a park with the three couch surfers he’d just met. He said it felt just like hanging out with his best friends.

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