It works like this: You sign up at the Web site www.couchsurfing.com, which currently helps link 24,000 couch surfers and couch providers in 148 countries. Then you start making connections. The site provides a system to verify members' real names and addresses via their credit cards. Members can also rate their experiences at different homes. So when looking for a host, Williams says, you want a referral that says, "Hey, they've got an awesome place and they're not crazy."
Fifteen Richmonders are among the 8,000-some American members. Williams wants to get more people involved and hold occasional get-togethers for the Richmond delegation.
But first, she has to entertain her first surfer. Next week, Williams' couch will play host to a 48-year-old Australian woman who's touring the eastern United States. Williams plans to show her guest her favorite hometown attractions: Maymont, Byrd Park, Carytown, the Fan and maybe a Richmond Kickers game.
Next summer, Williams plans a two-month couch tour of Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom. Already she's begun talking to potential hosts, including a Chicago native who lives in Copenhagen.
Williams is a spontaneous sort of traveler. A few Januaries ago, she drove down to Daytona Beach and slept on the sand for a few hours, just for a brief escape from Virginia's winter chill. But she stresses the importance of making backup plans when couch-surfing, in case of encounters with a smelly sofa or creepy host. "Have conversations with them before you go," she says. "Set up alternatives if you're uncomfortable with it. Always be prepared to walk away."
And remember, she says, the point is to experience new cultures, not just save money. Staying with locals means getting a chance to sample the local life and perhaps make permanent friends, she says. "Sometimes, you just have to let go and trust that there are some good people out there." Melissa Scott Sinclair
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