Study abroad students use ‘Facebook for Travelers’

PHOTO COURTESY OF JOSIE CAMMARATA Josie Cammarata, junior art major, in Salzburg, Austria.

CouchSurfing grows popular with students traveling overseas

A three-hour train ride led Webster University Vienna students Josie Cammarata and Allison Schumaker from Vienna to Salzburg, Austria. Neither had been to Salzburg before, and they knew no one. But, a friendly face greted them at the platform. With only a few pictures posted online as reference, the woman was able to recognize Cammarata and Schumaker, and led the pair to her home in Salzburg.

Cammarata, junior art major, and Schumaker, junior music education major, were not being kidnapped. They were CouchSurfing.

“CouchSurfing” is a phrase coined by the website, a social networking site which connects travelers with locals who accommodate them in almost 246 different countries.

After creating a profile, a CouchSurfing user, or “surfer,” can simply search his or her destination, and CouchSurfing will provide them with profiles of locals who will house them, free of charge.

Cammarata and Schumaker decided to try CouchSurfing after Schumaker read about the trend in a travel blog.

“(I) just kind of decided that this is something that I would like to do,” Schumaker said.

Schumaker and Cammarata contacted Bettina Berger, a life-long resident of Salzburg, through CouchSurfing, and Berger agreed to host the pair for two nights at her home.

“I really liked staying with a local,” Cammarata said. “She had lived there all her life. She even drove us out to the countryside and we went hiking together, because we mentioned that we wanted to do this before we got there. It was just really awesome.”

After her first CouchSurfing experience in Salzburg, Schumaker surfed three more times: in Grotz, Austria; Budapest, Hungary; and Ljubljana, Slovenia.

“I don’t think this experience would be the same at all if I hadn’t (surfed),” Schumaker said. “It’s been really nice for me, to know someone and actually legitimately meet somewhere, instead of staying at a hostel and experiencing everything from the outside.” was launched in 2004. The website now has more than 3 million members in 246 countries and provinces.

Amy Sciaroni, a CouchSurfing ambassador of St. Louis and member of three years, said the site is an amazing project.

“It’s definitely more than a website,” Sciaroni said. “I would almost say it’s a state of mind.”

Schumaker and Cammarata said safety was their first concern when they first considered CouchSurfing. The Couchsurfing website has a number of safety precautions to keep its surfers safe.

The site utilizes a system of user references, vouching, and address verification to insure that users know which members are more trusted by other CouchSurfers.

Only one documented criminal incident has occurred since CouchSurfing’s inception. In 2009, a female CouchSurfer was raped by her male host in Leeds, U.K. The man was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Sciaroni said the host had no references on his profile, which is a warning sign.

“You never have to stay somewhere that you don’t feel comfortable,” Sciaroni said. “If you don’t feel comfortable for whatever reason, I would say just leave. Go get a hotel room.”

Sciaroni advised any student studying abroad to consider CouchSurfing.

“If you’re traveling somewhere and you really want to get a taste, you have to go local — to embrace that, and be embraced by them (the locals). Hostels are a fantastic and very economical way to travel, but it doesn’t compare to staying in someone’s home in the city that you’re staying in. You’re going to get a really unique perspective. And the more different that they are, the more interesting the perspective.”

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