SEOUL, Oct. 16 (Yonhap) -- Zarina Jani wanted to visit Korea from her native Malaysia on a limited budget. She wanted to learn about real Korean life, something that would be easier if she stayed with a Korean family. Jani did a search on Google and discovered CouchSurfing, an online community founded on the notion of travelers hosting other travelers for free.
Jani contacted the Kim family from Yongin, 50 kilometers south of Seoul, through the site and stayed with them over the Chuseok (Harvest Moon) holiday in 2009.
"Korea was my first country for me to experience CouchSurfing," said Jani. "I had contacted about 20 people per a successful CouchSurfing experience. The reason I decided to stay with (the Kim family) was most probably because they were Koreans and I would like to understand Korean culture from the natives. Fortunately they could speak English, which was very crucial for me at that time as I had zero understanding of the Korean language. I only chose to stay with Koreans while in Korea and will do the same thing if I go to another country as well, which is to stay with the natives."
CouchSurfing describes itself as a "global network of travelers, adventure seekers and lifelong learners." According to the site, Casey Fenton, one of the four co-founders, thought up the idea after traveling to Iceland in 1999 where he randomly e-mailed University of Reykjavik students hoping for a free place to stay. The responses Fenton garnered were so impressive he returned home with the idea of creating a Web site that would bring together other like-minded travelers and hosts. The Web site was founded in 2004 and the group has since grown to a global network of millions of users in over 93,000 cities worldwide.
Malaysian traveler Zarina Jani (front row, left) with CouchSurfing hosts the Kim family in 2009 (Courtesy of Zarina Jani)
The program has extended to many areas of both South and even North Korea. The site goes beyond just offering free places to stay and travel advice. Members have created community groups in many cities, including Seoul and other Korean cities and provinces, which include activities for residents or visiting travelers looking for compatible friends.
Seoul resident Amy Ron-Carr is a CouchSurfing ambassador. An American teacher from Missouri, she said she had done informal "couch-surfing" when she traveled through Europe where she just contacted friends or friends-of-friends to visit or stay with. She then tried out a site called Hospitality Club when she went to Guatemala, and then CouchSurfing when she went to Mexico.
"I love using CouchSurfing while traveling because it lets you see cities from a local's point of view and you get to try things you never would have found on your own," said Ron-Carr. "However, I also love CouchSurfing when living in a city because it's like an instant social group. With CS, it's a good way to make Korean friends who can help us learn about Korean culture, find hidden restaurants, tell us about events only advertised in Korea, or help us find discounts to things."
Koreans are also catching on to the benefits of the site. Kang Min-jun was introduced to CouchSurfing by a friend. So far he has only hosted foreign friends through personal connections, not through the site. Kang is trying to become a more active user and has organized bike rides along the Han River for fellow CouchSurfing residents of Seoul.
The site also helps Koreans spread their culture worldwide. Clemence Galleret hosted a Korean woman in her home in Caen, Normandy, France two years ago.
CouchSurfing ambassador Amy Ron-Carr (left) with other expat CourchSufers in February 2011. (Courtesy of Amy Ron-Carr)
"I hosted Hae-lin for a week. I was living with three other people in a house. This was the second time I hosted someone," said Galleret. "We all enjoyed her a lot. I knew nothing about South Korea and she shared a lot. I thought South Korea was like North Korea -- what a shame! She opened my mind. She also shared recipes and cooked kimbap for us. Very new and very tasty." When Galleret visited Korea this past year, Hae-lin returned the favor and let Galleret stay with her.
A chief concern when staying with strangers is safety. CouchSurfing takes this issue very seriously and has several measures to make sure the members are who they say they are. There is a verification process that first confirms the member's real name and location, then they confirm the member's identity by charging the user's credit card $17, and lastly they send a postcard to the user's home address from which the user sends it back in order to verify their physical address.
The more you use CouchSurfing the more you get known. Users vouch for each other if they've met or stayed with them. Friends can also be added to give more credibility to a member's profile. Ron-Carr recommends a plan B just in case.
"As a precaution (when I went to Mexico), I always had with me the phone number of a local hostel and the local taxi number. I promised myself if I ever went to a place and felt even a little uncomfortable I would call a taxi and go to a hostel. However, I only had wonderful and amazing experiences, so I never used my backup plan. I still recommend that people do this, especially solo travelers."