Europe on the cheap? Try Couchsurfing..

Three glasses are set down upon the table. ‘Cherry liqueur?’ offers Ivana. Oozing hostly largesse, she pours a murky liquid from a suspicious-looking bottle.

‘You always get offered an alcohol drink in northern Croatia,’ she says, ‘and it’s usually home made. If we have it, that is.’ She smiles and introduces Ben, a German traveller in his early twenties. Welcome to Zagreb, and welcome to the phenomenon of Couchsuring.

A fledgling operation in 2004, the Couchsurfing network now has over 1.6 million users.  The site continues to burgeon worldwide, but unassailably leading the statistics is Europe. Though a truly global community spanning the entire world, over 50% of Couchsurfers are Europeans. In fact, the top – or busiest – three cities are Paris, London and Berlin. Paris alone has a choice of almost 30,000 hosts; Europe is the continent to Couchsurf.

So what is Couchsurfing all about? Well, the slogan is “Creating Inspiring Experiences”. The aims include stimulating people to learn and grow, and to build a community that is inspired to seek harmony when conflicts inevitably arise. Strangers’ homes are unlocked to the weary traveller; stories are exchanged. Some hosts offer a spare room, a mattress in the living room, or – quite literally – a couch to sleep on. It’s about making connections worldwide.

Whether you are eighteen or eighty, there is opportunity to host, visit, or just meet like-minded travellers. Though the average age of Couchsurfers worldwide is just 28, the site already boasts over 1400 users in the 70-79 category and more than 300 octogenarians. There is somebody for everybody, and the numbers continue to grow exponentially – it is not uncommon for 15,000 new people to join within a week.

Simply visit the website and submit a profile. The more fields that you fill in, the more success you will have; the information you provide will give others an insight into your personality. Don’t forget to add photos.

These can be unsmiling portraits, or crazy snapshots of the night you used a road bollard as a didgeridoo. Above all, be yourself and be honest – your potential host has to make a decision to invite you into their home. They may be a little crazy too..

Some hosts, however, have no facilities but simply love to meet new people travelling through. For them, there is the option of meeting ‘for a coffee or a drink’. How nice to find a personal guide with local knowledge of a city, unhindered by tourist bureaux opening hours, and genuinely wanting to show you their environs. But what about the language barrier in Europe?

You’ll find that in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, the standard of English is generally impeccable, at least among younger people. In other European countries, however, finding English-speakers can be more difficult. This is neatly dealt with on Couchsurfing’s website – language competence is listed as expert, intermediate or beginner.

So you know in advance – before even receiving a reply email – whether their English is good enough to hold a conversation. This also applies to other languages; perhaps you could practice with a Spanish-speaker in Italy before taking a train to Barcelona.

When travelling in Europe, it’s pretty easy to whizz through countries, so to read up on all the history can be daunting. For example, when arriving in France from the UK, it is a mere 30-minute drive to the Belgian border; and from there, only a two-hour hop to the Netherlands.

To really understand these countries – or even regions within countries – you need to spend time with a local. Who knew, say, that eating horsemeat in Flemish-speaking Belgium would be frowned upon in the Wallonian region of the same country, barely an hour’s drive away.

‘Croatia invited the necktie. Did you know that? asks Ivana. She then embarks on a didactic narrative covering the history of the Balkans. Once comprising six republics, Yugoslavia has now morphed into separate countries, the most recent of which – in Feb 2008 – was Kosovo. ‘The Croatia of today was only born in 1991,’ she adds.

This has been a troubled part of the world – even today there remains hostility between Serbs and Croats – yet Ivana is an open book. She chats eagerly and happily, asking nothing in return. Her flatmate is out meeting more Couchsurfers to bring back, and I wonder how they manage to function with so little privacy in their own home.

What inspires people to invite strangers into their houses? Despite cramped accommodation, altruistic exchanges still take place with joie de vivre. Sleeping near strangers, eating together, sharing a bathroom… It’s not for everybody, but it certainly offers a better understanding of a country’s culture.

It’s not all about taking, though. Giving back can entail hosting when you return home – or, indeed, before you leave – or a simple gesture like cleaning, cooking or buying a small gift for your host. Perhaps you can present something quirky from your own country?

Or you may choose not to stay with anybody at all; if you prefer the comforts of a hotel room, or hanging out with travellers at a hostel, then why not just enjoy a coffee and an informative stroll with somebody interesting. But choose your targeted region wisely – Europe can’t be tackled in just one trip.