<== Site of the Week for 2009-01-12 ==>
CouchSurfing is an alternative form of travel lodging arrangements. The basic idea is for people to build a social network of trust online. When you travel, you stay at people's home and avoid the high price and high taxes associated with hotels.
One key element to couch surfing is that the hosting couch cannot charge travelers in any form for the stay. If you charged people for staying in a room; you would be taxed and regulated as an inn. Couch Surfing is meant as mechanism for cheap travel. You offer your couch with hope that you will build good karma in the couch surfing community. Unfortunately, the no pay restriction means that house surfing cannot be used as a mechanism for paying housing expenses.
While most of the press about couch surfing is about the savings that come when you skip the hotel, the real central benefit of house surfing is that you get to meet locals during your traveling excursions.
I admit I have mixed feelings about the idea as I happen to like people in the above ground hospitality industry. Couch surfing seems to take a disproportionate number of people away from the bed and breakfasts inns, and small independently owned hotels and hostels that I favor.
Hotels are burdened with monster property taxes, massive employee related expenses, and ferocious liability exposures. This is why hotel bills are so huge. To top things off, towns and cities bury hotels with onerous taxes. Hotel taxes are often 10% or more. When traveling, it is not uncommon to find yourself paying $100 a night for a room. That rate is $3000 a month for rooms that wouldn't fetch $300 a month as a studio apartment. Taxes make up the lion's share of this expense.
Stop and ask hotel owners. You will find one of the most heavily taxed industries on the planet. This is sad because the labor intensive hotel industry provides and extremely large number of jobs. Hotels also tend to be active in helping preserve cultural institutions and local art as these institutions help attract customers.
The best example of this is the Bed and Breakfast industry which actively helps preserve historic buildings.
On a more commercial front, you will often find hotels working with local atractions to provide packaged vacations. Often you will find portions of hotel bills supporting publically accessible infrastructure just as part of the cost of doing business.
I am happy about a social network structure that helps people interested in travel meet people around the world. I am not happy about the industry's diverting large amounts of revenue away from a hospitality industry that actively feeds money and jobs into the community.
Not surprisingly, CouchSurfing is a registered charity. They claim that they are "Creating a Better World, One Couch At A Time." In the building of personal connections, they are correct. To the extent that they are diverting hundreds of millions of dollars from the hospitality industry (most of which is local taxes), the benefit is questionable.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to read people's motives and separate the people who are authentically looking for a way to meet people in their travels from those looking for a free ride.