Rooming with strangers a game of trust in Brooklyn

December 1, 2012 Barbara Ortutay The Associated Press
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“Do we still have a TV?”

That’s the text message I got from my husband as I walked up the steps to our Brooklyn apartment on a Friday afternoon this fall. I was fairly sure that we did. I opened the door. Cats, check. TV, check.

He needed to know because we’d just entrusted a stranger, by most senses of the word, with keys to our home and with it, access to everything we own. It was with the same implicit trust she’d placed in us when she asked to spend a couple of nights on our futon, sight unseen.

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We did this through, whose motto is helping you “meet and adventure with new friends around the world.” No money changes hands. Maybe a drink or a meal out, or a promise of an open couch in return, should you find yourself in Barcelona, Budapest or Bali. Another service, Airbnb, lets people rent out their homes, rooms, tree houses or whatever other dwellings they choose.

These are just two of the online tools that help people who want to branch out beyond hotels, motels and hostels and explore peer-to-peer accommodations to stay in the homes of ordinary people.

Reasons to do this are as varied as the places where you’ll rest your head if you sign up for them — to save money, to see places underserved by traditional lodging services, or simply to meet locals.

While neither is particularly new (the idea behind Couchsurfing dates back to 1999, while Airbnb launched in 2008), both are gaining traction beyond adventurous city folk and student travelers with the help of social media and old-fashioned word-of-mouth. To get started, simply visit their websites, browse the offerings and sign up for an account to make the arrangements.

Hosting can be a treat, too. Left without a real vacation budget this year, hosting Couchsurfers in our small one-bedroom apartment was a way to invite people from faraway places into our little corner of the world. If meeting interesting people is one of the best things about traveling, why not have the people come to you?

We had guests from Austria, Australia and more. Some did the dishes. A couple of women from Sweden, we barely saw, their presence indicated mostly by humungous suitcases and late-night entries. But they were sweet, in their early 20s and orbiting a different realm. One morning, I made pumpkin pancakes for one of them. One night, my husband and I went to sleep instead of going out with them to hear a DJ. I felt old.

One Couchsurfer hung out with us all weekend as we introduced her to such time-honored American traditions as brunch, a Bloody Mary and a Sunday evening dance party on the bank of one of New York’s most polluted waterways, the Gowanus Canal. We walked around a stretch of Brooklyn we’d never seen before and happened upon a small cat colony in an abandoned building.

That was about two months ago. She was back on our futon over Thanksgiving, having traveled to other U.S. cities in the meantime. In the intervening weeks, we’d followed one another on the photo-sharing site Instagram. That’s how it came to be that we had no qualms leaving her in our apartment alone while we visited family for Thanksgiving dinner.

Whether or not you let them stay when you’re not home is obviously up to you. For us, it comes down to knowing enough about our guests by spending time with them. Your home is not a hotel, so people shouldn’t expect that they will automatically be handed keys. The only thing you’ve promised is a roof.

As guests, we tried out Airbnb for a late-summer jaunt to upstate New York to try something more informal, cozier and hopefully cheaper than a Holiday Inn or Hilton. It worked out.

We stayed one night in a wonderful farmhouse of a couple whose kids have left for college ($85 per night for a large room and our own bathroom). Another night was in a cabin on an old family chicken farm ($125 per night for a cabin that sleeps four). A Holiday Inn in the same area runs $100 to $150 per night for two people, and you probably wouldn’t share wine and travel stories with other guests in the lobby while a little old dog scurries around your feet.

Airbnb’s commercial transaction removed a level of uncertainty from our trip, but it added a layer of formality and distance that didn’t exist with Couchsurfing. Take the simple act of sharing a drink with your host or guest. One of our Airbnb hosts politely demurred, while our Couchsurfing guests were usually game for a beer or three. But just try inviting the hotel concierge up to your room for a glass of wine and see what happens.

Which site to go with depends on what you want out of an experience. Both, and others such as the long-running (Vacation Rentals by Owner), offer an alternative to traditional hotels and a chance to dive into life as a local. In San Francisco, where Airbnb is based, the company recently launched “local lounges,” established coffee shops where Airbnb guests can stop in to get a welcome and a travel guide.

On Airbnb, the focus is on the accommodation. The best listings will have plenty of photos and reviews from other users. Couchsurfing profiles, meanwhile, read more like dating sites (though the rules bar using the site as such) or a place to find random new friends. You add photos and other users as friends. You can flesh out your profile to include musical tastes and life philosophy (my husband “would much rather try something stupid, dangerous or bad for me than risk feeling regret over missing out on something at the end of the line.” I married the right man).

Since there are no commercial transactions on Couchsurfing, the site uses other ways to verify that people are who they say they are. Paying $25 will match the name you put on the site with the name you use with your bank. If you do that, you’ll get the words “identity checked” next to your profile. Couchsurfing then mails a postcard with a special code to the address you provided. Once you enter the code on the website, you are “verified.” We were more likely to accept verified guests, though it wasn’t a requirement.

I also connected my Facebook account with my Airbnb and Couchsurfing profiles and checked out the Facebook pages of potential hosts and guests. We even used some interest-based filters to vet potential Couchsurfing guests. For example, having been to the annual Burning Man event in Nevada will likely get you in our door, while other hosts might automatically disqualify you for that.

The more you use the sites, the more friends and reviews you get from other users, which further serves to ensure trust. It’s a bit like eBay, and how your cred improves the more transactions you do and do well.

The rest comes down to gut feelings. We made it clear to potential guests that we live in a small apartment and that they’d be sleeping on our fold-out futon in a living room with no doors, possibly with one or two cats on top of them. On weekends, we stroll around the city to explore new and old sights, scenes and tastes.

If that’s not your cup of tea, the Hilton in Times Square might be a better bet. I won’t forgo hotels now that I’ve tried out Couchsurfing and Airbnb, but it’s good to know the options are out there. It certainly makes travel — and staying home— more interesting.

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