Free sleeps in Italy: CouchSurfing

CouchSurfing is a bit like a slacker version of an hospitality network, only without a formalized in a charter or fee to join

My FREE room for the night in the apartment of a friendly Italian radio producer in Rome, courtesy of
My FREE room for the night in the apartment of a friendly Italian radio producer in Rome, courtesy of
"Would you like to go to a party?" I had barely met my host for the evening—a 30-something producer of science programs for RAI, the Italian state radio network—and already he was inviting me to a party at a friend's house.

That's how, within two hours of arriving in Rome, I found myself up playing a key role in a surprise party subterfuge. I was the ruse for why my host had to pick up a friend on the far side of town before taking her to "dinner" at a mutual friend's house. See, the surprise party was for her, and her friends and co-workers needed time to set up.

I spent the rest of the evening in a lovely Roman apartment, eating cheese and focaccia and canapés, drinking fine wines, and hobnobbing with staffers from the Italian equivalent of NPR.

After the party wound down, my host drove me back to his apartment (conveniently located across from a Metro station a few blocks from the Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura) where he quickly made up the fold-out sofa in his living room, asked what I'd like for breakfast in the morning, then showed me how to log onto his WiFi network before bidding me goodnight.

I have never, not once, checked into a hotel and been invited to a party by the desk clerk.

Oh, and did I mention that all of this was free. I spent the night in Rome—where the cheap hotels start around $100—and didn't spend a single euro cent.

What is CouchSurfing?

Though there are several networks out there, the one called definitely came up with the best name, so by the power vested in me as a travel journalist, I am hereby promoting the term to become the official title for this form of travel.
CouchSurfing networks—there are several—each consist of roughly half a million people all around the world willing (indeed, eager) to let total strangers stay with in their spare bedroom or fold-out couch absolutely for free.

This is basically a variant on the time-tested hospitality networks. Those have been around since the 1960s, offering free lodgings to a group like-minded travelers who join, pay a membership fee, and receive a catalog of willing hosts.

Well, the Internet has ended the days of paying annual fees for a printed catalog. (Those traditional hospitality networks do still exist, and are profiled here.) With the new model, you just sign up, log in, fill out a Facebook-like profile, and start searching for free places to crash.

In general you can stay as long as you like—or at least as long as your potential hosts are willing to put up with you—but remember that old saying about fish and houseguests and be polite about the amount of freeloading you do in any one spot. Two to four days seems about average.

In some, you don't have to offer a couch of your own—though that is expected; in others, you must be open to hosting (or at least offering to meet with a visitor for a coffee or something, even if you can't put them up for the night). Of course, any host has the right to accept or decline any request.

CouchSurfing networks are for people who are just looking for a couch to crash on for the night while they travel the world, making it a godsend for itinerant beach bums, neo-hippies, dirt-poor students, and other cash-strapped travelers.

For example, I went and clicked on Italy, and the first page of 10 results (out of 43,584 people offering free lodging all across Italy) included everything from a 20-year-old undergrad in Padova to a 35-year-old lawyer in Rome.

These networks are much less formalized and much more easy-going than traditional hospitality networks—the home page for has a photo of one of its founders in full surfer-dude mode, flashing a Colgate grin under long hair, his shirt hanging open to show off perfect abs.

How much does CouchSurfing cost?

CouchSurfing networks don't cost a penny to join, and you stay for free.

Though they don't require that you give your hosts a gratuity, be polite and at least offer to pay for any meals (plus phone calls and the like you might make from their home). Also, its always nice to bring a token gift when you arrive—as you would as a guest in anyone's home. (Bottle of wine should do it.)

How safe is CouchSurfing?

You can keep much of your personal info and email secret, communicating via the site to work out where and when to meet your hosts.

You do have to be comfortable with the prospect of staying with (or hosting) a perfect stranger, but these groups do tend be self-policing. Most networks have a system of verification and then levels of trusted-ness, and the open "comments" feature is quick to pounce on anyone who turns out to be a crummy host or terrible guest,

Where can I find willing hosts?

There tends to be much more availability in cities than in smaller towns, and the clientele does tend to skew younger (nearly 3/4 are under 30), but anyone is welcome—and the personal profiles make it easier to find a better match. (Note: these sites go out of their way to avoid being used as dating services, not that true love might not flourish on someone's spare couch.)

How to find that couch

  • ( - As of February 2010, nearly 1,7 million members in 235 countries on all 7 continents (yes, there's even a woman at McMurdo research station in Antarctica). This includes nearly 48,000 CouchSurfers in Italy. The median age is people in their twenties—though there are about 320,000 in their thirties, 11,500 in their sixties, and more than 300 octogenarians.
  • The Hospitality Club ( - 328,629 members in 207 countries, of which more than 17,700 in Italy.
  • Global Freeloaders ( - 37,641 members in 214 countries, of which 797 in Italy. Must be ready to host others.

Tips & links

Couch Surifing links & resources
Other lodging links & resources
Useful Italian
Useful Italian phrases and terms for lodging

English (Inglese) Italian (Italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...a hotel un albergo oon al-BEAR-go
...a B&B un bed-and-breakfast oon bet hand BREK-fust
...a rental room un'affittacamera oon ah-feet-ah-CAH-mair-ra apartment for rent un appartamento oon ah-part-tah-MENT-toh
...a farm stay un agriturismo oon ah-gree-tour-EES-moh
...a hostel un ostello oon oh-STEHL-loh
How much is...? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
a single room una singola OO-nah SEEN-go-la
double room for single use [will often be offered if singles are unavailable] doppia uso singola DOPE-pee-ya OO-so SEEN-go-la
a double room with two beds una doppia con due letti OO-nah DOPE-pee-ya cone DOO-way LET-tee
a double room with one big bed una matrimoniale OO-nah mat-tree-moan-nee-YAAL-lay
triple room una tripla OO-nah TREE-plah
with private bathroom con bagno cone BAHN-yoh
without private bathroom senza bagno [they might say con bagno in comune—"with a communal bath"] SEN-zah BAHN-yoh
for one night per una notte pair OO-nah NOH-tay
for two nights per due notti pair DOO-way NOH-tee
for three nights per tre notti pair tray NOH-tee
Is breakfast included? É incluso la prima colazione? ay in-CLOO-soh lah PREE-mah coal-laht-zee-YOAN-nay
Is there WiFi? C'é WiFi? chay WHY-fy?
May I see the room? Posso vedere la camera? POH-soh veh-DAIR-eh lah CAH-mair-rah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Is there a cheaper one? C'é una più economica? chay OO-nah pew eh-ko-NO-mee-kah

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