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Coming to a Couch Near You

Memphians pick up on the international couch-surfing trend.

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Even though gas prices are slowly dropping, travelers still seek cheap accommodations. With the aid of a travelers' networking site, many Memphians are opening their homes — and their couches — to strangers.

The free site, couchsurfing.com, which launched in 2004, allows travelers to explore available couches in more than 230 countries worldwide and currently boasts over 700,000 registered participants, with more than 100 in Memphis. The cost for sleeping on a couch in a stranger's home: free.

Activities aren't limited to travelers though. Participants can sign up to surf, host, or just "meet for coffee or drinks."

Midtown residents Will Freiman and Ashley Roach have been registered couch surfers since 2006. They moved to Memphis from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in July. The couple says they had just two surfers in Hattiesburg but have had many more since the move here.

"We've hosted nearly 20 surfers in Memphis, seven of those just in the last week," Freiman says. They've hosted surfers from all over the United States, as well as some from Britain, France, and Spain.

Roach says couch surfing isn't couch-specific, and accommodations can include beds and floors. Some surfers bring their own bedding. Last week, a graduate student from the University of Michigan and first-time couch surfer, Aviva Glaser, surfed Freiman and Roach's couch on her way home from summer travels.

"I was looking for cheap ways to travel, and this seemed legit," Glaser said. "It's an awesome way to explore a new city and meet new people without having to pay for a place to stay. I don't know anyone here, so as opposed to staying in a hotel, you get an insider view and have people to show you around."

Glaser admitted she was nervous about crashing on a stranger's couch, but the site allows participants to browse profiles and read user reviews. Hosts and surfers can also get "verified" by adding a credit card or bank account through which their identity can be confirmed.

Aaron Fowles, a teacher at Kingsbury Middle School, is Memphis' couch-surfing ambassador. He applied for the position because at the time Memphis had no official "organizing force."

"Our aim is to spread the word about couch surfing and resolve conflicts," he says. "Our mission is to build the community of couch surfing. We do this in part by keeping the couch surfers who live in our cities or regions active."

To enhance activity, Fowles organizes couch-surfer gatherings: "These can be really fun because locals and travelers come together to share stories. No two meetings are ever the same."

Fowles generally hosts two or three surfers a week and has surfed abroad in South Korea and Canada.

"Couch surfing is liberating," he says. "It frees us of the fear of strangers and of opening our lives to others."

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