OUR sat-nav directs us down a palm tree-laden Californian suburban street, where we pull up outside a stunning ‘living the American dream’ house. We are definitely a long way from Ealing.
I look at my two friends in the car, who look just as confused and surprised as I do. Surely we’ve got the wrong address. Westlake Boulevard, Oceanside. No, this is the right place.
We nervously get out and nominate each other to ring the door bell. Eventually, one of us plucks up the courage and we all stand there gormlessly waiting for someone to open the front door. No answer – we try again.
We hear music coming from the side of the house, so decide to follow it. Turning the corner, we are met by a huge swimming pool along and a man flipping burgers on the barbecue.
“Oh hi,” he says with a welcoming smile, “You must be the English visitors!”
This beautiful house is where we will be staying for the next two nights – absolutely free.
This was our first experience of CouchSurfing.
Started in 1999, CouchSurfing is an online social networking and hospitality site, where almost three million people from around the globe offer their couches or spare beds to those visiting or travelling through their hometown.
The idea is that, if your ‘host’ ever visits your home town, he or she will know a local and may have somewhere to stay in return.
Couchsurfing.org is based on profiles and references – each host is given a reference by those who stay with them, and vice versa.
It makes sense to seek out hosts who have a wide selection of good references left by previous CouchSurfers and to let visitors with positive reviews into your own home.
The site makes clear that safety is one of its main priorities.
Despite this, it is not everyone’s cup of tea and something which should be approached with common sense and a hint of caution.
I don’t think it is something I could do on my own.
It is mainly used by those travelling the world and who are on a tight budget, but also by those who wish to explore a region and be shown around it by a local.
Members are given the option to choose who they host and when – no one has an obligation to say ‘yes’ to any request they receive.
The site does not only offer a place to stay, it also gives the option of simply meeting up for the day, or just for a coffee.
As it says on the site: “CouchSurfing is blazing the trail towards a better, friendlier world, where people who are different from one another can find their similarities.
“We are a community, and we are a movement. If you believe that all types of people can share fun, trust and friendship, then you belong here.”
Do not be misled: not all couches or spare beds up for offer are set in such locations. But this did not dampen our experiences or the memories we left with.
Continuing our Californian road trip, we stayed in a range of places, including a house packed full of partying college students in Santa Cruz, complete with beer pong and those famous red cups.
We eventually found a free mattress to curl up on for the night.
With each host we had a unique experience and were given some great advice on what to do in their neck of the woods.
We were taught how to make home-made sushi in Newport Beach, introduced to American ‘smores’ in Oceanside and cycled the shores of Laguna Beach on rented bikes.
None of which we would have known about or thought of doing ourselves if we had stayed in a hostel or motel.
And it seems we aren’t the only ones.
Experienced Couchsurfer Nestor Jimenez, from Puebla in Mexico, said: “Through CouchSurfing, I have met people from Sweden, Pakistan, USA, Colombia, Argentina, Ukraine, Poland, UK, Germany, France and from all over Mexico.
“The multicultural interchange is really cool. For me, CouchSurfing is a great programme and one of the best ways to travel.”
Jana Lotze, from Germany, says her best CouchSurfing experience was in Moscow.
With a friend, she slept on the floor of the home of a young Russian couple who did not have a lot of space or money.
She was amazed by the amount of effort they had put into re-modelling their flat, which was in an old, run-down Soviet building.
“They had made themselves a fine little home and hosted us with the same love and effort,” said Jana.
“I think CouchSurfing is more than just another social platform on the internet. It's a whole community of very open-minded people who really like to travel in a responsible and caring way.
“It's not only about finding a cheap place to stay and saving money on your trips. It's about getting in touch with people and getting to know their cities and countries through their very own eyes.”
Thinking back on our Californian road trip in years to come, I will have fond memories of the things we saw and experienced, and of the great people we met along the way.
CouchSurfing describes its vision as: "A world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter."
And we did.