Jessica Jane Blosil and her boyfriend wanted to spend a couple of months in Europe, but they didn't know where they were going to stay or how they were going to pay for it.
"We had been researching hostels and trying to find inexpensive ways to get around," the 22-year-old Ms. Blosil said.
Their solution was CouchSurfing.org, a hospitality exchange Web site that links travelers to hosts willing to share their homes at no cost. According to CouchSurfing.org statistics, the Web site has almost 1.3 million users in 231 countries, and 94 of those users are Chattanooga residents.
"Friends of ours who lived in Italy for a year were the ones who told us about the organization," said Ms. Blosil, who lives in North Chattanooga.
CouchSurfing was born in 2003 when founder Casey Fenton found a cheap flight to Iceland and messaged 1,500 local students looking for a place to stay.
When Mr. Fenton received multiple positive responses, he and Daniel Hoffer, Sebastien Le Tuan and Leonardo Silveira decided other travelers should have the same opportunity and began work on a networking Web site that would become CouchSurfing.org.
"Casey used to work with me," said Mr. Hoffer, chairman and chief operating officer of CouchSurfing. "He came up with the idea for CouchSurfing and invited me to co-found it with him, since he has a technology background and I have a business background."
For her trip to Europe, Ms. Blosil took advantage of the Web site's scope, CouchSurfing with hosts in Barcelona and San Sebastian, Spain; Paris, France and parts of Italy.
"We didn't have any luck in Ireland first," she said, "but pretty much every city after that we found a place to stay."
"The hospitality was amazing," said Hixson resident Holly Bridges, 30, who first used CouchSurfing to find a place to stay in Manchester, England in 2005. "My host's roommate didn't even know me and said it was OK for me to stay in his room."
Ms. Bridges has CouchSurfed throughout England and the United States and has hosted surfers from such countries as Finland, Italy and Ecuador.
She also has opened up her home to CouchSurfers from elsewhere. Cesar Becerra, a Cuban-American currently living in Miami, Fla., was the Bridges' first surfer in 2005.
"Staying with them long ago had a profound impact on my life," he said. "I have been back and forth to Chattanooga on many occasions.
"I have traveled with Holly and Nathan's family to New York, a wedding in Washington, D.C. and Holly has stayed with my parents in Miami."
As with any social networking Web site, safety is a concern. Administrators say they took extensive measures to ensure the security and comfort of users, including a detailed reference and profile system. Users choose whom they host and with whom they surf.
"When you search profiles, you click on certain criteria you want to be met," Ms. Blosil said. "I've never felt unsafe."
Other experienced CouchSurfers still advise caution.
"We've never had a bad experience but, putting the fun aside, you have to be careful," said 28-year-old Nathan Bridges of Hixson, Ms. Bridges' brother and a CouchSurfer who has hosted guests from France and Germany.
"It couldn't hurt to have a friend stay over if you're alone," said Jen Fox, 28, Nathan's roommate and fellow CouchSurfing host.
"The biggest thing is common sense," Mrs. Murphy said. "Ask to meet in a neutral location, take emergency money and don't invite someone who seems creepy back to your home -- or go to their home, for that matter."
Though CouchSurfing provides access to free lodging -- especially valuable given the current economy -- that's not the Web site's primary goal, Mr. Hoffer said.
"CouchSurfing is often a catalyst for personal development," he said. "It is the opportunity to not just develop relationships with people you would not otherwise meet, but also to have amazing experiences you would not otherwise encounter."
"It's the most authentic way to travel," said Ooltewah resident John Collins, 27, who has CouchSurfed extensively in France. "You really experience their culture."
"Instead of traveling to a destination, you're traveling to a person," Mrs. Murphy said. "It's having a network of worldwide friends you want to visit rather than just places to see."
"I love to show surfers around Chattanooga," Mr. Bridges said. "They aren't just coming to see me, they are coming to see the area."
Victoria Mason (Mason is her married name, her maiden name is Fokina) of Kolomna (Moscow Oblast), Russia
Background info: In 2008, Victoria planned to visit Chattanooga for four months because she got a job at TGI Friday's. She found Holly Bridges through CouchSurfing.org and CouchSurfed with her for the first week of her time in Chattanooga while she was looking for an apartment.
"I knew that using sites like CouchSurfing could be dangerous, but Holly proved the opposite - it can be enjoyable."
"The Bridges showed to me that Americans really are nice people and are always willing to help."
"Becky, Holly's mom, bought some food that she thought Russians would eat for breakfast."
"I enjoyed every day that I spent in Chattanooga with the Bridges. They were so hospitable and attentive. Holly or Becky would give me a ride to work and back, take me out to dinner and take me shopping. I really appreciate everything they did."
Josh Kirshenblat of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
In 2006, Josh was driving cross country from Florida to Canada and couldn't afford to stay in hotels. His brother told him about CouchSurfing. He stayed with Holly Bridges and her parents in Chattanooga for a few days during his trip.
"I was a little skeptical. People let you stay at their house for free out of the goodness of their heart? Couldn't be."
"I got there just after dinner and was welcomed warmly by the entire family. We had some great conversations about the cultural differences and similarities between Canadians and Americans."
"CouchSurfing is a community of friendly people who want to meet other travelers and help them out with no reward other than maybe a place to stay in a different part of the world. It really reminded me that people are generally good, friendly and helpful."
Jan Wolf of Leipzig, Germany (Jan is a Mr.)
Jan and his girlfriend stayed with Nathan Bridges a few weeks ago. They were taking a trip from Chicago to Tallahassee and stopped in Chattanooga along the way.
"We hadn't actually heard of Chattanooga before and thought it was just a small town."
"We went downtown to the art district by the river and we've visited the Aquarium as well. It was really interesting and fun. I personally like Chattanooga."
"I wanted to show this great country to my girlfriend."
"CouchSurfing is a great opportunity to watch the world from a different point of view."
Espen Stranger-Johannessen of Oslo, Norway
Espen was biking through North America in 2007 and stayed with Holly Bridges in Chattanooga for two days.
"We spent the whole time walking around downtown and enjoying ourselves. I'll never forget Holly and her big smile, talking and laughing nonstop, in the city with the most awkward name I came across during my 4000 mile bike trip."
BY THE NUMBERS
94: Chattanoogans with registered profiles
1,290,891: CouchSurfers worldwide
231: Countries represented
62,954: Cities represented
My best experience CouchSurfing:
Holly Bridges: "I CouchSurfed in Key West, Fla. Our host, from Iceland, took us out on a sailboat. She was so hospitable."
Nathan Bridges: "No matter who comes over, I love to show surfers around Chattanooga. .. it's a gorgeous city." Jen Fox: "Our visitors from France had never been on a boat, so we took them out on the river. They didn't want to leave."