When I bought my plane ticket to Israel, the least expensive flight available was on Malev Hungarian Airlines. “You’ll have a three hour stopover in Budapest,” the student travel rep told me. Since I’d never been to Budapest, I decided to extend that to three days and get a mini-vacation on the way. With my plane ticket came a list of hostels and inexpensive hotels, but I wasn’t drawn to any of them. I’d travelled in Europe before, staying in hostels along the way, but I was younger then, and schlepping less stuff. This time I’m not thrilled by the idea of hanging out with the stoners and falling asleep to the sound of badly-played bongos, and I’m no longer travelling with one small backpack.

CouchSurfing isn’t exactly a new concept; some of my best travel experiences have happened while staying with friends (or friends of friends) instead of hotels or hostels. And I’m lucky to have friends in interesting places who generally don’t mind putting me up for a few nights. But Budapest? I know people who are from Budapest, but no one who currently lives or has family there. And with only a few days to explore, I’d been hoping for some local guidance. CouchSurfing to the rescue!

I read about the site in Time Out New York several months ago, in their “Cheap Issue.” At first it sounded a little sketchy – staying with complete strangers in foreign countries? Really? But I still visited the site out of curiosity, and liked what I saw enough to make a profile myself. Think of it as a MySpace for the jet-setting starving-student set. Except that not everyone on the site is jet-setting or a student. There are individuals and families from nearly every country who can’t or don’t travel themselves, but are willing to host people travelling from other countries for the sake of meeting people and learning more. There are people whose lives are spent in transit, people who both travel and host, people who hope to make lasting connections.

After much browsing among the people in Budapest with available couches, I contacted three of them, letting them know when I’d be arriving, how long I’d be staying, telling a little bit about myself, and asking if their couches were available. The first two responded no – one was already hosting that week, and another was going to be out of town. But the third said yes, and told me which bus to take from the airport, and gave me his address and phone number. He had received excellent reviews on CouchSurfing from everyone who had stayed with him, and was willing to take a risk on me, who had no reviews. But I’m grateful that he took the risk, because my limited time in Budapest was much more fun & interesting than it would have been if I’d gone straight to a hostel. My host took me to several places I wouldn’t have found on my own if I’d been in Budapest for a week, and we even ran into two other CouchSurfers he knows, so that I now also have contacts in Scotland and L.A., should I ever need a couch to crash on. Even better, the site (like most social networking sites) has affinity groups, including Queer CouchSurfers, Jewish CouchSurfers, International Cuisine, French Film, and even an “Argue” group.

The great thing about the concept is that the people who choose to use the site are a self-selecting group – generally, everyone is independent, intellectually curious, open-minded, and interested in learning about people from different backgrounds. And if you aren’t currently travelling, and don’t have a couch for hosting, you can also sign up, like I did, to be available for a cup of coffee and a schmooze – after all, it’s always more fun to explore your city with out-of-town guests! (as one of my friends put it, “Native New Yorkers only go to the Statue of Liberty when their cousins from Missouri are visiting.”)

And of course if anyone is headed to Jerusalem this year feel free to contact me – I may not have a couch, but I’d love to meet for coffee.