02/28/2013 12:40 pm ET Updated Apr 17, 2014

Studies Abroad: The Case for Couchsurfing

Two months ago I found myself disrobing in front of a man I had met only a day before -- just the two of us, naked. No, this isn't what I do on a second date; we were couchsurfers -- he my host and I his guest. The guy loves saunas -- so much so that he had one installed within his home office and invites all of his guests to sit in the sauna with him, clothing optional but discouraged. "It's not the same with a towel on," he said.

Couchsurfing is hardly a new practice, and most college kids have done it before, perhaps not by design. But, launched in 2003, takes the concept to another level. It operates similar to a dating website, except that instead of looking for people to sleep with, members look for beds to sleep on. With over 5 million members scattered across all countries, it is almost certain that if you can locate a hostel, you can find a couchsurfer host nearby, eager to host you for free.

For students studying abroad, who want a change of scenery but cannot afford to stay in hotels or hostels, it is a particularly practical option. This is what prompted me to join a few months ago. But after couchsurfing in Portugal for a month over winter break, I vouch for its worth even if money is no object. Without further ado, I offer six reasons to try couchsurfing this spring break:

1. You get the inside scoop. Even Google is no match for a native when it comes to learning what a place has to offer -- and what you can pass on. For those who get overwhelmed by lists of must-sees, your host can help you cut through hype and prioritize the most worthy sights--saving you time and money. For those like myself, who count learning the names of local pastries as cultural enrichment, hosts can assuage any lingering guilt you have about being a terrible tourist.

2. You learn new things -- and not just from travel brochures and museum pamphlets. The night I spent at my first host's, he made carbonara -- which he had learned from an Italian girl he had previously hosted. It was delicious; I proceeded to make carbonara for every host I stayed with that month, earning me easy kudos.

3. You can go places you wouldn't otherwise go. Peniche, a small town located on the southern coast, is known for its waves, which draw thousands of (real) surfers from around the world. I arranged to stay with a guy who lived "just outside of Peniche," naively picturing his house in walking distance of the shore. Imagine my surprise when I found it in a small, provincial village 15 minutes' drive away from the tourist mecca that I had anticipated. However, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I got to see a community completely off of the tourist grid whose sole economy lay in agriculture, and I got to hear about its history -- including the local effects of European Union policies -- from someone whose family had lived there for generations. Even if I had the forethought to seek such a place out, I wouldn't have had the wherewithal to get there without my host, since no buses ran to the area.

4. You meet all sorts of people. Case in point: My first host was a monkish Ph.D candidate writing a thesis on Kantian aesthetics, who lived in a Spartan condominium in the wealthy seaside area of Porto. He chooses not to tip wait staff on principle, since, he told me over a meal of blood rice, he thinks it amounts to charity and encourages the state to maintain its low minimum wage. My next host -- the sauna enthusiast -- was a financial advisor living in the historical downtown, who hosts in part because it "helps him not work so much." After dining out one evening, I asked him what he thought of tipping and mentioned my last host's philosophy. "That's just a way to avoid paying," he told me. But later, when I asked him what he thinks of couchsurfers as a species (he's been hosting since 2004), his answer was more generous. "They all believe in the human spirit," he told me. I found that to be true of my hosts as well.

5. You learn to be a guest. Social wisdom pays lots of attention to the art of hosting, but not as much to the art of mooching. Being a good guest is hard. As one friend, with whom I crossed paths in Lisbon, put it, "When you're the guest, you don't have control." You have to take hosts at their word when they say, for example, to make yourself at home. But you must also be attentive to what they want -- which is mainly some conversation and respect. As the Ph.D student put it: "Hosts are not hostels."

6. You surprise yourself. I'm going to cheat a little on this one, since traveling alone is generally a good way to do this. But staying with new people adds an additional element. Picture couchsurfing as a party: If you go with a friend, you might have a good time (or not, depending on the party), but you'll be a unit, considerably less elastic as an individual. This is not to berate the wingman; wingmen are great. But you don't need them to travel.

By now, I'm sure you're champing at the bit to go couchsurfing. So let me add one piece of advice: Be open to the weird. I don't say this as an adventurous bohemian, but as someone who is risk-averse, who buckles her seatbelt for five-minute cab rides. The great thing about travel is that so many of the things we don't want to risk -- our reputation and even our dignity -- aren't really in danger as they are in our daily lives. This may not be the most courageous rationale, but it is freeing. If you do something you don't want people to know about, you don't have to tell them. Or do tell them; after all, saying you "figured it would make for a good story" is a perfectly acceptable way to ironize questionable choices. This was, in part, what bolstered me as I slipped off my towel in that hot sauna. The things I do for conversation, I thought. And yet, two months later, I not only can say that I made bare-assed small talk with a stranger, but also that -- really -- the sauna is so much better without a towel.