Do you fancy a weekend, a week or a few months out of Rome? Then why not email a complete stranger on the other side of the world and ask to stay on his or her couch for a while, free of charge?

It may sound fanciful, but thats exactly what thousands of people across the world are now doing via www.couchsurfing.com.

The website has 33,760 devotees already, including 13,191 in Europe and over 1,000 in Italy, offering an escape route from the hassle of hotels and hostels in the guise of a sofa.

The idea is that you offer up your couch to a stranger, thereby making new friends and creating the possibility of the favour being returned. Emails, friendships and sofas are now being swapped across the world, from Europe to south-east Asia, and from the Middle East to South America.

Nicola DElia, 29, an IT consultant from Rome, only joined the site in August this year but has already stopped off on four European couches, in Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam and Brussels.

Its been easy finding a couch so far, maybe Ive just been lucky, he says. The best experience was in Brussels. I was my hosts 89th visitor. It was the essence of couchsurfing there were six people living in a huge apartment over a car wash, with an empty room and five beds just for surfers like me. There were two Finnish people and an American guy staying too. The atmosphere was very friendly.

Now DElia is ready to turn host with a string of visitors expected over the coming months, from Australia and America as well as Switzerland.

While the site is growing daily both in membership and reputation, DElia adds that the concept is nothing new. When I discovered the site I realised it was something that I had always been doing. I have always had friends spread around Europe and sleeping on their couches was normal. Couchsurfing has always existed, but the site has been a way of making it more structured and a way to meet really nice unknown people.

Casey Fenton, a 27-year-old American now living in Alaska, set up the Couchsurfing site with 12 friends in January last year, after yearning to meet more people on his travels.

Fentons previous life of starting up and running an internet company had proven his flair for managing such a project, as well as helping fuel his dreams of creating a surfing community.

He now runs the site with a team of other administrators, called ambassadors, who offer help when signing up plus ongoing advice via email. There is no charge to register or use the site and the team insists that the initiative is non-profit making, in spirit with the philosophy of the project. The administrators run the site alongside their other jobs and cover costs out of their own pockets. Donations are welcome though, and can be made via credit card. Any money that comes in is reinvested into the site.

A glance through the site shows its in no way restricted to the age-worn traveller stereotypes young students on a year out or free spirits opting out of the rat race.

In Rome alone you can find chefs, engineers, architects, journalists, media consultants and IT professionals, ages ranging from 18 to 48, all happy to swap emails, settees and friendships with others in 154 countries and 7,132 cities around the globe. Their sense of adventure is already reaping dividends, with many Italians posting enthusiastic emails from outposts ranging from Kenya to Bangkok, and from Mexico to the UK.

Would-be travellers can also get a rundown of their potential destinations online. Newcomers to Italy, for example, are given an overview of its history as well as more practical information, though some inaccuracies exist the money section smacks of nostalgia in noting lire as the currency.

The communal goodwill of Fentons efforts and that of his fellow surfers is one thing, but a lingering question is repeatedly raised by people when they first hear of couchsurfing why on earth risk letting a complete stranger into your house; never mind letting them stay? Moreover, why risk going to stay at a strangers house?

To address this, the team has set up a system whereby established members recommend or vouch for newcomers. Those joining can further establish their credentials by enabling organisers to check that the details they have given match those on their credit cards, via a bank check. The level of each members verification is then displayed through an icon next to his or her profile, showing if that person has been vouched for and/or verified.

Andreas Piani, a 27-year-old media industry consultant in Rome who lives a few metres from the Spanish Steps, explained the measures he took to ensure safety.

He joined the site in March this year and has couched in Utrecht with his girlfriend as well as hosting people from Quebec and Rotterdam.

I do understand peoples reaction and the fact they might be apprehensive. I remember when we arrived in Utrecht my girlfriend joked by asking what if this guy turns out to be weird? But as soon as we got there we felt at ease. The thing to do is only host or stay with people you feel comfortable with and not to feel under pressure to reply to everyone who emails. You can build up a correspondence by email and maybe speak on the phone a couple of times, so you get to know the person a bit beforehand.

An idea for those still concerned about potential risks is to travel in pairs though in turn a host may feel more unsure about two people staying rather than one and to select only members with full verification.

An interested couchsurfer must log on to the website and register. He or she then has the option of filling in a profile form with general background details; note that offering a couch as a return hospitality isnt obligatory to couchsurfing, so in theory one could stay on other peoples couches for years on end without ever hosting someone in return.

Once registered and logged on, users are ready to start seeking out fellow surfers. Members can search countries, cities and districts and begin emailing potential hosts, introducing themselves and hoping an invitation is extended.

There appear to be plenty of people out there willing to help out. While many people think twice before allowing even their next-door neighbour over the threshold, others are happy to play host to people from every corner of the world.

www.couchsurfing.com