Interview with Ramon Stoppelenburg: The Godfather of CouchSurfing

Travel Interviews: Michael Yessis talks to the internet's first travel celebrity

02.03.09 | 10:08 AM ET

The day after World Hum debuted in 2001, I wrote the site’s first blog post about Ramon Stoppelenburg, a 24-year-old traveler from Amsterdam who created LetMeStayForADay. His goal: To travel the world for free by asking strangers around the world to host him for a night or two in their homes. The project, however, was about more than freeloading. Stoppelenburg considered himself an ambassador of sorts, shining a light on the goodness of others.

His project was a resounding success. He traveled for more than two years without spending a dollar, euro or guilder. In turn, he became the internet’s first grass roots travel celebrity.

Since then, communities like CouchSurfing have advanced the concept Stoppelenburg helped pioneer on the internet. And Stoppelenburg has looked back, writing a memoir in Dutch. We published a translated excerpt today. To put it in context and to see what he’s up to now, I interviewed him via email. 

World Hum: What do you think about when you look back on your LetMeStayForADay travels?

Stoppelenburg: It’s been five years since I quit the project and decided to go home. I could have traveled for so long with so many invitations from hospitable people from all over the world. But at a certain point I noticed that I made my point: there are still great people out there and we shouldn’t all be so scared of “strangers” from other countries. And that it was possible to travel totally depending on other people’s hospitality—without any money at hand at all!

Truly, sometimes I felt trapped in a cage that I had created myself. When I wanted to get out on a certain day, I knew I simply couldn’t. It was like having a full-time job and the website was the family I had to support. If I didn’t do my thing well enough, my kids would complain. The only way to get out was to go home and say: I quit. Just like that.

It had been a great two-year experience where I was able to start a website, get people, sponsors and media enthusiastically involved in the idea and have them following me around through 18 countries.

Matt Harding is another person who has been able to get people, sponsors and media enthusiastically involved in his idea. What do you think of his dancing videos?

I think he has done a great and very unique thing. It’s again something that starts as a ridiculous idea, but it’s pursued extensively and people love it! It has the same uniqueness as the Red Paperclip guy, Sendmeadollar and my past.

It is another good example that if you use the internet in a very unique way and you keep believing in its possibilities, you will get a long way. And Matt got his sponsors who made him travel even more than he dreamed about in the first place.

These online personalities should stay online to give the world an example of what you can do with the internet and with your life.

What kind of traveling have you been doing since LetMeStayForADay ended?

Since LetMeStayForADay I have traveled the more normal way, by actually paying for flights and places I stayed at. I have traveled to Cuba and Egypt, and last year I went to Indonesia and Tanzania. Up next are parts of South America and I am very curious to see Iran.

But still I don’t want to be that guest in an international hotel chain with my room number as my main way of identification. I prefer small homestays or hostels to get as much contact with the locals as possible.

In the headline, I refer to you as the Godfather of CouchSurfing. What do you think of CouchSurfing and other similar sites on the internet that share DNA with your project?

Well, it was all in the beginning of this century that more and more people got to understand the possibilities of the internet. It wasn’t one-way communication as most companies thought at first. We could actually share things, exchange things. And then it’s quite imaginable that a few people came up with the online hospitality exchange.

The purpose of my internet project was to stay with locals who could share with me a meal and a place to sleep. I basically lacked the wallet full of money and I did not mind that at all. In return I wrote extensive reports about these days.

Currently, I am one of the local Ambassadors of CouchSurfing in my hometown, Amsterdam. And with that comes the fun to get the same requests by fresh young travelers who just discovered the whole exchange idea: they honestly say they prefer to stay on couches with the locals and share experiences than to stay in a hotel.

And they save lots of money with it, especially if you compare one night at the hotel would be priceless with staying a week with a local that welcomes you, invites you along and shows you around when possible.

What are you doing now?

I once was stuck at an office with a contract for one year and all the benefits that come along with working 40 hours a week. I almost mentally died. That’s not how my life should be filled, I figured out.

I decided to do only fun things in life. Since my life as a “global freeloader” I have had all kinds of jobs: I have been a DJ, manager of a bar, radio host of a travel show on Dutch Radio 1, relaxation masseur, internet editor, tour guide, photo model, portal manager, teambuilding coach and online marketing specialist.

I am currently active as a freelance media producer, internet consultant, blogger and photographer. I prefer to have various clients to keep me occupied in the many fields concerning the internet.

Next to that I run my private tour company ExpeditionKilimanjaro. I organize climbs up Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. I climbed that highest mountain of Africa myself earlier this year.

My spare time I fill up as a writer, anthologist of travel stories, webmaster and commercial model.

My motto is to work smarter, not harder. I tell my clients that I don’t work more than 20 hours a week for them, but they don’t have to regret that because I can produce 40 hours of work if everything goes efficiently enough. And with these demands I am able to travel about for a few weeks every two months. And that inspires me again in so many other things. I don’t know clearly what the near future might bring but I love it.