March MadnessOK, so your team made the big dance. Congratulations for you and your superior college experience. Now it's time to travel.

Traveling to and from the NCAA Tournament games isn't easy with the satellite system the NCAA uses for its first-round games. Instead of having higher-seeds simply host the first game, teams and their fans must travel to predetermined locations a minimum of 100 miles away from their schools. It creates the illusion of fair play.

What it really creates are quiet, boring stadiums filled with people who spend more time reading the programs than paying attention to the game. No bandwagon is more popular this time of year than the farm cart of NCAA March Madness first-round underdogs. Valparaiso and Davidson know.
Outside of the few fans who can afford to go to the games, most students have to watch the games remotely. But there are ways to travel to the tournament and stay cheaply, even free, using everyone's favorite Terminator/Skynet/The World Is Ending invention: Social media.

That isn't to say you should send Twitter updates with your picture and current location to everyone in Oklahoma City asking for a place to stay. And that certainly doesn't suggest searching through Craigslist personals to find desperate singles to bunk with for a regrettable weekend in Spokane, Wash. But there are ways to use social media to your advantage to find free lodging.

A Web site called couchsurfing.org is revolutionizing the way people travel. Intended more for people seeking to backpack across Europe, or for people seeking to backpack across America, CouchSurfing combines the social media networking capabilities of Facebook and a hitchhiker's thumb. If you need a place to stay, join the community, find someone who wants a stranger to sleep on his couch, and you're on your way.

Yogesh Kauntia, a 22-year-old student from India, recently used CouchSurfing for the first time.

"I am relatively new to the Web site and was reading about how the volunteers are trying to keep CouchSurfing safe and useful," Kauntia said. "The way it handles references, complaints, and verifications is brilliant. I shot a mail to one of the members seeking information on some local restaurants and I got a reply in 30 minutes with a huge list of the best eateries in his city; something you won't find anywhere on the Internet."

There are currently 1,739,785 registered members from 237 countries on the site and more than 6,000 new memberships are created weekly. Nearly 1,000,000 "couches" are available to sleep on across the world right now, including over 100,000 in the United States. The site is not-for-profit and seeks to minimize any security mishaps, using references and a three-part verification system to ensure the safety of would-be travelers. So do your best to avoid any CouchSurfing hosts that list "John Wayne Gacy" under their interests.

Facebook is another great resource for travelers looking for a free stay. Searching for students based on location and sending messages to them can provide you not only with a place to crash for the NCAA Tournament, but a wonderful life lesson in dealing with rejection from the inevitable "I don't know you, please stop sending me messages" response.

If you choose to take your life into your own hands, and no one should blame those who do, try packing up a tent and sleeping at a local KOA Campground for a minimal fee near the host city your team is playing in. Everyone likes camping, right? If you don't, just bring enough beer so you don't even realize you went camping until you're already driving to the game. There's no guarantee that serial killers won't be at KOA either, but there comes a point where you've just got to grab your suspenders, snap 'em tight, and get on with life.

Seattle-based Erik Larsen is an award-winning former sports editor of the Loyola University Chicago school newspaper, the Phoenix, a former sports writer for the Chicago Tribune's RedEye, and author of the sportstzu.blogspot.comSports Tzu blog. Got a tip? Or a spare ticket to the Final Four? Email him at eriklarsen1+sportstzu@gmail.com.

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