It seems like a lot of people I talk to are fascinated by the concept of Couchsurfing.
In this post I’m going to address why people do it, how to do it and how to get the most out of your Couchsurfing experience. This is quite a long post but I have a lot to share and I don’t want to skim over anything!
I signed up for Couchsurfing when my original plans for accommodation in London fell through. Initially, I had my reservations, mostly due to the unfamiliarity of it and my princess-like ‘I-only-sleep-in-comfortable-beds’ attitude.
But I soon discovered a whole community of awesome people that opened my eyes up to a new world of possibilities and learning. Sound interesting? Read on…
So what is Couchsurfing?
Couchsurfing is a global community of people who allow travellers to stay in their homes for free. Initially, I thought Couchsurfing (I’ll refer to it as ‘CS’) was simply a great way to save money while traveling, but I soon discovered that it’s more about a ‘cultural exchange’ – where people connect and share stories, have new experiences and learn about each other.
There are 3 main ways to use Couchsurfing:
1. As a ‘surfer’ – to meet and stay with a local
2. As a ‘host’ – to meet travellers and have them stay with you
3. To connect with other travelers or locals through meetups and events
Length of stays can vary, but ultimately it’s up to the host to decided. Some will only host for a maximum of two nights, and I’ve heard of other surfers staying months at a time! The longest I have surfed was 6 days in Iceland, but my average stay has been 3 days.
So far, I have surfed in Reykjavik (Iceland) – 6 nights, Eindhoven (Netherlands) – 3 nights, Amsterdam – 4 nights, Dallas (Texas) – 2 nights, Austin (Texas) – 1 night.
How it works:
On Couchsurfing.org, you sign up (it’s free) and fill out your profile. You upload a decent profile picture, plus other images that preferably showing your fun personality, places you’ve traveled, cool stuff you’ve done; basically anything that makes you look interesting! In addition to the basics (age, gender, occupation, personal description etc), you fill out other things like “Types of people I enjoy”, “How I participate in Couchsurfing” and “Teach, Learn, Share”.
Hosts also include a ‘couch description’ – sometimes it’s a mattress on the floor, or a futon in the lounge room, or a room to yourself; it totally depends. In Dallas, I had my own room AND bathroom. Score!
After each stay, you have an opportunity to write a ‘reference’ for your host or surfer, which shows up on their profile. Just like with any testimonial, positive references are very important for gaining the trust of future hosts/surfers. When I check out a potential host’s profile, I ALWAYS check their references. I’d be very hesitant to stay with a host with no references, unless they had an extremely comprehensive profile.
And references for surfers are just as important – after all, a potential host will want to know that I’m not going to pillage their apartment and eat all their cookies.
Is it really free??
Yes, hosts do not expect monetary payment. HOWEVER: it’s always nice to show your appreciation in some way. Maybe buy them a meal or drinks, or if you’re a great cook, make them dinner. Or bring them a book or some interesting food from your own country. Help them solve a problem. Or simply share your knowledge about your country or a place they want to travel to.
You’ll both get much more out of the experience if you think of CS as an “exchange”. A host is generously giving you a place to sleep, so think about what you can give to them in return – it doesn’t have to be a physical gift, just something that makes their life a little bit better :)
What’s in it for the host?
I get this question a lot. People host for different reasons, including:
- Learning about different cultures, countries and world views
- Building a global network of friends (hey, more free places for them to stay when THEY travel!)
- Sharing their culture and city with visitors
- Meeting people with the same interests/philosophies
- Learning new skills and gaining new experiences
- Opportunity to see their OWN city from a visitor’s perspective (when was the last time you truly appreciated your own city?)
- To hook up with people (yes, I’ve had my share of dodgy requests)
- ‘Cos it’s fun!
To give you a couple of specific examples: my wonderful host in Eindhoven told me that he doesn’t have many supportive people around him, so he uses CS as a way to meet positive people who can inspire and help him become a better person. I am humbled that he saw me as having these qualities and reached out to me. I know he’s reading this blog right now :)
Snorri from Iceland believes that “Couchsurfing makes the world a smaller place”. As Iceland is so isolated, hosting travellers is a great way for him to meet new people, learn about other cultures and educate others about his country. Plus, now he knows people all over the world who would go out of their way to host him (me included!).
Aren’t you worried about getting raped/abducted/murdered?
I’m more worried about getting salmonella poisoning from dodgy tex-mex.
But in all seriousness, you just have to be street smart, like any time you’re traveling.
If you’re a single female, you can play it safe and stay with female hosts or couples. However, I’ve found that the majority of hosts are male in their 20’s and 30’s, and that female hosts tend to be 19 years old and describe themselves as “a little bit crazy”, which doesn’t exactly appeal to me.
Of course there will always be a slight risk when staying in a stranger’s house. But here’s a simple way to avoid any nasty surprises – choose your host wisely. That is, read their profile thoroughly and check their references. If they seem a bit sleazy from their profile, then don’t accept!
So far, I’ve found that if people have ulterior motives they’ll be pretty open about it. I’ve had offers from people whose profiles say things like ‘I don’t have a couch…but you can share my bed’ and ‘I sleep in the loft, and if there’s that ‘magical spark’…so will you!’ (I politely decline)
Also remember that they are putting as much trust in you as you are them. I mean, I could hypothetically stab them in their sleep and nick their plasma, right? (Hypothetically, people!! Don’t get any ideas!)
Can I surf with my partner/travel buddy/dog?
Yes, some hosts are happy to take in more than one person. It will be on their profile how many surfers per night they accept. Just be sure to let them know when you reach out to them.
Ugh, I hate writing about myself! Do I really have to fill out the full profile?
Think of it this way – the info in your profile paints a picture of who you are and your personality. The more information you provide, the more detailed picture you’re providing. IMO, the job of your profile is to convince people that you are a fun, interesting, considerate and non-creepy human; someone they would WANT to meet.
I’ve seen profiles that say: ‘Self description – I don’t like writing about myself. You’ll just have to find out when you meet me ;)’ What does this tell me? You’re lazy and possibly have something to hide.
Of course, get as many positive references as you can – you need them to validate your profile, show credibility and provide social proof – ultimately convincing your potential guest/host they’re not making a huge mistake!
Tips for finding an amazing host
There are two ways you can find a host. First, you can click “surf” and type in your destination and dates of travel. Your ‘itinerary’ will then show up in the page of that city. When a host checks out that city, they can see your itinerary and send you an offer to host. This is how I found most of my hosts (I guess you could say they found me!)
In order for quality hosts to reach out to you, make sure you have a quality profile (see above).
The other method is to search for your destination city, and up will come a list of potential hosts. You can filter by age, gender, etc. Find hosts who appeal to you, then send them a ‘couch request’ with a PERSONALISED message.
I repeat: write a personalized message to each host. This is IMPORTANT. Some hosts in popular cities receive 10 requests a day, so you need to write something that will get YOU NOTICED.
And the best way to do this? Talk about THEM.
Uh, what? you ask. Shouldn’t I be writing about how cool/funny/well travelled/etc I am?
Imagine receiving this message from a complete stranger:
“Hi, I’m travelling to [your city] during [dates]. I need a place to crash while I’m in town for [event], plus it would be great for you to show me around. Oh, and I need to be close to the city. Do you think your place is a good location for me?”
This message screams ME ME ME. As the host, there’s nothing much in it for you, right?
Compare it to this:
“Hi [your name], you look awesome! I see you’ve travelled to Japan; I went snowboarding there last year and loved it. Anyway, would you consider hosting me during [dates]? I’d love to share travel stories, plus I could make you my famous eggs benedict!”
If you demonstrate that you’ve read their profile, actually care about who they are and offer them something (remember: this is an exchange), I guarantee they will be MUCH more likely to respond favourably.
*** BONUS TIP: this approach also works when applying for Air BnBs, house shares AND JOB INTERVIEWS. If you can nail the “make it about them, offer value” approach, you WILL be a more successful human. I promise. ***
Of course, there will always be people who don’t care who they host and will accept generic requests. If this is the sort of host you’re looking for, fine, but it’s not for me!
Tips for finding an awesome surfer
You can use the search function to find ‘surfers near you’. Check out who is currently in, or will be visiting, your city, and send them a ‘couch request’.
Most of my CS hosts approached me, and all of them wrote a personalised message like I mentioned above. They wrote things like “I read your blog, I loved that post about….” or “I’m also into fitness….I think we’d have a lot to talk about…have you read [interesting book]?”
These sorts of messages ALWAYS got my attention. I mean, who doesn’t like a bit of flattery??
I’ve also had a number of requests from guys saying “Hi, you’re welcome to stay with me.”
And that’s it.
While I don’t want to sound ungrateful for their offer, there’s nothing in that message that tells me they haven’t messaged fifty other girls the exact same thing. If you’re a single female traveller, just keep an eye out for these types of offers.
How do I get my first reference?
Getting your first reference can be a catch 22. A lot of people won’t host/surf if you don’t have a reference, but how the hell are you supposed to get a reference if no one will host/surf? Gahh!!
Not to worry! Here’s what you can do:
1. Fill out your profile 100% and make it awesome. Explain clearly that you’re new to CS and how you intend on participating. Remember, you need to demonstrate to people that you’re NOT A PSYCHO.
2. Do you have any friends with a Couchsurfing profile? If so, add them as a ‘friend’ on CS and ask if they can write you a reference.
3. Attend CS events. On the site, you can join ‘location groups’ for where you’re based or travelling to. You’ll see discussion forums, events and meetups where you can meet fellow travellers or locals. Go check out an event, make some friends in the CS community and – you guessed it – ask them to write you a reference!
Don’t expect replies straight away
Some people don’t check their inboxes very often, and can take a few days up to a week to reply. Hence, it’s always smart to contact multiple people. I think the most I’ve ever sent was 8 (for Amsterdam).
Be realistic and flexible
A host’s house is not a hotel, so get comfortable with adapting to different sleeping conditions. Plus, don’t assume that hosts will provide blankets, sheets and towels (they may, but if they don’t provide much info in their ‘couch description’, just ask.)
Hosts generally enjoy hanging out with their surfers, but don’t expect them to babysit or be your tour guide. Some have lots of time; others have 9-5 jobs. It all depends, and they’ll usually make this clear in their profile.
Once a couch request has been confirmed, it’s a good idea to exchange emails or numbers to easily keep in touch. As a surfer, it’s reassuring when my host sends the occasional message leading up to my stay, so I know they haven’t forgotten about me. So hosts, please keep in touch with your surfers!
I had one potential host confirm straight away, then I didn’t hear from him until the day after I was supposed to stay with him. My advice? Keep sending requests to other people until your host has confirmed and proves to be responsive!
Meet new people without surfing
Take advantage of the CS events.. Just jump into a location group discussion forum, and post whatever you want to do – meet up for a drink, go to a gig, car pool etc. During the World Cup, I put a call out to the ‘Eindhoven’ group and ended up watching Holland VS Costa Rica at a pub with friendly local Erik and his buddies. Awesome!
Overall, my CS experience has been overwhelmingly positive. I am fortunate to have not had any disasters (and I have heard of some horror stories), but I think a lot of it comes down to using your common sense and street smarts.
The best thing for me has been connecting with incredible people and experiencing a local’s point of view. I find that staying with someone allows for a much deeper connection than randomly bumping into locals at the pub (which is also fun, of course!).
As a result of CS, I’m more confident, I’ve learned to adapt and I’ve learned a lot about myself. Plus, I’ve gained a number of awesome friendships, for which I am so grateful.
Whew! If you’re still here after that lengthy post, you’re a champion! What are your thoughts about Couchsurfing? Do you have any other questions? Just hit me up in the comments below!