30 Sep 2019
Officially, Couchsurfing is a social network for travellers, where you offer a couch (or bed) to travellers or stay with people in foreign countries. This motto says a lot about it: “You have friends all over the world, you just haven’t met them yet”. The main concept is culture and hospitality being exchanged. Whilst it’s often approached because it’s ‘free’, its actually a place to stay that is paid with interaction, potential friendship, and community, NOT free accommodation.
If that’s all you’re after, a place to stay while you stay in your room or never interact with your host, then you aren’t after the spirit of the business, and may not connect well with other people as you travel.
One of the main benefits of CouchSurfing is the connection with the host that you develop, where they will recommend hidden hotspots, how to avoid tourist traps and other advice that can’t be found in a guidebook. This interaction is the point, where you as the surfer aren’t just using the host for free accommodation, but are meeting a potential friend.
Another benefit is the cultural exchange that inevitably occurs, which is one of the main reasons that people host (other than to give back to the community from their travelling). Through CouchSurfing, you can meet people from all sorts of countries, try their food, learn some of their languages, or embed yourself in that culture, rather than engaging in a touristy and watered-down version that is sold for much more.
While even considering the idea, a major question that comes up is ‘Is this safe?’ The answer is that if you use common sense, truly interact with people, and engage with the community, then yes. It may even be safer than alternatives!
The system on the couchsurfing website aims to weed out bad guests and hosts, and reviews are a major part of this system. It’s not supposed to be used as a dating site, but if it’s something you are into, then there may be opportunities for you, though there are better alternatives for that audience.
Make sure that you read the reviews thoroughly, ensure that you have a backup plan (even if that’s just a bar to sit in to find and book another hostel), and don’t be afraid to leave if you don’t like the vibe.
So if this is something that you’re interested in, how do you go around doing it?
Go to the website and sign up, which is an obvious first step. The next is one that most people don’t do, which means they don’t get very far, which is to fully fill out your profile! This is the first port of call for people to know if you will get along, so write multiple paragraphs. It doesn’t have to be a CV but should represent you truthfully. You should also put at least 9 photos up, which clearly show your face. Even if you have a lot of good references, if people aren’t certain that you are who you say you are, they probably won’t trust your profile, and so won’t trust you.
Whilst there are always more surfers than hosts, that doesn’t mean you should just send a copy-pasted message to everyone. Take care to choose your host. Make sure that they have plenty of good references to help ensure your safety. You can choose the preferred gender you would like to stay with, what kind of accommodation you would like (a couch or a spare bedroom), other amenities, and that they are someone you wouldn’t mind hanging out with.
You should probably approach up to 10 people, and you don’t want to send them a manufactured copy-pasted message. This will be the first (hopefully of many) messages to open a conversation, so be genuine about it. Take a look at their interests and find common ground that you could talk about.
If you’re going to a country for a special event, contact them early. Make sure that you tell them more about you, details that aren’t just on your profile. Discuss the length of stay (often just a couple of days), more details about their house, and where you’ll meet. If you’re confident, you can just turn up at their place, but grabbing a coffee beforehand is a good shout, and can allow you to just socialise and for you to get familiar with the area.
Also offer something that you could do for them, preferably related to their interests. This links to the next question about CouchSurfing, how does payment work?
At the surface level, CouchSurfing is free. Money isn’t supposed to exchange hands, the bed should be something offered freely. If you’re going to go on trips together, then splitting gas money is a different conversation, but the bed is free.
However, any surfer is expected to give, whether that be in washing the dishes, restocking some of the fridge, making a meal, bringing a souvenir from another country, or just in interaction. As you stay with them, you want to make their life easier and more interesting, not harder. Both people should be winning.
If you just want to stay in your room and not talk to others, go book a hostel or hotel. Engage with the cultural exchange, share stories, and don’t just treat their house like a free bed. It’s always nice to bring a small gift for the first meeting, and if it was good, then leave a good review at the end as well.
However, CouchSurfing isn’t only just for the couch but offers a connection to a wider community. Online, there are boards for different areas, where you can meet people for a drink, find hitch-hiking buddies, or buy a bike off someone who’s leaving. If you’re a host, or there for a longer time, meet up with other people for book clubs or to make friends!
CouchSurfing is a community, that if you properly engage with, is a gift that continues to give. It's for travellers to help out other travellers with that spirit, and can lead to amazing friendships and trips more memorable than you ever expected. Consider signing up and taking that trip around the globe!
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