You have heard me mention Couchsurfing in some of my articles, or even seen me looking for Couchsurfing hosts, ever more desperately as the trip comes nearer. “Why is he so crazy about couches? Why can’t he sleep in a bed, like everyone else?”, you may have been wondering.
And you know that I am a big proponent of traveling without much money, both to make it possible for more people in the first place and to have a richer experience. In that respect, Couchsurfing can help, too.
1. What is Couchsurfing?
Couchsurfing is an online platform where people offer a place to stay, whether a couch, a bed, an extra room, or sometimes a space on the floor in their home. These are the hosts. Travelers can look for hosts, contact them individually, ask for a place to stay, and the host can decide whether to accept. There is absolutely no obligation on anyone. The host can even simply ignore the e-mail.
There is no money involved whatsoever! Hosts are not allowed to charge anything for the stay, nor should guests offer any money. The duration of the stay is up to them, but usually it’s for one to three nights, rarely longer.
The Couchsurfing website/app itself can be used for free as well. For a full membership, there is a one-time fee, but even without it, you can send 10 requests per week, which should be enough. You just open one profile, and you can be both a host and a guest with it.
2. Why would people host you for free?
I think there are two main reasons:
(a) People have experienced hospitality themselves and they want to return it, even if it’s to a different person.
(b) It can be quite interesting. I use Couchsurfing in both ways, as a traveler and as a host, and I actually prefer to host people. I have people come to my house and tell me about life in a distant country or life on the road, about their adventures and dreams, and I get all of that without having to pack my bag or even leaving my couch. It’s like the world coming into my living room!
And often, these are people with interesting and motivating stories. As an example, let me pick John and Eva, because they happened to make a video when they stayed with me in Peru. They were on their honeymoon, for which they had set out to hitchhike around the world in two years. As I was listening to their stories, I kept thinking that I should be a bit more brave and daring and adventurous, too.
I have sometimes been hosted by elderly people who couldn’t travel themselves any longer, but still wanted to feel something of that spirit. Or by people with young children, who wanted their kids to meet someone from a different country, speaking a different language (often to motivate them to pay better attention at school, I suspect).
3. I have written several requests, but received no offer to stay. How can I increase my chances?
First of all, it may simply depend on location and time. If you are looking for a host in Venice for Carnival, you will probably be out of luck. (Although I once got hosted in Venice by Enrico, who is an architect there and could give me so much more information about the city than I would have found in a guidebook. And then he took me to the roof of the Biennale building, where he worked, for a truly unique view of Venice.)
But there are a few tricks to increase your chances:
(a) Fill in your profile. Add several photos, write something about you, tell people what you like and don’t like. After all, you are asking to be staying in someone’s house for a few nights, so they want to know whom to expect.
As this is a very self-centered blog, I’ll point you to my own Couchsurfing profile as an example. And be creative! Don’t be the 50,000th profile saying that you “like to travel” or that you are “open-minded”.
(b) Read your potential host’s profile and respond to specific information there. You already want to read it to avoid staying with a weirdo, and if you find something interesting or a commonality, mention it.
(c) Reviews are an important element of Couchsurfing. (More on that in question 7.) Once you have a few positive reviews, people will be much more relaxed about hosting you. If you haven’t traveled yet, you can try to find friends on Couchsurfing who can give you reviews based on knowing you. Or you can host people yourself. Or you can simply meet people for half a day and give them a tour of your town (more on Couchsurfing activities without staying overnight in question 9).
4. That all sounds very stressful, to be honest. Why would you do that?
Indeed, it’s not as easy as booking a hotel. But then, going to an office every day to earn the money for that hotel is stressful, too. And with Couchsurfing, you can travel longer and more often than you could otherwise afford.
But you get so much more than a free bed! Actually, even when I have money (which happens rarely), I sometimes seek out Couchsurfing hosts on purpose. It changes the whole experience of a place. You meet with a local who knows the city and the country inside out, who can explain everything, translate for you, tell you about culture and history, and take you to some tiny restaurant in a basement that you would never have found.
When I was in Jerusalem for the half-marathon, I stayed with Daniel, who went to the registration with me the evening before and took me to the start of the race early in the morning. Alone, it would have taken me much longer to find that. And the days before, I stayed with Jonathan in Haifa, who took me for a really tough training run at night. Without that, I wouldn’t have been able to finish the race in under two hours, if at all.
Whenever I moved to a new country, I met people through Couchsurfing who gave me tons of advice, from practical to cultural. People have taken me on hikes or on day trips. They have introduced me to their friends, invited me to barbecues and organized a library card for me.
The countries where you can benefit the most from Couchsurfing are the ones where you don’t speak the language and don’t know much about. For example, a few summers ago, I went to Abkhazia. There was one young guy on Couchsurfing whose profile was in English and luckily, he invited me to stay with him and his parents. Without Omar, I might have walked through the town, up and down the coast, and understood barely anything of the country. With his help and his connections, I met politicians, artists, sociologists and linguists and learned a lot in just a few days. And thanks to his father, I drank the most alcohol-rich drink ever, ufff!
To sum it up, if you are the kind of tourist whose main objective is to post photos on Instagraph, then this might not be for you. It’s more about people than about places. And you might be surprised how often you have the feeling that you have known someone for quite a while, although you just met them that day.
On a long trip, though, I admit that I alternate Couchsurfing with hotels/apartments because I do sometimes need time for myself.
5. How to be a good guest?
Be clean, be polite, be considerable, be helpful if you can. All of that is obvious.
Some guests want to bring presents, but I personally don’t find that necessary at all. Also, without knowing someone, it’s hard to pick the right present, especially as I like to give books. When I lived in Vilnius, I had a lot of guests from Eastern Europe. They all brought booze instead of books. Back then, I didn’t drink any alcohol, so I just passed the bottles on to hosts when I traveled myself.
Some guests offer to cook, but I have neither talent for that, nor do I expect it. Only once, when I stayed with Valdis in Latvia, he was so interested in baking that I made a Kaiserschmarrn, spreading Austrian culinary delights beyond where even the Habsburgs had gone.
I do need to mention two guests here who were so prepared that they read my blog before visiting me in Romania. Thus, Matt and Hunter had found out that I like cigars and chocolate. They brought both, and those cigars from Virginia were the finest ones I have ever smoked.
But the main thing to do as a guest is not to treat hosts as a hotel. They devote their time, they have probably cleaned the extra bedroom, they have cancelled dates, all of that just to be with you. The least you can do is give them some of your time. If you have a list of 15 sights per day that you need to visit, then maybe Couchsurfing is not for you. Nor if you think that your mobile phone is the most important thing in your life. You should be prepared to spend a few hours sitting on Timo’s couch in Romania, listening to his incredible adventures from hitchhiking around the globe, or smoking cigars on Susanne’s balcony in Vienna, contemplating life and literature.
6. How to be a good host?
The most important thing for a host is to communicate expectations clearly and from the beginning. Sometimes, you have time and want to go hiking together, sometimes you have a lot of work and you just want to give the guest a few tips, a map and your bicycle. If you don’t have time or don’t feel like it, there is absolutely no obligation to be a tour guide.
It’s your house, so just tell guests when you get up, when you go to work, and when you go to bed. If someone wants to go out partying until 3 am and I don’t have a spare key for them, I tell them “no”. (This is why clear communication is already helpful when looking for a host.)
I generally try to give people the feeling that they are not in the way. So I tell them what I will do, and if they want to participate, then it’s fine. If not, it’s fine as well. When I will make dinner, I can make an extra plate, but I won’t cook anything super-special to accommodate their ketogenic diet, nor will I change my eating hours just because someone thinks that food after 8 pm is evil.
And one more tip if you have guests coming by bicycle or who have had a long journey: Show them the shower first. They will appreciate it.
7. But what about safety? How can you trust complete strangers?
This is the concern I hear most often, and I don’t even know why. People are afraid of staying with someone who is nice enough to host them for free, and then they pay 50 $ to stay at an AirBnB, which could be the same person in the same house. Capitalism has really messed up people’s minds.
But let me take your concerns seriously:
(a) You can read the references on a profile. If someone has plenty of good reviews over a long period of time, you can be fairly certain that the person is a decent and helpful host. You can even click on the profiles of those who provided the references to find out if they seem legitimate. Also, usually people will use their full name and you can google more information about them. In my profile, I include the link to this blog and to my TEDx talk, so people can research as much about me as they want.
I have also stayed with people without any prior references or accepted them as guests, and I never had any problems. I just read their profile and stay clear of people who sound like Nazis (there are not many on Couchsurfing) or who are into drugs (there are a few more).
(b) By the time you meet, the other person won’t be a stranger anymore, ideally. You can contact them weeks before, you can e-mail, you can speak by phone or Skype. It happened to me once that a potential host asked to speak over Skype before accepting my request to stay with her. I found that absolutely legitimate, and it worked out well.
(c) I would say that in countries where there is reason for concern, you are actually safer if you stay with a local. If I was going to Venezuela or to Afghanistan, I am not sure how I would feel alone. But if I already had a contact who picks me up from the bus station, I could relax. For as silly as I myself might be, I know they wouldn’t want to risk my life.
8. Sure, you as a tough guy don’t need to worry. But how safe is it for women?
The best answer I can give is this: I don’t know because I am not a woman. On that topic, I am looking forward to read comments by female Couchsurfers.
But I have hosted and stayed with many women and spoken about their experiences. Their consensus was: It’s generally fine, people really respect Couchsurfing as a traveling platform, nothing more, with one exception. The exception is Italy.
But there are a few things you can do:
(a) Look for female hosts or for families. Or maybe you have a certain age range that you feel less worried about (very old or very young).
(b) As above, check references and ask them to speak by Skype before. Especially if someone has many references and is traveling a lot, they don’t want to ruin their reputation because it would severely limit their own chances of getting hosted in the future.
(c) If a male host has only hosted women, that can be a warning sign. Having said that, I think my profile also shows that I have hosted more women than men because women are usually more organized and write longer in advance. (I also prefer staying with women because when they say they have a place to sleep, you know there will be a bed in an extra room. If a guy says he has a place to sleep, it can be a spot on the floor next to the washing machine. But people will clarify this in their profile.)
(d) The two creepy stories I heard personally were both from Italy and both from profiles without any references. In one case, the boy said that there was an extra bed, and then there wasn’t. In the other case, the profile was set up as a female one, but a boy (“the brother”) opened the door, saying that “his sister” was away. – In both cases, the female travelers didn’t stay, reported the profiles to Couchsurfing, and they were deleted within less than a day. Obviously, nothing prevents those people from opening a new profile, but then we are back at (b).
Lastly, on this topic, I am ready to concede that Couchsurfing can pose extra threats to women that men are usually unencumbered by. But the same applies to women going to an office, or to university, or going for a run in the park. I don’t think traveling is any different, and therefore it’s not a reason against traveling.
9. I like the idea, but I don’t have a free couch/bed. Or I am not quite ready to spend the night at other people’s places.
Most of the time, I don’t have a house or apartment of my own and therefore can’t host, either. I already miss it!
But Couchsurfing offers a whole range of other ways to enrich your travels and to meet locals, from Couchsurfing meetings where you can simply show up, to hikes or theater visits or language-exchange events organized by locals. I absolutely like the hiking groups, because there I usually find like-minded people. And they often know the way to some beautiful spots that I would never have found myself.
When I stay in a city and I already have accommodation, I will still post on Couchsurfing that I am looking for locals to meet, to go for a walk, to tell me something about their country. This is usually just for a few hours, so no big commitment from either side, but it can give you so much more insight. And of course, it’s all for free.
10. What was your worst experience?
The worst Couchsurfing story actually didn’t happen to me, but to a friend from Iran. He stayed with a woman in Hamburg, they noticed that they got along really well and they got married soon thereafter.
Admittedly, that’s a terrible thing. But I don’t think it happens very often. And anyway, I don’t know why he didn’t simply run away.
Now I am curious to hear from you. What did I forget? What is your experience? Have you tried it? Do you want to?