Ahhhh… Couchsurfing. A European’s answer to budget travel. And an American’s worst nightmare. If you aren’t already familiar with Couchsurfing, it’s an amazing website that connects backpackers around the world who are looking for cheap accommodation. Quite literally, you can coast from city to city by crashing on a stranger’s couch – for free. Think of it like AirB&B, but with a greater sense of community. Most people in the States freak out about the idea of CouchSurfing, and rightfully so, as it can be pretty scary to let complete strangers into your home – what if they’re going to steal everything? or worse, you’re the stranger in a foreign country and just as you’re ringing their doorbell, what if they’re a murderer?
My First Tip Is Very Simple: Don’t Be Afraid
That’s not to say you shouldn’t be cautious. But really, if you adjust your perspective ever so slightly, you’ll see CouchSurfing as an opportunity, not a threat. It’s an amazing way to meet people from all over the world, even for those of you who may not have the time or money to go anywhere just yet. You can bring a piece of the world into your home for a night or two. You will find that 9 times out of 10, CouchSurfers are respectful, well-traveled and grateful human beings.
There’s Safety In Numbers
If you are still weirded out by the idea of staying with a complete stranger – which I promise you, isn’t half as scary as our culture makes it seem – why don’t you try CouchSurfing with a friend? I was studying abroad in Barcelona the first time I surfed. I went to Warsaw, Poland with a friend and we stayed on an air mattress in a nice Polish man’s living room. Besides the fact that he knew everything about Warsaw, I am so glad we stayed with him because he took us to a fancy restaurant where I had one of the best meals of my life. I wouldn’t have found that place if it weren’t for him. He also drove us around and told us stories about the local street art. There was a bridge full of it, which, again, wasn’t in the Trip Advisor tour books. He told us what the political art meant and translated things in Polish. It was really cool. He was like a tourgude and a hotel wrapped into one.
So You Want to Surf, Now What?
I’m glad you agree that being a Couchsurfer could be fun. Here are a few key tips to keep in mind while you’re looking for a place to stay –
Don’t copy and paste the same message to every host.
They’ll notice. Add a touch of personalization. Don’t make it seem like you are just looking for a free place to crash, but rather, make it be about the experience.
Go with hosts who have a lot of reviews.
I feel like this is a general rule of thumb for most websites, but peruse the host’s other ratings. Real people who have stayed with them before will likely have nothing but good things to say, but sometimes, that’s not the case. Plus, you’ll get a sense of their personality and demeanor from other surfers’ perspectives.
Consider what you can bring them as a thank you.
Usually, hosts are extremely accommodating and willing, especially just to hear your stories and outlook on life. If you are open-minded, too, and willing to get into some great (if not testy) conversations it’s bound to be more than just a place to stay, but a memorable experience for you both. If you want to give them something tangible, a memento from your home country would be a great idea. Or a bottle of wine couldn’t hurt 😉
Once you have a place booked, be respectful.
Follow their rules, if any. Do they say not to bring guests? Are they allergic to pets? Respect their wishes and leave the place just as clean as it was when you arrived. It’s not a hotel and they are not your maids.
What to Do If You Want To Be a Host
Hosting becomes a bit more personal, but for me, I’ve found that these tips serve me well:
Build up your profile.
Actually take some time out of your day to write a little bio. Tell other surfers what you’re into and why you joined the site. They’ll read this stuff and it’ll help find things to connect about. Who knows, maybe you found someone who’s willing to check out that concert none of your other friends want to go to.
Add photos, too.
In the same vein, no one wants to stay with someone who only has one photo on their site. That’s just straight up creepy. Add a few from your travels to show them you’re a real person.
Set your profile to “Maybe Hosting Couchsurfers” instead of a clear Yes or No.
Living in NYC means I get hundreds of requests a day – this place is expensive! Setting it to Maybe means that people put a little more thought into sending me a message, and also, that I don’t get bombarded with requests.
Meet them at a public place.
This one’s for safety, and totally not a necessity by any means, but it put me at peace the first few times I hosted. Not only does it show you are willing to hang out and do something fun together, but it also gives you an opportunity to gauge if they’re nothing like they said they’d be.
You Don’t Have to Host OR Surf To Enjoy It
While 95% of all CouchSurfers utilize the website to either find accommodation or offer up their home to other surfers (most people are a bit of both), there is a way to enjoy CouchSurfing without any actual surfing involved. CS has lots of forums and meet-ups designed to get like-minded travelers in the same room, be that a weekly meeting at a local pub or a one-time offshoot for a special event that’s in town. Wherever in the world you may be, guaranteed there’s going to be a CS community not too far away.
Surfers are also a great resource for planning trips. I’m headed to Serbia in July and know next to nothing about the Balkan region. You bet I asked lots of CS users for their perspective on my itinerary – am I cramming too much in? Does anyone speak English outside of the big cities? What’s really the best way to get from point A to point B?
Pro Tip: Set Your Profile to “Willing to Meet Up”
Whether you’re on the road or at home, you’re bound to make a new friend this way. I’ve taken lots of surfers out on the town, and it forces me into experiences I otherwise take for granted (aka do things I am too lazy to do on a normal weekend) like walking the Brooklyn Bridge or dining at Eataly. Recently, I shared some laughs at a rooftop bar with a new friend from Chile, and another new friend brought me Turkish delight all the way from Istanbul!
There is so much more I could share about CS, but I’ll leave you with this: If you open yourself up to the experience, you’ll get something really interesting out of it! It’s more than a housing resource, but a true community.
If you have any CouchSurfing stories you’d like to share, let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear ’em.
Surf on my friends!