I’m a budget traveler. Therefore, I’m always looking for the cheapest way to travel. Couchsurfing is definitely the cheapest lodging you can get, but it’s actually not the primary reason why I personally use the website.
Each type of lodging doesn’t just cater to a different clientele. They also provide different experiences. In a hotel, you’re usually getting pampered to. Airbnb provides a self-catering experience, and sometimes a bit more. Hostels are as varied as they come, but you primarily meet other travelers in them. It’s CouchSurfing (CS) where you’ll find the real gold.
With CS, it’s all about staying with a local and getting a true taste of the culture. Even if they’re not from the city you’re traveling to, chances are they’ll have a good knowledge of it. Either way, you’re sure to have a personal and unforgettable experience.
Where did Couchsurfing begin?
The story behind Couchsurfing goes back to 1999, when Casey Fenton flew from Boston to Iceland, where he didn’t want to stay in any of the “boring” hotels. Instead, he hacked a university database and emailed 1500 students, asking for accommodations. He received back dozens of offers, and thus the idea was born. Five years later, the website was launched, and it has since grown into a community millions strong.
What can you find on Couchsurfing?
Finding a place to stay in a city you’re traveling to is obviously the primary reason for Couchsurfing. However, the website has developed into so much more.
The secondary use I have of the website is finding events in the city I’m going to. Once or twice I’ve been able to find a host at the event when all my online requests fell through. The rest of the time I went to the events to meet and hang out with other travelers. Granted, if you’re staying in a hostel you might already have more travelers than you can talk to. Like I said, CS is a community, and it’s fun to meet the other members of it. After all, not all travelers are on CS, which is why I’m writing this.
The third option I use is to find other travelers in the city I’m in to meet up with. As a solo traveler, sometimes I just want another companion to explore with or share a 2 for 1 dinner. CS is a great place to find a short-term travel partner, if I haven’t already found someone at the hostel, or my CS host isn’t available.
Another benefit of CS is the groups. They certainly aren’t as numerous as Facebook, but they are pretty much all related to travel, travelers, or the city you’re going to in some way. Sometimes you need to jump onto an emergency hosting group for the city you’re going to after all your requests have failed. Otherwise, you can use the groups to find additional travelers to meet up with, or find like-minded individuals in the town you’re spending an extended period in.
Lastly, you can use CS to find out information for the city you’re going to. Personally I’ve never used this option, as I’ve always received my data from fellow bloggers and travelers.
Pros of Couchsurfing
- It’s free
While CS is inherently free, I still like to exchange with my hosts. That might be bringing them a gift from my last location, cooking a meal for them with my chef skills, cleaning their house or anything else they might need.
- Some hosts invite you to parties, shows and other events
Sometimes the exchange I’ve receive from my hosts has been far more than I was expecting. No less than half the CS hosts I’ve had around the world have invited me to a party of some kind or another.
- You get a comfortable sleeping arrangement
Once or twice I’ve slept on a mat on the floor with my sleeping bag, but usually there’s a very comfortable couch, and sometimes even a spare bed available. I say comfy couch, as I actually prefer the soft foam cushions over the pointy spring mattresses that some hostels have. Even the mats have been comfortable. After all, we travelers can sleep anywhere (usually).
- It’s personal
The biggest pro is simply that you’re in a real home. There’s a kitchen you can usually use, you’re not fighting with your whole dorm in the hostel for the shower, and you’ve got a personal buddy to help you with the town.
- Couchsurfing references are great
Couchsurfing certainly doesn’t have the fallacies in the Workaway feedback system. References give a great picture of the host you’re going to be staying with. Most hosts will only accept guests with numerous references. If you’re uncomfortable with a host, you can always find another with better references.
Cons of Couchsurfing
- Sometimes hosts are hard to find
The biggest problem with CS is it can sometimes be very difficult to find a host. If you’re arriving at a key tourist destination, or during the peak season, you might send out dozens of requests without even a single response. On the other hand, if you’re trying to find a host in a tiny town in early spring, such as I did in Middelburg, you might have a plethora of offers. But never give up. Someone is staying at those hosts who are booked. It could be you.
- The mobile app doesn’t filter the distance of your host
One problem with the mobile app is that it tends to give a wider geographical range. You have to pay attention or you’ll end up booking a host in the next town over. Or you can make your own mistake, like the time I accidentally booked a host for a completely wrong city.
Is Couchsurfing safe?
In this universe, there are no absolutes. It would be silly to say that CS is 100% safe. Whether it’s safer than your hometown is the subject of another post.
Let’s put it this way. Couchsurfing was developed by travelers, for travelers. Obviously there will be a handful of people who are using the site for nefarious purposes, but they’re fairly easy to spot with the built-in safeguards. After all, a small portion of the population everywhere don’t have your best interests at heart.
Personally I know of two cases of trouble with CS, other than guests staying too long when they couldn’t find their own apartment to move into, and only one of those was really serious. But that’s out of hundreds of friends of mine who are on CS whom I’ve talked to about their experiences.
It also comes down to having trust in your fellow man, but that’s also the subject of another post.
I’ll never forget my first CS host overseas. He was an elderly, ex-special forces Israeli living in London. His profile was a mile long, and included things like speaking a dozen languages, traveling all over the world and being openly gay. It was the first day of my travels, and I didn’t really have a lot of options, or wherewithal for hostels. I showed up and found his entire flat was barely larger than the loft bed which dominated the center. But he slept in the couch below, and nothing bad happened.
Then again, nothing bad has ever happened to me on Couchsurfing. The only results have been life-long friends and wonderful experiences and stories.
Tips for using Couchsurfing
The two key tips I can give for finding hosts are to build up your references and make your requests personal. If you don’t have any references yet, there are still hosts who will accept you. After all, everyone has to start somewhere. Another way to get references is to attend CS events, make some new friends and ask them to write you a reference. I want to see everyone on Couchsurfing, and I’m always happy to stay with a host who doesn’t have any references, or write one for a friend newly joining the team.
When writing your request, put in a personal touch. Give enough detail so they know your plans. Some hosts get several dozen requests a day! How are you going to stand out? Read their whole profile, including the part about their home. Know what to expect, and find a common point of agreement. Mention where your interests overlap, and what you can contribute to their home. Most importantly, if you’re available, offer to spend time with them. After all, that’s what CS is all about.
There’s another tip I do to filter out the best hosts to request. As mentioned, I’m not too interested in references personally. Instead, I apply a filter to find hosts who have been active in the past month, or perhaps six months if the results are too low. Then I scan to find hosts who have a response rate above 50%. I don’t just look for ones who are “Accepting Guests,” but those who are “Maybe Accepting Guests” too. Usually, I’ll skip the first page altogether, especially in big cities, as those are the ones who get the most requests.
Finally, find hosts off the beaten path. Not only are they more likely to be available, but you’ll get to explore a unique environment.
Couchsurfing embodies what traveling is all about. It’s meeting new people, getting out of your comfort zone, experiencing a new culture and exploring the unknown. It’s simply a platform that every traveler should be part of.