Couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing.com) is an online network of people from all over the world that open their homes, couches, and guest bedrooms to travelers for FREE! That means, you can search for the city you plan to visit, scroll through several profiles until you find one that catches your eye, and request to sleep on their couch. The concept is to provide an alternative to
backpackers when traveling other than hostels that won’t break the budget. But the mission is beyond saving money while traveling, but I’ll get into that later. I joined back in 2007. I am a strong supporter of the couchsurfing idea and mission and think it is a great way to travel even though I may get weird looks from some of my friends and family when I tell them I am a member.
How does it work?
There are plenty of explanations about how to use couchsurfing on the website at www.couchsurfing.com, but I will break it down for you here. First you make a profile, filling it out as completely as possible. Then that’s all you have to do! You can start searching for other couchsurfers, or host some of your own. You can choose your availability if you aren’t quite ready for it yet. If you want to request a couch, you simply send a message or couch request email to that person and see what they say. There are some other steps you can take to make yourself more legit and that will up your chances of getting couchsurfers or others to accept your request which are discussed below.
Now, the obvious question that all my more responsible friends have when they hear about couchsurfing is, “Is this safe?” I get it. The idea of traveling to a foreign land and staying on the couch of a stranger that you have only met online does sound scary, sketchy, dangerous, awkward, and like a plot of a Lifetime movie. So before you completely throw the idea of couchsurfing out the window, let me explain. While anybody can make a profile, there are some precautionary steps you can take to ensure that someone you potentially will be staying with is a good, trustworthy person and not some creep off the street.
1. Read the profile – you can learn a lot about someone just by reading their profile in its entirety. Make sure to pick someone with several pictures of themselves.
2. Read references – Couchsurfing members can receive different kind of references on their profile. These can be close friends, people they have met traveling, or people who have hosted them or that they have hosted using couchsurfing. Selecting a person with several positive references, especially from others they have hosted, can give you an idea of what kind of person they are and what to expect if you couchsurf with them.
3. Look for someone who has been vouched for – the vouching system is the highest level of trust in couchsurfing and is indicated by a little bandage icon next to someone’s profile name. People can only be vouched by someone who has been vouched for at least three times, and it is encouraged that you only vouch for people who you know in person very well, not someone you met in passing. To vouch for someone is to say you would trust your life with them and can guarantee they would be exemplary couchsurfers when on the road too. You really can’t go wrong with picking someone who has been vouched for.
4. Choose someone who has been verified – the purpose of this safety feature is to verify that the location you are going to is really a person’s residence. Anyone can submit to go through the verification process, which involves matching your address to that on your credit card through a payment to the non-profit organization of about $25. A second verification step is that they mail a postcard to the stated address on your profile, and you have to respond upon receipt to prove you actually live at that location. This weeds out the serious couchsurfers from the rest because they have actually contributed money to the organization, proving their dedication.
If you follow these steps, you should feel completely comfortable with whoever you have picked to couchsurf. You can also complete these processes for your own profile to attract more couchsurfers to you and to get better results on couch requests. Remember, there are two people involved in the couchsurfing process, and as much as you want to make sure the host you pick is normal and safe, the person on the other end wants to make sure whoever they are letting into their house is a good person and won’t take off with their belongings.
What does it cost?
I already mentioned that couchsurfing is completely FREE! No one is allowed to charge you money or they could risk being kicked out of couchsurfing and a negative review. So then why do they do it? Hosts get just as much out of you staying with them as the couchsurfer, whether it is living vicariously through your travels, to meet unique and interesting people, or that warm, fuzzy feeling you get from helping someone out.
It is a good idea though to do something for your host in return. I have had people bring me gifts from where they are from to remember them by, bought me some candy or a little trinket, or even cooked a nice dinner to say thank you. Any gesture is appreciated.
Excuse me if I get a little passionate about the deeper concept of couchsurfing, but a lot of my friends don’t get it. The whole free thing is nice, but that’s not the main purpose. The main purpose is to bring people together with similar values that previously was not possible. Before couchsurfing, it was nearly impossible to connect with like-minded strangers in other countries unless you met them when traveling. Now, this connection allows people to experience other cultures and learn and grow through interacting with locals in other places through hosting, or surfing on someone’s couch. It’s the backpacker mentality that couchsurfers share, where they don’t want to just visit another country, they want to immerse themselves in that culture and way of life, wander to places they wouldn’t have found otherwise, and really get to know people who live there in the deepest way possible, by sharing their home with them. Staying with a host in another country will yield a different experience than staying in a hostel with other travelers and form a different relationship that is first and foremost based on trust. Your host may invite you out with some of their friends, show you around to their favorite hotspots, cook you a traditional meal like you would never find in a restaurant, or just give you better insight into the country’s culture. It is a bonus that you get to stay there for free, but the hosts understand that by saving money you would be spending on accommodation, you can extend your trip and explore more!
I recommend everyone try couchsurfing at least once on their trip. The experience is truly amazing and you won’t regret it.
Tips to Being a Successful Couchsurfer
- Get some sort of references or friends before you embark on your journey. You can host some couchsurfers in your own city to get a taste of it, or join your city’s couchsurfing group and meet some fellow couchsurfers at an event.
- To have a successful profile that yields the best results make sure you have a lot of pictures, including some of you and your travel partners. Your travel partners are also encouraged to have their own profile just so the host knows what to expect.
- Hosts may not be as easy to find in remote or rural areas, so if you want to couchsurf, try to plan it around larger cities.
- The request you write can make or break whether a host agrees to let you stay. See my sample couchsurf request email for pointers to get the best results when requesting a couch on your trip.
- For better results, try to give people at least a week notice with expected dates, and usually plan to stay no more than 3 days, but this can depend on the hosts preferences.