The Truth About Couchsurfing

Does the thought of contacting a stranger to sleep on their couch or spare bed freak you out? You’re not the only one. That’s about how most of my relatives react, with a bit of fear in their voice, when they hear I’ve been Couchsurfing. The first time I used it, traveling through Argentina three years ago, I didn’t even tell my parents what I was doing until after the fact. It sounds scary, and for some people it can be. It took me all of thirty seconds to find four different articles about how to Couchsurf safely, most of them centered on the idea that some people have ulterior sexual motives. But there’s more to it than that.

So what’s the point of Couchsurfing, anyways? Here’s the mission statement, straight from the website:

We envision a world made better by travel and travel made richer by connection. Couchsurfers share their lives with the people they encounter, fostering cultural exchange and mutual respect.

It sounds great and when it works, it is. But before you plan to travel several months without budgeting for accommodation, there are some things you need to know about Couchsurfing.

My very first Couchsurfing host, back in 2011.
My very first Couchsurfing host, back in 2011 in Bahia Blanca, Argentina.

Reading is Required

When you find someone on the website, you have to read their profile. Then you have to read through their references. Then you need to read about their couch, apartment location and any rules they have concerning staying there. It’s not an option, it’s a requirement. If you send a request to someone who’s profile you haven’t read, it shows, and you’ll either be denied or end up somewhere you’re not prepared to be. Either way, it’s much better to just read a potential host’s profile thoroughly before contacting them. You’re staying with a probably really awesome stranger, but even so, do your research.

It’s an Exchange

How would you feel if someone walked into your house, used your toilet paper, slept on your couch, ignored you throughout the morning and then left? Couchsurfing is not a free hotel. While money is off the table, you’re still expected to give something to your host in exchange for their time and hospitality. Think a small magnet from your last destination, a recipe from your home country, a note of appreciation or just a willingness to always wash the dishes are often well-accepted. Couchsurfing has a “Teach, Learn, Share” section of their profile that asks you to describe what you could teach or share with someone hosting you, and what you’re interested in learning. For most people, good conversation and some stories are enough, though in truth it’s just about the effort. I personally like to keep notecards with a photograph of Pittsburgh on them and write small thank-yous on the day I leave, or bring a bottle of wine from the region I’m coming from. Intangible or otherwise, you need to give something back to your host.

What You Save in Money, You Spend in Time

Going to Hostel World, picking out a hostel and making a reservation usually takes somewhere between five to ten minutes for me, depending on how lost my credit card is in the depths of my purse. It’s easy and your bed is guaranteed the second you click ” confirm”. When you Couchsurf, the opposite is true. While I wholeheartedly believe that the experience is worth every minute you put into it, dear golly, I have put a whole lot of minutes into finding hosts on Couchsurfing. First there’s the reading, then there’s more reading of more profiles just to be sure you found a good one. Then comes the writing of a good couch request or two. Then you wait for a response, which could come immediately or never (check those response rates before you choose someone!), and when you’re trying to surf in Europe in the middle of July, for example, you’re bound to get several rejections before finding a suitable place to stay.

All in all, sometimes Couchsurfing takes forever. And if you’re traveling on a more fast-paced trip, one or two days in each city, it may not be worth it to you to spend an hour or two daily on the Internet, trying to find your next place to stay, when you could be out soaking up your current destination. Whatever your circumstances, it’s important to know that Couchsurfing is going to take you a lot of time and weigh that into your decision.

You Will Live Like a Local

On one hand, this can be an amazing experience to see what people really live like in cities all over the world. On the other hand, they may not live as well as you’re accustomed to and this may mean grungy bathrooms, tiny kitchens and less than beautiful apartment complexes with way too many stairs. One time my host didn’t have air conditioning, and I sweat buckets in a windowless room and in the heat of summer for two nights straight. But I didn’t complain because she was sleeping in the same house with the same temperature, and it was part of her everyday life. Just know that when someone welcomes you into their home, it’s not always roses, but it will be authentic.

Some People Want Sex

I know, I know. Nobody wants to hear about this, least of all my mother. But it’s been talked about before, and it’s a fact of life that some people use Couchsurfing as a way to have exotic one night stands. I can firmly say that I’ve encountered no such unsolicited situations myself, over three years and about 30 different hosts, a third of them men. But it’s something women and men alike have to watch out for, and some Couchsurfers have even deleted their profile over. This usually happens more in man-centric cultures, though that’s not to say you shouldn’t keep an eye out for it surfing in the West as well. You can easily tell what someone’s intentions are, though. Just read through reviews people have left for one another and you’ll quickly find real people who are in it for the cultural exchange of ideas, not fluids.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

You gotta have it. You’ll need to respect not only your host’s home by keeping clean and not going through their things (duh!), but you’ll more importantly need to respect their rules and boundaries. If they only have one key and need you to get up in the morning at the same time they do, you’ll need to do it with a smile, 8 AM and all. If your host is vegetarian, it would be respectful to not cook hamburgers for breakfast, lunch and dinner each day or offer them a casserole with meat hidden in the folds. If they need to work or study during the day, you’ll need to respect that they can’t show you around and be independent, sightseeing on your own. Because Couchsurfing is a mutual agreement based on trust, respect is huge. HUGE!

The Kindness and Trust of Strangers is Real

I’ve had so many hosts go out of their way to make sure I’m having a great experience; everything from cooking me specific foods I wanted to try, calling their history-buff friends to give me an impromptu city tour, to bringing me out with their friends or to their work and even going so far as paying for my meal, when I’m the one sleeping in their space. I can’t even count the number of times my host has met me and immediately given me a spare key, so I could come and go at my leisure. If nothing else, Couchsurfing will give you a deep and life-long conviction that people are kind and good at heart, and then create in you the desire to be just as kind and good to the strangers you meet.

 

Just a few of the many, many faces from my Couchsurfing experiences.
Just a few of the many beautiful souls from my Couchsurfing experiences.

 

If you do it wrong, you could end up in an uncomfortable, or worse, compromising situation. But if you do it right, it may change not just the way you travel but the way you live and think about humanity.  And that’s the real truth about Couchsurfing.

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What have your Couchsurfing experiences been like? Any other truths you think I’ve missed? Completely disagree?

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11 thoughts on “The Truth About Couchsurfing”

  1. Agreed! I haven’t actually couch surfed yet but when I lived in Santa Barbara (a big tourist destination in California) I signed up as a host to get some references to help for when I do eventually want to use a host. I had nothing but good experiences! I met some amazing people from around the world and I’m still in contact with most. It’s all about being thorough and scrupulous, trusting your instinct, and believing that most people actually do have good intentions. And the thank you gifts were certainly appreciated… I got a bottle of wine from France, a futbol jersey from Newcastle, and an Australian guy cooked me an amazing dinner. I love couchsurfing! 🙂

    1. That’s great! I’ve been surfing so often but I really, really want to get into hosting now. Haha the opposite as you! I agree, without being thorough, you’re not going to have an amazing time, but if you do it well, then it can really turn out to be amazing. I hope you get the chance to surf, soon! 🙂

  2. I used Couchsurfing for years and years. I discovered it at Burning Man. Then I traveled all over America and met friends in my town in California. When I moved to China it was an enormous resource and I traveled affordable all over Asia as well as several other continents, meeting amazing people. I hosted as much as I could .

    I don’t use the site anymore. I know enough people, and don’t have the free time for local parties. I have contacts in pretty much any country I want to use.

    However, the site has changed. You can put out a call to everyone and wait for someone to respond, instead of just emailing one-on-one. I don’t like look on the forums either. And perhaps gotten too big and mainstream, and I don’t know if I’d recommend it these days. I used to always preach CS to everyone. Now I don’t know.

    Maybe I’m just older. I told myself that I shouldn’t go to youth hostels after I turn 30, don’t wanna be that guy y’know, and at this point it’s better for me to host than to surf.

    Still, travel is the best part of life and if you know how to use CS properly than do your best to make the most out of the experience of going somewhere new. Good travels all!

    1. That’s nice that you have your own personal couch-network, if you will. I bet it comes in handy! And while I agree that the site is changing, the open call, paying to join, etc, the idea is the same and you’re still individually contacting people and forming connections in the same way as before. I think if users now are a bit more liberal with the “negative” reviews and keep to the philosophy, then it’ll continue to be a great resource for travelers. Which I really hope continues, because I’ve had so many fantastic experiences and I would be sad to see that end.

      You’re never too old for hostels! Just book a private room. 🙂

  3. I have tried Couchsurfing a few times now, and even though I’ve never had a negative experience, I came to the conclusion that it’s just not for me. I only ever send requests (personalized, not spammy) to females or couples, but I’ve never had a single one of them respond to me. Instead I get 20-30 invitations from single men. Some of them are completely legit and I’ve had very good experiences. But, with a significant other back home and being a solo female traveler it just feels too intimate; too invasive of another person’s space. That being said, I would definitely be open to staying with a woman or multiple people!

    1. That’s so strange that no one has responded, do you have a couple positive reviews to start you off? I’ve often wondered how much effect my collection of positive reviews has on those I message, considering that most people respond to me. And I totally understand about staying with females and couples, I also prefer to just eliminate all men from my search first-thing, to avoid awkward situations. I think you’re smart for doing that. I will stay with guys, however, that’ve come recommended to me by another female, and because of that rule, it’s sometimes quite difficult to find a host.

      In any case, I’m glad you had some good experiences and if it’s not for you, then it’s not for you! But I hope you’ll break your rule if you see me come up in your search results sometime. 🙂

  4. I’ve not done any couchsurfing yet but I’ve been signed up to the site for a few years now. I considered doing that when I’d stay in hostels. These days I actually really love Airbnb. I feel like it gives you that authentic experience of staying at someone’s place like a local and really getting to experience the local culture. 😀

    1. I’ve never done AirBnB but I’ve also heard good things about it; it’s kind of a nice in-betweener! If you do decide to use Couchsurfing, let me know and I’ll write you a nice review to start you off. 🙂

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