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