I first heard about CouchSurfing from my French roommate while I was studying abroad in Korea. I thought there was some language, communication error. You sleep over at a stranger’s place? Really? That’s a thing? Turns out, yup. But it’s also so much more.
Couchsurfing is a community of travelers that makes it easy to meet people all of the world. You can be a guest in a local’s home, volunteer to be a host, and even attend events both home and abroad! And it’s FREEEEEEE. There are CouchSurfers all over the world ready to meet and hang out with you!
Most of my experiences have been great. I’ve heard so many stories and tips from a range of people: a Romanian doctor working in France; a Belgian teacher who biked everywhere and hitchhiked regularly; Australian students studying in the northern, snowy regions of Sweden; an Italian art student who once slept under the stars without a tent; and so many more. Everyone was so hospitable and I’ve been able to try different foods and snacks from all over the world, without even visiting the country!
But CouchSurfing isn’t for everyone. It is a community and there are some unwritten rules to follow. The general idea is to be polite, respectful, and to remember that someone is welcoming you into their country and home. My recommendation hinges on your travel requirements.
How It Works
Being A Guest
You choose the city you’re visiting and see a list of potential hosts. Click on a name to carefully read through a profile and the “My Home” page and see if you’d be willing and able to stay with him or her. Look through reviews to see if there are any red flags and if everything’s good, leave a message with your arrival and departure dates! Tell him a little about yourself, why you want to stay with him, and why he should let you in. Your profile should also be filled out. You can also join a Group within the site to look for hosts, travel companions, or suggestions.
This becomes a little easier as you become more and more involved in the community and start collecting your reviews. There are many hosts will, understandably, reject you for having no reviews because of past reasons or security issues. Some ways to get reviews if you’re just starting out is to ask your friends for some, attend events in your area, or to start hosting.
A side note: everyone should read reviews. As a solo, female traveler I was careful to only look at hosts with a certain number of reviews, even if it meant not being accepted by anyone. Even with this, I did have one iffy experience that caused me to stay awake until everyone woke up and leave earlier than planned. I now only look for hosts with at least 20 reviews, as unreasonable as that is for someone with so few like myself. If I can’t find someone to host me, I can still find someone to meet up with.
Being a Host
To host people, you can change your profile to say “Accepting Guests” or “Maybe Accepting Guests.” Edit your profile so people can know what to expect. What do you like to do on weekends? Are you an early bird or a night owl? Or both? What can you offer, and what do you expect from guests? Do you have any requirements? Are kids allowed? Pets? Are you excited to spend lots and lots of time with your guest, or should they expect to pretty much be left alone?
While I am forever grateful for the people who accepted me even with no reviews, I totally understand while some people didn’t accept me. Without any reviews, you don’t know whether the person will be respectful of your boundaries, property, or time. Read their requests and if you’re interested, check out their profile.
Events and Meeting Up
Not really sure about staying with strangers or strangers staying with you? That’s fine! You can still contact people to meet up and hang out, and there are CouchSurfers who host events within the site for locals, expats, and visitors alike. Get to know your local community, or find fellow travelers abroad.
What It’s Good For
Meeting New People
I’ve met so many people from so many backgrounds from staying with hosts, getting free tours, and meeting fellow CouchSurfers’ friends. A former katana maker studying to be an aerospace engineer, a group of Middle Eastern men who spoke Russian, I could seriously go on and on. Do I keep in touch with everyone? No. But they are welcome in my home.
Trying New Foods (and Drinks)
Everyone knows to try Belgian waffles in Belgium or to eat pizza and pasta in Italy. But with a host, you get to hear about the foods that the locals eat. There’s a Belgian cookie called speculaas, a French cheese called raclette, and an Italian liqueur called limoncello. None of which I would’ve heard of without the help of a local.
And as an additional surprising bonus, you get to try foods that aren’t even from the country you’re in! If you go to France, of course you’ll be able to try French food. But because of an awesome Romanian host in France, I’ve also tried a Romanian spread called zacusca. And a Belgian host in Belgium took me to a Moroccan restaurant he liked and I got to try tagine for the first time.
A More Immersive Experience
Even if it’s a short stay, you get to see how the locals live and eat. Do they eat at a table or on the floor? Do they generally eat dinner early or late? And if you really want to get into it, how does the country work? What are some differences in educational or political systems? What do people tend to think about this or that issue? It’s so fun to see how people view the US and themselves.
Everyone has something in common at CouchSurfing: you love to travel. So of course, we like to talk about our travels. I’ve learned about different apps, methods, tips, and tricks that people use in different countries to enhance their travel experiences. I’m really excited to visit the destinations that others were excited to talk about.
What It’s Not Good For
Just A Bed
If you’re just looking for a room, look elsewhere. First, not everyone has a bed to share. I’ve slept on couches, floors, and beds, you just don’t know until you read the profile.
Second, there are certain expectations your host might have, like spending time with you and sharing stories. In my experience, they are totally understanding because they are fellow travelers. But that absolutely does not mean you can come and go as you please like you would at a hotel, hostel, or Airbnb. You are a guest in their home and a representative of your country or hometown.
Yes, it is free. Hosts will never ask for money and are truly just trying to give back to the community. While you are absolutely under no circumstances required or expected to pay for anything, I like to bring gifts and/or pay for/make dinners. And again, there is a time commitment, depending on busy your host is.
You cannot just “book” a room and be done with it. Read your potential host’s profile and nicely request their hospitality. Especially in larger cities, hosts can easily receive dozens and dozens of requests every week. For best results, find some common ground or some reason they should trust you, especially if you’re a new member with no reviews. Even then. it can take a couple days to find a host, if you find one at all. I recommend asking about a month or so in advance.
I once had a host who told me I would be his last guest for a while because he was getting a new roommate. He actually wasn’t planning on accepting me because I had no reviews at the time, but he read my request and he said it was the best he had ever read. Okay yes, I got lucky. An author of a book I had to read for school happened to have been a speaker I saw at my school, and he happened to have interned at the village said author was from. But I was able to write about it because I read his profile and made the connection.
Not that it’s impossible, but generally people don’t want groups of ten staying over. You can definitely look for hosts, but I’ve generally found that the max people will accept is around two people. If you have like three, you can go ahead and ask as long as they don’t specifically tell you not to in their profile, but don’t bank on it.
CouchSurfing is a unique experience that connects people all over the world. I’m so glad my roommate shared this with me, and I’m so excited to share it with you. I’ve had one minor bad experience in a sea of amazing memories and I will continue using the site to meet people and travel the world. To sign up and learn more, go to couchsurfing.com.