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I travel very differently than many of my readers. I’m up front in a premium class, but then when I land, I take my one carry on and zero checked bags to the house of a complete stranger where I stay for free. I couchsurf.
Couchsurfing refers to two things: the act of sleeping on a strangers couch or guest bed for free and the website couchsurfing.org–the main facilitator of couchsurfing in 2012.
Couchsurfing enriches and “en-cheapens” my travels so significantly that I wanted to evangelize about it for a post. Hopefully I’ll dispel any fears and confusion you might have about couchsurfing, and maybe even talk you into couchsuring.
Couchsurfing.org is the starting point. Interested parties put up a profile that’s a cross between a facebook profile and information about your living situation.
Here’s part of the profile of a guy whose couch I surfed in Warsaw, Poland last month:
As you can see, the left is about his “couch,” which in his case is actually a spare bedroom that I slept in. I probably sleep on couches less than half the time. On the right side is information about the person. It helps you determine whether your personalities, temperaments, and interests would be a match.
Not pictured are some biographical info like age, information about what languages you speak to avoid language barriers, pictures, and most importantly references and verifications.
Crucially couchsurfing.org offers an optional two-part verification process. One part verifies your identity because you have to give a donation by credit card, which lets them know who you really are. The second part is a postcard with a code sent to your address. If you type in the code, you must live where you say you do.
Many people are verified, but not a majority. When using couchsurfing, you can easily decide to interact only with those who have been verified.
The second, and probably better, security tool is the references section. The references let other people write on your profile what their experience with you was. I have over 30 references from former strangers who hosted me or surfed my couch. That’s a good indication that I am a safe person to host or stay with.
Another security feature is that couchsurfing.org archives all messages, so if anything happened, it would be pretty clear who the perpetrator was.
How Couhcurfing Works
Most people start as couchsurfing.org members when they hear about it and decide that it sounds fun and cheap to surf on an upcoming trip. Once they set up an account, they can use the CouchSearch feature to find hosts in a geographical area.
After perusing the profiles to find compatible hosts in the area of town they want with whom they would feel safe, they send a CouchRequest. The request is sent out any time from several months in advance to the night before. Usually the request indicates the traveller’s plans and why he wants to stay with that particular host.
In popular cities in America and Europe, hosts are inundated with multiple requests per day, so usually a prospective surfer will send out a dozen or more CouchRequests.
The potential host accepts or declines the request. If he accepts, he includes his address and maybe a telephone number. The surfer and host meet up at the agreed upon time and place. The surfer stays the agreed upon days and heads out, never paying the host a dime. (It is customary to give a thank you gift, cook a meal for the host, or buy him a few drinks as a token of appreciation.)
During the stay, anything can happen. Sometimes the host spends all day with you and gives you tours; sometimes he gives you a key to his place, works all day, and you barely see him.
After the stay, you each write a reference, and you probably never see each other again. But if either of you is in the other’s city again, you’ve got a friend for life.
Why I CouchSurf
The experiences are incredible and cannot be replicated if you are a tourist in a distant city, and you don’t know any locals.
My favorite CouchSurfing experience was last year in Copenhagen. I stayed with a dreadlocked guy named Ingolf who owned a Christania bike.
He gave me a tour of the city as we alternated who peddled and who hung out in the big, pillowed basket–all the while sipping Carlsberg. I could not have done anything like that in Copenhagen without couchsurfing.
Or on my last trip to Ukraine, my host in Kharkiv took me to a park in his neighborhood where a freezing spring emerges. Joining the polar bear club jumping into it was a locals-only experience that not many visitors to Kharkiv get.
Or when I host people in LA, I take them to the best indie improv shows, pick up dodgeball games, and twice-a-year events like cicLAvia that no guide book or hostel would possibly mention. Plus we eat at the best taco trucks and go out to the places that young locals go out to.
The cool thing about couchsurfing is that it’s self-selecting. The reason I’ve never had a bad experience (in 30+ experiences) is that people who think couchsurfing sounds fun instead of horrible have a lot in common. We’re adventurous travelers with a similar outlook.
Couchsurfing is mainly a young persons’ activity. I tend to host people and stay with people between the ages of 20 and 30. But there are definitely older people involved. Don’t let your age stop you. If you’re older and don’t want to hang out with young people or vice versa, one of the search filters you can use when CouchSearching is age.
Couchsurfing is done solo, by couples, and by groups of friends. I usually roll solo, but a ton of couples request to stay with me. I also get a lot of requests from groups of three or four European girls who have been in the US for a year as au pairs and are traveling at the end.
Couchsurfing attracts different types like freegan hippies, party animals, and every type in between. I wouldn’t say there is really a type, but some common traits are open-mindedness and a love of travel.
I don’t think safety is a major drawback. I would consider surfing at someone’s house to be as safe as staying at a hotel. Beyond the safety measures addressed above, a person who wanted to harm a couchsurfer would only be able to do it once since the correspondence would clearly show who committed any crimes and where they happened. Couchsurfing is a bad way to exploit people, so I think crimes are exceedingly rare.
(I think hosting is more dangerous. Anyone can sign up for an unverified account, and then be invited into your house. I protect myself by hosting people with good references and verification.)
The real drawbacks are minor nuisances. My least favorite hosts are overly solicitous. I don’t want to inconvenience them, so I don’t like when they try to cook me every meal, change plans to accommodate me, or worry about my tastes too much. I prefer them to live their own lives normally and let me tag along to the fun stuff they’re doing.
Another drawback is that there are clearly people on couchsurfing who see it as a dating site. A new feature allows you to see people who are seeking a host in your city and how many hosts have offered to host them. Cute girls always seem to be in the 3+ category while guys are often offerless. Solo girls should be aware that they will be popular, but I don’t think they’re in danger.
Another potential drawback that I actually see as a positive is the location of hosts. Couchsurfing usually leaves you in a “real” part of town where people live and not the tourist trap centers. This means you may have to take public transport to sightsee, but I think it’s cool to be out in a district with no other tourists.
Couchsurfing is awesome. You’ll have more fun traveling, and you’ll cut out hotel costs. (I barely mentioned cost because I don’t see couchsurfing as primarily a way to save money. And that’s a sore spot among hosts if you imply you are surfing to save cash instead of to meet new people and see new cultures.)
Couchsurfing.org is the major hub to connect hosts and surfers. There are some drawbacks that potential couchsurfers should be aware of, but in my experience the fun of couchsurfing far exceeds any drawbacks.