Couch surfing is a rapidly growing phenomena in the world of budget travel. To outsiders, the words conjure up ideas of roughing it on the smelly lumpy couch of a stranger. The reality (in my experience) has been very different, with private bedrooms, a free local guide, and new friends.
How couch surfing started
Couchsurfing was brought to life by 25 year old computer programmer Casey Fenton in 1999. His idea came about after he found a cheap flight from America to Iceland, but didn’t have a place to stay. Fenton hacked into a university database and randomly e-mailed 1,500 students from the University of Iceland, asking if he could stay with them. He received 50-100 lodging offers. He registered for the domain name Couchsurfing.com
How to set up for couch surfing
You can either be a couch surfing host, or a couch surfer (or both!).
Hosting means you welcome people into your home and give them as much (or as little) as you have to offer. This is a really good way to get yourself off the ground with site users. People leaving you positive reviews can only bode well when it comes to you ‘pitching’ for a place to stay.
When joining, couch surfers will ask you to build a profile for both hosting and surfing. The more detail you put into this, the better (in my experience). As a host you’ll be asked to be as specific as you need;
- Max no. of guest
- Guest gender preferences
- sleeping arrangements (couch/ private room/ shared room etc)
The set up is really similar to the paid service Air bnb, giving you full control of your calendar, who you accept, who you ask for a bit more info from, etc. I also find that (since you’re dishing your home out for free), there’s a lot more leg room for you to be more specific about house rules.
Surfing searches are easy, with the system simply asking you to give the name and dates of the location you are going to. It then presents you with a list of people hosting in that area, along with their average response rate. This initial page will also give you a quick overview of how many references these hosts have. As a solo female traveller, safety is always at the back of my mind, and I tend to head to hosts with a good few positive reviews. Once you’ve found a few hosts you like the sound of, you send them a request… and wait.
The benefits of couch surfing
- Free accommodation
- A new friend, with the possibility of a free bed in another country (I’ve made one friend in particular, who I now can’t imagine my life without.. A Cuban Overseas!)
- Local knowledge
- Free trips (dependent on your host)
- Free food? (VERY dependant of your host)
I reference back to the lumpy couch comment. I use myself as an example. As a host, I provide a bright, clean, private room, with a view of Edinburgh castle. I always buy in a loaf of bread for my guests, and leave out jam, peanut butter, tea, coffee, etc. If I have time, I take my guests out on a trip to somewhere they’d have never seen as a regular tourist, and I often have meals with them.
Obviously, this is very subject to your host. I’ve heard some amazing stories, but I’ve also heard some ‘not so great’ ones. One friend stayed with a host who took them sky diving, paying for everything! Another friend ended up in a dirty spare room, with no kitchen access and an uncomfortable old mattress. I cannot stress enough, look at photos, read reviews, read profiles!!!
How to ‘bag’ a host
You’ve found a couch surfing host you like the sound of, the next step is key; the pitch! Firing out a load of copy and paste generic e-mails will very rarely get you what you want. Chances are, you are trying to couch surf because accommodation where you’re going is expensive. On that basis, a hundred other backpackers are probably doing the exact same thing. Try the following:
Read up on your host’s ‘about me’ page
I have one couch surfing friend who has a very long ‘about me’ section. At the end he includes something to the tune of “Tell me one thing you want to do before you die in your message, if you don’t then I’ll assume you didn’t read my profile”. With all the requests we get as hosts, it’s a smart way to weed out the people who don’t give a monkeys about you and just want your house.
Decide if this host is for you
Couch surfing becomes a little different to air bnb when it comes to host specifics. Many hosts, like myself, are doing this to meet/mix with new people. On the flip side, some hosts are just looking to help fellow travellers out. If you’re looking to make a new best friend, and your host has specified that they have little time to show you about, they might not be right for you.
Tailor a personal message for each request.
The more you know about them, the more you can personalise your message to them. Again, READ. THEIR. PROFILE. As a host, it infuriates me when people message me with a disinterested ‘Hi. I want to stay at your places on this, this, and this date, thanks’. Head over to my post ‘How to get your couch surfer host to say yes‘, for more info on this.
Be couch surfing safe
I hate this story, but I have to tell it. Not long into hosting, I received a message from a male ‘surfer’. Very polite message asking to stay with me, small overview of who he was etc. The day he messaged I was having a bit of a bad time of it, and was anticipating a relationship break-up. I asked him to give me a few days to see how I was feeling (and that he ought to search for another host in the mean time). Over the next few days, he sent me a few friendly e-mails saying he hoped I was OK etc. After two days, I decided I wasn’t in the right zone to be hosting, showing him around, having company in my home etc. I messaged to let him know, and that’s when it all changed. The response I got back was something along the lines of ‘well if you’d have let me stay, I could have helped you get over your boyfriend ;)’.
Unfortunately, there is always potential for creeps on this site (as there is everywhere online). As a solo female, I’ve had to learn to suss things out. As a host, I don’t often host men alone (sounds sexist, but I’m small), and those I do, I put through a bit of a tough screening process.
As a surfer, read the bios (again!!!). I’ve seen men offering out their homes, but when you read the room info, they are actually offering to share a bed with you!! Now some people might be down for this, but again, safety should be your priority. Read references!
I’d love to hear everyone else’s couch surfing experiences. Have you made any life long friends? Have you had any troubles/bad experiences? Do you have any tips?