As its name clearly says, Couchsurfing is a website (also an app) that puts travelers in contact with locals that might have a spare bed or couch and are willing to invite strangers over.
There are a lot of advantages to using this method of traveling : it makes you meet new friends, people who can share their knowledge of their town, make you experience it as a local, will cook you local food … and, cherry on the cake, it’s FREE !
Plus, as far as accommodations go, there’s nothing greener than staying with a local ! You will be dipped right into the culture and your impact will be limited to the extra shower you’ll take. Nothing compared to a hotel where they will use energy and water on a room just for you and wash sheets, towels and the whole room once you’re gone.
I’ve used Couchsurfing several times, and although I’ve connected better with some hosts than others, on the whole it was a great experience, and I will continue using it. On my first Couchsurfing experience, I remember finding myself around a home cook meal at a host’s table with people from five different nationalities, comparing our different cultures’ views on relationships and marriage and how they evolved when we started traveling … (a story also called : the one where I discovered that us french were pretty liberal.) Where else would that have happened ?
I understand that, to some, using Couchsurfing can be a little scary, so here are six tips to make it an amazing and safe experience :
1 – CREATE A GREAT PROFILE
Fill out your profile in a honest and extensive way on the Couchsurfing website. Include a smiling picture of you and fill out your experiences, interests, and anything about you that could be worth knowing. When you look at other people’s profiles, try to analyze what makes you feel like you’d like to meet that person (or what doesn’t).
2 – SEND REQUESTS
Once your profile is up to date, start sending out requests to hosts whose profiles appeal to you. Read carefully about them and personalize your request according to the host. Try to find something you have in common, or something they know you’d like to learn about ! Be nice, polite and truthful about yourself and what you expect from your stay.
Usually, you can start sending your requests a few weeks before your arrival. Doing it at the last moment is taking a big chance, but if you do it too soon your host won’t know if he is available or not, and will then likely forget about your request. The exception to that is if you’re going somewhere for a particular event that will attract a lot of tourists, then you should anticipate and send (nice) reminders every so often until you get an answer.
3 – TRUST YOUR GUT
It happened to me once that just exchanging mails with a host gave me a bad feeling. It could also happen that, when you show up at someone’s door, at first sight, your gut will tell you « No, stupid, turn around ! ». Always listen to your gut. One night of free accommodation is not worth taking risks. Excuse yourself politely, and go look for a hostel. Which leads us to …
4 – ALWAYS HAVE A BACK UP PLAN
Whether it’s because you didn’t feel safe with your host or because he just forgot about you (could happen!), always have a back up plan (not hard to do if you travel with a guide book).
5 – BRING A GIFT
Couchsurfing might be free, but it’s customary to bring a small gift, usually something representative of where you’re from. It’s often impossible for me since I travel with so little luggage. In this case, I still try to do something for my host, like cook a meal or buy them a drink !
6 – LEAVE GOOD REVIEWS
And by « good » I mean « honest ». Leaving a glowing review to a good host should get you one in return and make it easier for future hosts to trust you. On the other hand, don’t lie if you encounter a bad host. Say it honestly, and, in extreme cases, signal him to Couchsurfing to protect other travelers.
You will also find events and meet ups on Couchsurfing where you will essentially encounter other travelers or expats.
If you still feel a little bit nervous about staying in a stranger’s house, you can also start your Couchsurfing experience by asking fellow couchsurfers to just show you around or go get some coffee ! Remember that the people on this website think the same way you do : that it’s exciting to meet people from all over the world !