29 Jan 2018

You Couchsurf? What's that?

An overview of what Couchsurfing is.

This is Part 2 of the 8-part Beginner’s Guide to Couchsurfing:
1. Introduction to the Guide
2. What Couchsurfing Is & How it Works
3. Getting Started and What Hosts Want
4. How to Write a Great Couchsurfing Profile
5. Examples: What Not To Do in Couchsurfing Requests
6. How to Write a Great Couchsurfing Request
7. How to Make Sure Your Couchsurfing Experience is 100% Safe
8. Isn’t Couchsurfing Dangerous For Women?

An Overview of Couchsurfing

What is Couchsurfing?

Couchsurfing is a website which allows you to connect with people in different cities and participate in cultural exchange for free by staying with them in their house, usually for 2-4 nights.

Couchsurfing is perfect for people who are:

  • Open-minded (to new people and ways of living)
  • Interested in learning about the culture when traveling
  • Flexible (if dates change)
  • Willing to spend less time at the touristy sites and connect with your host (grab dinner, go to an event, have an intellectual discussion etc.,)

If you surf (e.g. stay at other people’s houses) there’s no obligation to host in the future, though many (including me!) often do host to pay it forward after many phenomenal surfing experiences.

That being said, there is an unwritten obligation to spend time with your host and get to know them. This could be through having a meal, chatting at their house, watching a movie, etc.

Some hosts are pretty hands off or are busy with work; others want to take you out and show you the city. It really depends on what kind of host you have, but in either case, be flexible, and be prepared to spend time with them if they’re taking the time out of their day to host you.

What has your experience been like?

As a female solo backpacker, as of writing this post, I’ve Couchsurfed 31 times, hosting guests 10 times and surfing 21 times.

A huge benefit of Couchsurfing is the ability to connect with locals. When I couchsurfed at Cambridge University, for example, I lived like a student with my host, Jacky, a Cambridge student. We dined at a Hogwarts-style common room other travelers couldn’t access and my host even treated me to a giant home-cooked feast with his classmates the day I arrived.

The next day, he took me to see Stephen Hawking’s office - an experience only a local would know of and access.

Meanwhile, in the Czech Republic, my host had the most awesome house and we spent a decent amount of time playing video games on his massive projector in addition to hanging out in person in the city.

He even later cooked me a vegetarian meal — which apparently is pretty unheard of in the Czech Republic (lol).

Finally, a couple years ago, a German surfer, Val, stayed at my place in Oxford University. Unlike other travelers, he he had a chance to experience what it’s like living as an Oxford University student – again, an opportunity he had solely because he was Couchsurfing. I also took him canoe polo-ing – aka playing polo in canoes.

This is the magic of Couchsurfing 😊

Is Couchsurfing free?

Indeed Couchsurfing is free - free to stay with others for a few nights and free to host others in your place for a few nights.

Is Couchsurfing safe? Aren’t you effectively staying in random people’s houses?

It’s true that you’re staying in the house of people you haven’t met but references help make the experience safer. Each member of the Couchsurfing community has a profile which looks something like this:

Each member also has a set of references that look something like this:

In general, if you stay with people with a large number of references and take the proper precautions, indeed it’s pretty safe, even for women.

Naturally, if you’re a woman traveling abroad, you’re concerned about safety. I’m a female solo traveler and I think about it constantly. I’ve written an entire piece here about staying safe as a female couchsurfer.

What is the incentive for people to host others?

  • Cultural exchange – meeting people all across the world and learning about their culture, ideas, thoughts, and ways of life.
  • Getting to know people you otherwise would never have known.
  • The value of helping other people out.
  • Meeting like-minded people.
  • Having people to do fun things with / hangout.
  • Paying it forward if you previously surfed.

While it may be hard to imagine, there’s an incredible value of hosting someone at your house.

I’ve hosted 10 travelers and have had wonderful experiences with most all of them. Granted, one of them did smell bad (I had to keep my window open throughout his whole stay – LOL). But in all seriousness,through socialism vs. capitalism debates, chill conversations, and intellectual discussions, in every respect I’ve learned so much from each of them.

Not to mention it’s always great to be on the receiving end of gratitude. Most come with small gifts, acts of kindness (cooking dinner, buying dinner, etc.,) thanking you for your generosity. It’s nice to give back, especially when others have given to you in the past. This is the essence of Couchsurfing.

What’s the biggest downside to Couchsurfing?

It requires time to find hosts.

Getting hosts often requires sending 10 request for every 1 offer to host. If you don’t have the time to write personalized requests, you’re better off booking a hostel or hotel.

It requires research and being careful who you surf with and host.

To ensure a safe experience, you really have to put in the time to request only people with a large number of reviews, reading the reviews, etc., If you prefer a quick booking experience, you’re better off booking a hostel or hotel.

It requires spending time with your host.

The most poignant difference between Couchsurfing and other forms of accommodation (hotels, hostels, AirB&B, etc.,) is the central unit of currency. In the latter it’s money; in the former, it’s time. While you don’t pay for staying at people’s houses, you do pay with time – spending time with them and investing in them as a person. This might mean not coming back at home at 1 AM (if your host isn’t a fan of that). Or it might mean eating dinner with your host instead of spending the entire night out. With Couchsurfing you invest time, rather than money.

If you Couchsurf, expect to spend time with your host – perhaps touring the city together, grabbing dinner, or having interesting conversations.

It requires being flexible.

Yes, sometimes a host will cancel on you last minute. It’s only happened once or twice for me of 21 surfing experiences, but indeed, it’s a possibility. If you aren’t able to be flexible in these circumstances, you’re better off booking a hostel or hotel.

In Conclusion

Imagine going to different cities, coming home to home-cooked meals, experiencing the city with friends your age, and having wild, unexpected and unequivocally valuable experiences. This is the magic of Couchsurfing.

Continue to the next page in the guide: Getting Started and What Hosts Want

Other Posts in This Series: