I was first introduced to the concept in late 2005, just months before a planned trip to West Africa, with a multi-day stopover in Paris on the way home.
“Have you ever heard of Global Freeloaders?” a friend asked me.
I laughed. “No…what is it?”
“It’s a community of travelers that host other travelers for free in their homes, all over the world.”
I was instantly in love with the idea and quickly signed on. I filled out a profile and listed myself as a host.
I then began scanning the profiles of members in Paris, France, eventually coming across one that sounded promising. David, an Australian attorney living in Paris for a year, was hosting travelers in his apartment, conveniently located in a central area of the city close to the metro line. He had a hide-a-bed couch and some camping mats that could be used on the living room floor. Sounded fine to me! I contacted my friend John, who would be traveling with me, and asked him what he thought. We were both keen to save money. In Paris, even the hostels are expensive. Hotels were pretty much out of the question altogether for our budget. With John’s consent, I went ahead and e-mailed David.
David agreed to host us and several months later we walked through his front door in Paris. He had several roommates, but we rarely saw anyone else. David gave us a key and invited us to come and go as we pleased. We entertained ourselves every day and basically only came back to the apartment to sleep, which worked well for David’s busy schedule. Each host is different; some of them enjoy spending more time interacting with their guests; others are happy to open their homes but prefer their guests to entertain themselves.
Through Global Freeloaders I learned of another similar community–hospitalityclub.org. Later on, Couchsurfing.org found its way onto my radar and quickly became my preferred network for traveling and hosting. Through Couchsurfing, I have hosted many interesting travelers, and also had the privilege of staying as a guest with many of them all over the world, from Mexico to New Zealand to Hawaii to Canada and all over the continental United States. Couchsurfers have saved me thousands of dollars by now, and virtually every single one of them has been a complete pleasure to get to know.
I would highly encourage anyone to get into couch surfing. You don’t have to have a fancy guest room to host. Just offer whatever you have. It could be literally just a couch, or floor space, or space in your back yard to pitch a tent, or–if you have no ability to host at all–you might even just offer to meet a traveler for coffee and spend a little time telling them about your area or showing them around. The whole idea of Couchsurfing is not just to find a free place to sleep, but to share skills and experiences with each other. Keith and I try to do something special for each host we stay with. It might be taking them out for breakfast, making a meal for them, helping them weed their garden, washing the sheets and re-making the bed before we leave, giving them a slideshow presentation about Antarctica, or teaching them how to swing dance or speak a bit of Spanish. It’s important to remember that you are in their home, and to be respectful and clean up after yourself. Staying with a local gives you a perspective of the area and experience you would never have just renting an expensive hotel room.
Here are a few tips for a successful couch surfing experience:
1. Fill out your profile completely and thoroughly, and add several photos. Not only will it give you a greater chance of being accepted as a guest, but those who are looking for a host will have a more accurate idea of what type of person you are, so you’ll be more likely to get couch surfing requests from people who are more compatible with you. If you are someone who likes late night parties, you’ll be less likely to get a request from a person who likes to go to bed at 9 p.m. and go bird watching at 5:00 a.m.
2. READ profiles very carefully before sending a couch surfing request. If there is very little information, or the person sounds incompatible with you (e.g. they’re a pot smoker and you’re not, or they have cats and you’re allergic, etc.), or the person has some negative references (or no references at all), it might be best to avoid those hosts. Do read the references to get an idea of what to expect. Find a few hosts who seem like a good match for you and then…
3. Write an individualized message to each host. You might want to cut and paste some general information about yourself and your planned trip, but ALWAYS add a personal paragraph that shows the host that you have actually read their profile, and tell them some specific things that interested you about them.
4. Write to more than one host if possible. If there are several potential hosts in a particular city, it’s a good idea to write to more than one of them in case some of them can’t host you for any reason. The more you write to, the greater the chance that you’ll have a place to stay! Here is where you can apply that old adage, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” If two or more accept your request, then of course you’ll want to write to all except the host you’ll stay with, and thank them for accepting but let them know that someone else beat them to it and you’ve got a place lined up. However, if there is a chance you’ll be back in the area sometime, leave the door open with them and let them know you might be in touch with them again in the future. Keith and I did this in Christchurch, New Zealand–when two people accepted our request we told the second one that we’d be back in town in six weeks and that, if possible, we would like to stay with them then. It worked out great!
5. Find out if your host wants to interact or would rather you do your own thing. Some people are quite particular one way or the other. If feasible, you might arrange to do some activities together, or plan some meals together. If they would rather you do your own thing, try to avoid pestering them. Whatever the case, always think about something you can do for them to show your appreciation. Can you leave them with a small souvenir from your country? (Keith and I often give out little souvenirs from the South Pole where we have worked.) Can you make or buy a meal for them? I sometimes make haystacks, simple and enjoyed by most people because they can assemble them according to their own personal tastes and dietary preferences. Can you help them with something around the house? Keith and I stayed with a busy older widowed man once and wiped down the counters and vacuumed the floor before we left, which he really appreciated. Can you teach them a new skill? One time we stayed with a family with school-age kids and I taught the kids how to make hexaflexagons.
It was a hit! Be creative and think about how you might contribute. Just don’t give money–that defeats the purpose of couch surfing!
6. Always leave a reference. I have only ever had positive experiences when couch surfing. Be sure to let others know how it went to help other couch surfers out who are looking for a host or considering a guest. If there was something dangerous or negative about the host or their property, you’ll need to alert the community as well. These reviews are what help to keep couch surfing safe and positive for everyone.
7. If you’re a host make sure your profile clearly outlines your expectations of guests. Can they smoke? Can they bring pets? Can they bring kids? Can they eat your food? Clearly describe the space you are offering, the maximum time limit for how long you would host a traveler, and how many people you can host at once. Would you like them to spend time with you, or are you busy and prefer they leave you alone and do their own thing? The clearer you are on these things, the more likely you are to attract a good match for your home. You are never obligated to accept any couch request. When you receive a request, carefully read the person’s profile to decide whether you would be comfortable having them in your home. Keith and I only accept about half of the requests we receive; sometimes it is obvious to us that the person requesting a couch is incompatible with our lifestyle. It can be a bit uncomfortable for some to agree to allow strangers into their home, but if you take the time to get to know the person through their profile, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what they’re like. Hosting travelers is a lot of fun. Try it!
I can’t recommend Couchsurfing highly enough. It doesn’t matter your age or stage in life, you can always host or travel. We have stayed with and/or hosted families with children, retired folks, busy professionals, college kids, single guys, single women, couples…you name it. Seriously, try it. Yeah, it takes a little more time and effort than making a hotel reservation, but for the money savings and cultural experience, if you take the time to do it right, you’ll probably love it!