What is couchsurfing?
The concept behind Couchsurfing is two fold: First, it allows light-minded travelers to lend a hand in terms of accommodation. We’ve all been there. Rooms are booked. Or too expensive. Couchsurfing is a platform that dissolves the traditional notion of paying for accommodation. Second, it theoretically cultivates cultural exchange. As a surfer, you get to stay in a local’s place of residence. Learn about the culture via a local. Ask all the nagging questions you’ve wanted to over breakfast. As a host, you get to share your culture with a curious and interested audience. You also get to live vicariously through traveler’s stories, which in turn sparks your own desire to get return to the wild.
Couchsurfing runs a bit like Facebook in that you have a profile with lots of personal info. Plus a section about your “couch” if it’s available. Plus a section for people (friends, hosts, surfers) to write references. This part lets others know you’re not a rapist or creeper. You find a couch by searching for the city you plan to travel to and skim through the, often, thousands of profiles. Then, just send a request (see tips below). If you are a host, surfers will message you directly and you get the privilege of accepting or rejecting.
Why the hell would I agree to sleep in a stranger’s residence?
- It’s free. With the exception to a few hosts who don’t really understand the point of the platform, it’s totally free. Now that doesn’t mean that the hosts run a hotel service, which seems to be the mentality of a lot of couchsurfing users recently (see below).
- You get to see the destination as it really is. Staying with locals= #authentic. In Slovenia, our hosts drove us all around the country stopping at secret enclaves and small-town cafes.
- You meet the greatest of people. Hosts are opening their homes to you. Their lives. They want to share their country, their culture with little ol’ you. That makes them stars. I have stayed in contact with 90% of the surfers and hosts I have interacted with, because they were awesome. Shit, my host in California back in 2009 became my best friend.
- You get a break from traveling hell. While it can be easy to develop a “family” and enjoy the comforts of homes at a hostel, nothing beats actually staying with a family. Home-cooked meals, pets, children shrieking, sheer normalcy. I find it must easier (and quieter) to take a full day off when couchsurfing, then at a loud ass hostel.
When Couchsurfing officially launched its platform in 2004, us young hippies living in Japan immediately jumped on the bandwagon. Not to tap into my age, but let’s. Back then, couchsurfing was sort of underground. Safe. Non-rapey. And most importantly, it was easy to nap a couch from the fledging community, a community eager to spread the message of cultural exchange.
Then 2011 happened. The site became for-profit. In some ways, this was good: it became more secure. The available couches multiplied by thousands. But for a lot of us die-hard fans, 2011 brought a lot of bad. People now use it for hookups. Sometimes for murder (leading Gizmodo to come out with a “How to couchsurf and not get killed” article). Any Joe Schmo can set up a profile and expect to score a free hotel, then leave their profile to die in the couchsurfing graveyard. Hosts are inundated with requests, most by people who don’t even bother to read the host’s profile. Out of the time we lived in Barranquilla, we only hosted five people. Those five people bothered to care. The rest couldn’t even read the first line of my profile, which asked to not request Carnaval. FOR F*&$’S SAKE.
As a surfer these days, finding yourself a couch on couchsurfing seems like an impossible test of will. And this is whether or not you are maintain a reputable profile. I have a crap load of positive references from recent surfers or hosts, and I find myself sending out multiple requests. Often, to no avail. And I don’t blame the hosts. The game of couchsurfing is frustrating, but it’s a game I have mastered. Here’s some rules:
Tips for nabbing yourself a couch:
- Narrow your search. One of the shitty things about couchsurfing is that inactive profiles remain in the search bank. That is, even if a user hasn’t logged on to the service in three years, they’ll still come up in their relevant city. Do yourself a favor and narrow your search to users who have been active in the last three months. Plus any other requisite you deem important.
- Read your potential host’s entire profile before sending out your request. This shows that you care about the individual, not the concept of no money. It also helps you craft your request, appealing to common interests and countries traveled.
- Find yourself some references, even if they are just friends using the couchsurfing site themselves. If you have no friends, explain your no reference issue in your request and offer up your own Facebook profile, Youtube channel, or first born as collateral.
- Express your selling point(s). Do they love food? Offer to take them out. Do they want to practice English? Offer a free English lesson every night you stay? Make your stay worth their while. This is an exchange, not a hotel service. What can you offer them in return, besides money, for their kindness?
- Look for hosts who also take the service seriously. I know I’ve found a good one when they demand something to be written in the request (so they know you’ve read their profile). I also stay away from hosts that free willingly accept anyone. To me, that shows they have no interest in the cultural exchange aspect of couchsurfing. They may, for example, ahem dude in Ecuador, forget which surfer you are when you message them the day before. And then let you know that there will be two other surfers staying there. That they have no blankets or pillows and only floor space.
- When you do get to couchsurf, make sure you leave them with a good impression. Make good of your original selling point(s). Clean up after yourself. Bring a small gift or leave a thank-you card. Take them out for coffee. Cook them a meal. Simply talk to them as if you are, gasp, interested in them and their culture. Here’s some other great tips from Slow Vegan Travel and from 20 Something Financial.