A Beginner's Guide to Couchsurfing
Experience cities like a local and make meaningful connections with Couchsurfing.
Daniel takes a sharp left down a narrow street in Fremont, a bohemian neighborhood in Seattle, pulls over and parks the truck. I step out ahead of him and Peyton, a long way from home. Sammy is striding down the sidewalk beaming. He greets me with a huge hug and then continues on to embrace Peyton and Daniel. Sammy is a stranger. That's right, we don't know the guy. Ok, we kind of know the guy...from his Couchsurfing.com profile. Sammy has volunteered his living room for us to crash for the night. After showing us where to park, he helps us carry some bags inside and serves us our best meal of a road trip that encompassed the American Southwest and entire west coast. A self-proclaimed Food Network addict, Sammy prepared us pan-seared salmon on a rice pilaf with sauteed vegetables and homemade aioli for the price of...nothing.
He was on Couchsurfing.com to meet travelers, help people out and experience new perspectives, not to earn a buck. After dinner, he shows us around some of his favorite Fremont spots: Gas Works Park, Outlander Brewery & Pub and Add-a-Ball. We also stopped by the Fremont Troll (there's an amazing South Park reference out there) and the controversial Lenin statue.
So, this was actually the second Couchsurfing experience of our road trip. At our first stay, a local realtor showed us an amazing Dallas night skyline view from a private neighborhood and gave a midnight tour of all the significant John F. Kennedy locations. Then, we hung out in Deep Ellum with him and his next guest who arrived early, a Ukranian lifeguard named Sasha, or Alex, whatever we preferred.
I'm not going to argue that Couchsurfing is the best way to travel, because it's not. There's no best way to travel. But I do believe that everyone should try some form of Couchsurfing at least once. There's no better way to form a human connection with a local and enjoy a city from their perspective. Plus, you never know what you may learn from a host or the new perspective they may open up to you. If you want to make connections while traveling and experience your destination in a truly unique way, keep reading.
WHAT IS COUCHSURFING?
So, that quick recounting of my Seattle Couchsurfing experience may not have completely explained what Couchsurfing actually is. Most of us are aware of Airbnb and similar websites at this point. Couchsurfing.com—probably the best way to get into Couchsurfing—is similar. But no one on Couchsurfing wants your money. The hosts are generally the most genuine, friendly and sociable people out there, and they just want to help travelers out and share a few stories.
So, first, you can create a profile on the website, kind of like Facebook. It's important to completely fill out your profile, but I'll get to that later. Once you have a profile, you can begin planning your trip by searching for hosts in your desired city. Most large cities have a vibrant Couchsurfing community, but it may be difficult to find hosts in less populated areas.
Eventually, you'll find your first host and inform them of your estimated arrival. Then, all you have to do is show up, meet them and hang out with them in their city. You don't have to spend every minute with them, but hosts offer up their homes to meet new people and to personally show them around. So, try to plan on spending some time with your host. When you're ready to depart, simply pack up and bid farewell to your new friend.
GETTING YOUR FIRST HOST
So, just like you're a little nervous about staying with a stranger, hosts are a little nervous about letting a complete stranger into their homes. This makes hosts especially reluctant to accept Couchsurfers without reviews. Getting your first host may be a bit of a challenge, but there are ways to market yourself.
First, complete your profile. Every detail matters. Hosts want to have a good idea of who you are before you enter their home. Then, get verified. This part actually has a price, but it's a must for first-timers. Verification lets hosts know you're serious and that you're not doing this because it's a free place to stay. Plus, it provides hosts with some security by adding monetary commitment on your part.
When requesting a host, don't just post public trips or send out generic copy-paste requests. Instead, send personalized messages to hosts in your prospective city. Mention things they mention in their profile to show you're actually interested in them and not looking for free lodging. Fourth, never say, "I need a place to crash." Hosts want to get to know you. They want to connect with someone who's different than folks they encounter every day. (Many hosts will state all this in their profiles.) Once you have a few references under your belt, finding a host will be a piece of cake.
Ok, let's address the elephant in the room: "Isn't it dangerous to spend the night in a stranger's home?" Dangerous isn't the right word, but "risky" can accurately describe the experience. The level of risk is up to you and (just like driving or playing sports) can be made minimal with the right steps.
References are key. Before requesting to stay with anyone, always thoroughly review their profile and past references. Make sure they seem like a good fit to host you and look for warning signs that may indicate any potential issues. If you have any doubts about their reviews, don't request. Just move on to a new host. Once you've found someone you'd like to stay with, and they've accepted your request, only communicate with them through Couchsurfing.com or the app. Don't give away your personal information.
When you meet your host, ask yourself if the situation feels okay and if you're uncomfortable. If the host makes you feel uneasy or unsafe, bail. Don't take that risk if your gut tells you something is wrong. It's also good practice to have a backup plan just in case you decide to leave. You can read up on additional safety information on Couchsurfing's dedicated safety page.
WHAT TO EXPECT
First, expect a friendly greeting. There's a decent chance your host will meet you with a hug or at least a hearty handshake and smiles. Expect to hang out with them and learn about who they are and what they love about their city. Hosts will often make the best suggestions for food, shopping, attractions and other experiences. Or, they'll take you there themselves.
Expect modest but comfortable accommodations. You won't receive five-star, hotel-quality accommodations and amenities, but the host will try to make you as comfortable as possible. It's called Couchsurfing for a reason.
Expect to leave the city with a new friend. Friendships develop quickly and will often outlast your stay. Chances are, you'll have a place to stay any time you want to return.
INTERESTED IN HOSTING?
You've been Couchsurfing a few times and you think you may want to host. What's next? The site has profile options to list your couch (or spare room) as available and to describe your home. Of course, there are additional risks in letting someone in your home that aren't present when you're the traveler, so this isn't for everyone.
If you're comfortable with the idea, though, start by meeting up with travelers to show them your city before becoming a host. Once you're ready, make sure your profile is complete, accurate and sincere. Let people know what you have to offer and how much time you have to show them around. Couchsurfers aren't looking for a luxurious experience, but they do hope for certain levels of comfort that you should provide as a host. Imagine you have relatives or a good friend visiting: what amenities would you make available? Try to go above and beyond that for Couchsurfers who are putting themselves in a place of vulnerability to stay with you and learn about your home.
Based on the personality and trip plans of the Couchsurfer, you should have a few suggestions and options ready for how they should spend their time. They'll look to you for knowledge of the city: how to get around, where to eat, which parks are best, etc.
If you can't spend every hour of the day with them, that's perfectly fine. Always try to at least have a meal or a few drinks together to get to know them, though. Ultimately, that's what Couchsurfing is about, connecting with other humans.