New to the world of couch-surfing? From the perspective of a beginner, it can seem confusing and more than a bit intimidating. Sleeping on a stranger’s sofa, or having a stranger sleep on your sofa, might seem like something out of one of your mother’s worst nightmares.
Once you start Couchsurfing, though, you’ll wonder why it took you so long to embrace it. Sure, not every experience will be amazing, but there’s no better way of travelling the world whilst getting a bit of an insight into local cultures, saving money and making new friends.
There are, however, a few things you should know before you dive into the world of couch-surfing, whether you’re planning on surfing or hosting.
What Is Couch-Surfing Anyway?
Excellent question. Couch-surfing is a platform that connects travellers with people that are willing to host them for free. It’s exploded in recent years, with 2.2 million members in 237 countries and territories.
They might have a spare room, a couch, or even a patch of floor that they’re willing to let travellers on a budget use for a night or even a few nights. If people can’t host, they might indicate that they’re willing to meet up for a drink or show visitors around their city or local area.
They indicate that they’re willing to accept guests on their profile, and then people that are passing through will contact them and ask if there’s any availability. The host is then free to accept or reject them.
The idea is that it’s reciprocal, and so when you’re back from your travels you will then open your doors to other travellers, and pay it forward.
In an ideal world, a host will show their guest around a bit and give them an insight into the local culture.
Basically, there are no rules. Some hosts will lay on dinner and a full tour and be really up for having a conversation and getting to know their guests, and some will prefer to keep themselves a bit more to themselves or will be too busy to really interact with their couchsurfers. The same is true of guests. Everyone’s different, after all!
Once the guest has moved on, both parties will be asked to review the other. These reviews will then show up on your profile, so that everyone else can see if you’re a good guest or host when they’re considering staying with you or delibrating over whether to let you stay.
After it, if you think about it from a safety point of view it’s a bit of a risk for both parties, so good reviews are very important to reassure someone that their potential host or guest is trustworth.
Stuff You Should Know About Hosting
1. A Good Profile = More Choice of Guests
If you want to start hosting, then you need to understand how people go about choosing the hosts they’d like to stay with. They’ll search for hosts in a particular place, and then probably have quite a lot of choice, depending on the location and the dates.
They’ll probably first look at those with the most references, and then narrow it down based on your photos and what you’ve said about yourself. Make sure you have a couple of photos of you looking friendly and approachable (smile!) and preferably some good photos of where they’ll be sleeping.
Take some time to work on your description and make sure it sums you up nicely. Mention your interests and your aspirations. You never know who you might end up meeting because they share the slightly obscure hobby that you mentioned.
Essentially, the better your profile, the more people you will have requesting staying with you. That means that you can be a bit pickier and choose people you think you genuinely have something in common with, helping you get the most out of the experience.
2. Set Your Ground Rules and Use a Keyword for More Personal Requests
You need to establish what the basic rules for those staying with you are, like if they need to bring any bedding (risky for you – think bed bugs!) and if you’d rather they didn’t bring any friends of theirs back to yours (completely reasonable!).
Let them know in advance if you need to be up super early for work and that will affect them, or if there’s anything else at all about you or your place they should know.
After all that, ask them to include a certain word or phrase in their message that will let you know they’ve read the whole of your profile.
People that take the time to read everything are more likely to be genuinely interested in making connections with new people, not just cutting and pasting messages so that they don’t have to fork out for a hostel. That’s the kind of person you want sharing your home!
3. Be Picky
When you start getting requests coming in, ignore anyone who doesn’t use your keyword, who doesn’t have any pictures and who hasn’t personalised their request to you. Generally, it’s a good policy to avoid those with no references unless they write you a good message, have a solid profile and are clearly new to the game.
Make sure to avoid people who don’t specify how long they’d like to stay, and check that you share a common language with the majority of any large groups, as the point of Couchsurfing is cultural exchange, and to do that you need to be able to communicate.
4. 2 – 3 Nights Is Ideal
The saying goes that after three days, both fish and guests stink.
One night means you won’t really have a chance to bond with them. Three nights means you’ve got a chance to really get to know them and they can really explore your local area, but also means they don’t get too comfortable or bored and start lazing around the place.
Make it a rule not to accept anyone for any longer periods of time, as you’ll both get sick of each other’s company.
5. Offer Them Breakfast
Whilst no one is expecting you to lay on a feast, it’s only polite to provide them with cereal and tea or coffee. A drink when they arrive is a nice gesture too.
If you enjoy cooking, then make them a meal, perhaps even something typical of your country. It won’t cost you much as you’d be feeding yourself anyway, and they’ll really appreciate it.
6. Go the Extra Mile
Think to yourself how you would want a host to behave if you were staying with them, and then do that.
Point them towards the best spots that most tourists might not know about, take them to your favourite places, share your local knowledge, introduce them to your friends, and spend any free time you have around your work or studies with them.
Make it your mission to be the best host they’ve ever had.
If you’re too busy to do anything more than let them in, show them where the sofa is and give them a key, then maybe it’s time to stop accepting guests for a while until you’ve got enough free time to really make the most of the experience.
Stuff You Should Know About Surfing
1. It Might Be Tough To Get Your First Host
Reviews mean a lot on Couchsurfing, so if you haven’t got any yet then you might struggle to find a host that will accept you, or guests might be nervous to stay with you, as you’re an unknown quantity.
To let people know you’re not an axe-murderer (I hope) you can ask your friends that are on Couchsurfing (and preferably have some good reviews themselves) to leave you a few words that describe you as a person and basically reassure everyone that you’re legit.
Be sure to fill your profile out fully and give an idea of your character and your interests. If you put time and effort into your profile, potential hosts will be able to tell and will therefore be more likely to accept you above other people if they’re receiving lots of requests.
2. Don’t Send Mass Requests
Don’t go down the copy and pasting route when contacting people. It’s not just annoying for potential hosts, but it means you’re less likely to end up staying with someone you actually have something in common with.
Read profiles carefully and look for people with common interests before sending them a personalised email requesting to stay with them.
3. Let Hosts Know What You’re After
If the main reason for your trip is to paint the town red, make that clear when you’re communicating with potential hosts, otherwise, you might be disappointed when they say there aren’t any night buses or ask you not to stumble in drunk at 4 am as they have to get up for work.
If you’re hoping to stay with them to see a specific tourist attraction then perhaps ask how easy it is to get there when you’re communicating with them.
If your idea is to use couch-surfing to find out more about the local culture or practise your language skills then make sure that your host is going to have time to spend chatting to you.
4. Hosts Have Their Own Lives
Remember that everyone’s busy, and hosts can’t and won’t drop everything for your benefit. They’re likely to have to work whilst you’re there and may have other commitments that you need to work around.
Once you’ve agreed on an arrival time, stick to it as closely as you can, and make sure you let them know if you’ll be late.
Be flexible, and understand that something might come up which means they have to cancel. Life happens!
Because of this, it’s always best to contact them as far in advance as you can and not leave finding a host till the last minute.
4. Make a Gesture
This person is giving up their time to spend it with you, and is probably providing you with breakfast, and may even make you dinner.
Offer to cook yourself, or buy them a bottle of wine or some beers to say thank you. If they take you to their favourite local bar, buy a round of drinks.
You could also consider bringing them a small gift from your home country.
You don’t need to spend much, but a small gesture is always appreciated. After all, you are staying with them for free.
5. Be Sociable
One of the main reasons that your host has agreed to take you in is probably because they’re genuinely interested in getting to know you and think that you’d be good company, so you do need to make a genuine effort to be the best guest possible.
If you’re lucky enough to be given your own room, don’t closet yourself away in it, unless your host makes it clear they’d rather not chat. This is not a free hotel room, Couchsurfing is all about meeting new people and sharing culture.
If you need a bit of time alone to think and recharge your batteries, it’s best to book yourself into a cheap hotel for the night instead.
Scary as it might sound initially, Couchsurfing is generally extremely safe and most people do it for years and host or surf hundreds of times with nothing bad ever happening. However, it can’t hurt to take a few precautions.
1. Go With Your Gut Feeling
Whether hosting or surfing, if something inside you is telling you that there’s something strange about someone you’ve been in contact with on the platform, call it off. Trust your instinct.
Look up hostels in the area before you go and write down the addresses so that if you do feel like you need to abort you have somewhere to go.
2. Meet Them at the Airport/Station
When hosting, pick your guests up at the airport or station rather than giving them your precise address. When surfing, ask if they can pick you up.
This means both parties can size each other up and still decide not to go ahead with it if anyone feels uncomfortable for whatever reason.
For hosts, it also means that you can make sure that if you’ve agreed to host a group then only the number of people agreed have turned up, with no surprise added extras.
What’s more, it means that there’s less chance of guests getting lost, saving the host the bother of tracking them down and meaning the guests aren’t wandering around a strange neighbourhood.
3. Make Sure People Know the Deal
As you would in any situation, make sure that people are aware of your movements and who’s coming to stay/who you’re staying with.
As a guest, it can’t hurt to let others know what your itinerary is and where you’re going to be and how long for.
4. Staying Safe as a Single Woman
Basically, although 99% of the time you’ll be absolutely fine, as a guest it’s always a good idea to have some kind of back up in place, like a friend of a friend that lives in the city or the address of a hostel.
Bear In Mind…
Although you’ll sometimes hit the jackpot, Couchsurfing won’t always be ideal. Remember that hosts might well live outside the city centre, meaning it’s harder to get around and you can’t stay out too late. Finding a host can be time-consuming, and they can cancel.
If you’re a host, you need to think about how your guests will get around, and be prepared to spend your free time with them, and share your space.
Hosts and guests won’t always click with each other, so you have to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth. You might meet your new best friend one week, and really not get on with your next guest.
Although Couchsurfing is a great way for travellers to meet local people, it’s sometimes easier to stay in a hostel where there are more people, meaning you’re more likely to meet people you really get on with.
I recommend breaking up periods of Couchsurfing with a bit of hostelling for a bit of varied social interaction.
Overall, though, it’s a wonderful way of broadening your horizons and meeting new people.