Author: Julie Dupuis

10 Ways to Use CouchSurfing: A Multi-Tool for the Indie Traveler

Most travelers have by now heard of CouchSurfing, the global phenomenon that involves having a sleepover with a complete stranger. With about three million members worldwide, CouchSurfing has proven beyond doubt that it is a useful travel tool for much, much more than simply finding free accommodation.

With a bit of resourcefulness and an open mind, CouchSurfing adds a human dimension to your trip planning. You get ideas for things to do, places to see, where to eat and sleep, and how to get there from a travel guide, the internet, newspapers and magazines, a tour operator or travel agent. Yet where do you find out about the people you will meet?

The next time you find yourself planning a trip, traveling abroad, or daydreaming of your next journey, try these CouchSurfing tips to enhance your experience.

Plan a sleepover

The most obvious way of using CouchSurfing is for what it was intended: finding a place to crash. Check out the CouchSearch feature to enter your criteria and see profiles of members you might want to contact. The features are detailed, so families can find larger, kid-friendly homes to welcome them while those with the jitters can limit the search results by sex, age, or verification level. While there are many options by which to define your search, remember that it is in contacting the people whose profiles catch your eye that you will find your match. These messages aren’t a reservation service, but your introduction to your potential host in a foreign country.

The advantage of using CouchSurfing to find accommodation is most noticeably the cultural exchange resulting from the experience. CouchSurfers are struck repeatedly with how friendly, welcoming, and helpful their hosts are. Yet, what matters most in these exchanges are often the stories told, the habits and traditions observed, the meals and the laughter shared, the insights gained.

CouchSurfing can have its disadvantages, too. Last minute plans can be hard to make, especially when email is the only means of communication. Safety concerns are an issue for some, though actual incidents are rare and CouchSurfing offers several security features to its members. Others feel that they have less freedom because they are constrained by their host’s rules or obligations (for example, no smoking in the house or no coming home past midnight on weekdays because people have to work in the morning).

Most agree: doing it to save money is not enough. Respect for your host’s culture is essential and a desire to know more about and understand that culture is recommended. That being said, don’t feel obliged to spend all your time with your host.

>> Get tips for a smooth CouchSurfing experience 

Be a tour guide

On the flip side, hosting CouchSurfers can be a lot of fun. Want to travel but don’t have the time or money? It can be gratifying to host a traveler. Your guest will have tales of places you’ve never seen to tantalize you until your turn comes. If you don’t want to host travelers but still want to participate somehow, you can set your status to “Meet for coffee or a drink” and, if this applies to you, specify on your profile that you are willing to guide people around your area.

As with surfing, hosting encourages intercultural exchange. Perhaps you will host a French backpacker who will make you the best crepes ever. Or maybe you’ll connect with someone who becomes a lifelong pen pal.

Hosting also has the added bonus of letting you see through someone else’s eyes. Guiding people around your hometown opens your mind to a fresh perspective of mundane sights. Try taking a tourist somewhere you haven’t been for years, like that bridge you used to jump from into the river or that hill that overlooks town. Your guest’s sense of awe and gratitude at seeing something that’s not in the guidebook will inspire you to rediscover your stomping grounds.

On the other hand, maybe your guest will be smelly. Maybe your guest will leave a big mess. Maybe your guest will disrespect you by walking around in his underwear. But probably not; most people are thankful for their host’s kindness and do their best to show it.

Meet your material needs

So you need to buy a cheap cell phone or your flight leaves in days and you’ve got to get rid of that camping tent, ASAP? Post wanted and for sale items on a discussion board (preferably a regional one to facilitate the transfer of said item). Some stuff is reused or freecycled constantly, especially things that are useful to travelers yet too expensive or bulky to buy or carry around. I heard a rumor while in Australia that backpackers leave unwanted camper vans at the airport, later impounded by police and resold to backpackers for dirt-cheap. It might be simpler just to keep the good karma going on CouchSurfing.

>> Find more ways to travel for free 

Throw in your two cents

There are plenty of discussion boards on CouchSurfing to suit all tastes. Are you a bookworm? A metal head? Vegetarian? Soccer fan, hitch hiker, busker, farmer, or volunteer? It’s all there. Join other travelers in CouchSurfing groups to discuss your favorite topics, often from a traveler’s perspective. CouchSurfing discussion boards are used a bit differently than those on other sites. Sure, chat away with your fellow CSers about anything you like, but keep in mind that you might see some of these other things happen…

Organize an activity

So you’re traveling alone, or with a friend, or on a budget. You’d like to be able to do everything, but you just can’t. Tours are too expensive and you can’t go at it alone because it’s too dangerous or the price is too steep or you don’t have transportation. Problem after problem after problem. Then you remember CouchSurfing.

You know that hundreds of other people traveling in the same part of the world are in the same predicament as you right now. Why not network with them to turn some of your far-fetched dreams into reality?

Perhaps you want to go camping in a renowned national park but you don’t have transportation or you’re unfamiliar with the territory and hesitate to go alone. Maybe you want to go to a theme park but can’t afford the admission unless you manage to get a group rate. Whatever the situation, chances are that you can find a discussion board on CouchSurfing to cater to your needs. City groups are often useful for posting just about anything, while some groups are specific to an activity or interest rather than a location. I’ve successfully found multi-day trekking partners on the Korean Outdoors group and on the Vancouver group. In the first case, I didn’t want to go alone and in the second case, in addition to wanting company, I needed to find a CSer with a car. Be creative and you’ll be able to overcome most hurdles indie travelers face.

Join an event

If you become bored on a rainy day, or you run out of ideas for stuff to do, or you’re tired of the same type of tourist attractions, check out CouchSurfing’s cool Community section, where you can search for events happening near you. Sometimes, events are posted solely on discussion boards, but they are usually found in the events listings.

Some events are targeted to the CouchSurfing or expat community. Major cities have weekly CouchSurfing meet-ups where members share stories over drinks. Event types are diverse. Near me recently: free weekly movie, international language exchange, reading club meeting, women’s clothing swap & vegan potluck, and games night. These events are open to all CS members who wish to attend, regardless of frequency.

Many CSers and expats also post local events going on in their area-such as festivals-not only those they are organizing themselves. These types of events are more likely to attract a mixture of local residents and tourists; they can be a wonderful time to observe local culture and traditions and to interact with local residents.

Hitch a ride

CouchSurfing can be a great way to organize your next rideshare. Many travelers head in the same directions to wander down the proverbial beaten path. Isn’t it easier to target your rideshare ad to people who are more likely to be headed your way than to take some shot in the dark on the local online classified directory? Bonus: CSers have already gone through a few security hoops so the safety risks are lower. True, many travelers won’t have a car of their own, but those who do will most likely want to share the costs (fuel, rental fees, even hotel rooms and take-out). The biggest drawback of this option is missing out on interaction with local ride providers who might pick you up when you stick out your thumb. But if you are unlikely to hitch hike the usual way, then that is not so much of a concern to you.

Greet your community members

Expats will probably find this tip more useful than travelers who do not stay very long in any one given place. Still, an easy way of connecting with people in your area is by using the CouchSearch function without the intent of surfing with anyone.

If you’re new to a place, the best way of getting settled in is to ask someone who’s already there. Don’t know where to buy a power converter? Can’t read the language to differentiate between salt and sugar? Need help ordering pizza? Want to join the gym? These are the kinds of questions you could post on a board, but if you establish a relationship with someone in particular, it can make life much easier.

I once saw a question on a board about being vegetarian in Korea, but despite having plenty of information on the subject, I did not respond. At another time, someone sent me a personal message saying that it looked like we had a lot in common and asking me some questions, amongst them one about vegetarian Korean food. I responded to this message because the person took the time to search for people to connect with and singled me out. Not only is that flattering, but after looking at that person’s profile, it was clear that I wanted to be in contact with this person, too. For a couple of months, I was this CSer’s go-to person whenever he needed advice and I didn’t mind since he had put in the effort of cultivating a relationship with me, even if it wasn’t quite a friendship.

Sometimes it’s nice to be able to call someone for help instead of waiting for an email reply. Plus, go all the way and meet up with your correspondent-you’ll likely get a tour of a new area of town and a new friend in the process. Not too shabby!

Still, there are other reasons for getting to know the other CSers in your community. Maybe you want to form a sports team. Maybe you need help getting a job or finding and furnishing an apartment. Use CS to find people who are already settled in and who know other people who may have what you’re looking for. CS isn’t called a social network for nothing.

>> Find more online tools to help you make real-world connections 

Get advice

On the other hand, posting to discussion boards can be very useful. For any question that you may have, someone will have an answer. Best of all, many people will often have answers, so you can choose the best one or take recommendations.

I always scour the discussion boards to see what others are up to, just in case I can pick up a useful tip-and I usually do. By subscribing to group digests, I can see what’s new, when it’s new. Just by glancing in my inbox, I once found out about an impending deadline for an exciting volunteer position I soon afterwards received.

Find a friend

Much like setting up a rideshare, CouchSurfing makes it easy to find a travel buddy, whether your goal is to reduce your costs, increase your personal safety, or have someone to talk to. With so many different groups to post to, you’re sure to find someone with a similar itinerary. The beauty of finding your travel companion this way is that you are opening yourself up to possibilities impossible if you were asking your college buddy. You will probably end up traveling with someone from a different country as you, even if they are tourists to the country you are in. You will learn about another culture through your travel partner’s companionship, if not through your own eyes (for the time being). Even if the person with whom you end up traveling is of the same nationality as you, you will still learn so much from this new person, if you let yourself.

>> Learn the art of keeping touch with travel friends 

The best thing about CS, though, is that I can still be involved even when I’m at home, pining to be on the road again, or when I’m abroad, craving my mother’s homemade soup. I might see a question on the boards I’m interested in answering because I’ve been there or I might be able to help out where others can’t because I’m from there. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I can participate in the world I choose.

Photos by: alexmontjohn,  eastpark, Opspin, a.e.ray, leafar