When I tell people that I didn’t spend a single dollar for a place to stay on my latest trip – that actually I stayed at the house of a total stranger that I connected with on the internet – they all tend to make the same face. It’s a mixture of curiosity, concern, and alarm. What if the host was an ax murder? Could I just not afford a hotel room? At 29, aren’t I a little old to be crashing on someone’s couch?
Then I explain the premise behind CouchSurfing.com. At its most basic, the website connects those who need a place to stay while traveling to those willing to take someone in. But CouchSurfing isn’t just about the furniture. The official mission of the nonprofit organization is: CouchSurfing seeks to internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance, and facilitate cultural understanding. The idea being that if you stay with a local, you’ll connect more authentically and gain a better understanding of the culture and have a more enriched experience.
Couch Surfers and hosts run the gamut from college kids to retirees, from urban dwellers to farmers, and from singles to families. They have different political views, religious beliefs, and lifestyles. The one thing the majority has in common is a passion for travel and a desire to exchange ideas with new people. While all of my CouchSurfing experiences have been good, some have come closer to the idea of a “cultural exchange” while others have been more about a place to crash. CouchSurfing can be whatever you make it. Here are the steps to take, as a host or as a surfer, to ensure a good experience.
Fill out an honest profile
For both hosts and surfers, this is the first step in CouchSurfing. Be truthful in who you are and what you expect, both from hosts and from guests.
As a host, minimize misunderstandings by including relevant information on what type of accommodation you can provide (private room or shared, bed or couch), what neighborhood you are in, how many people you can host and for how long, any house rules or special considerations (no smoking, any pets, must be out of the house by a certain time), and what you expect from your guest. Also include a little information about yourself – your hobbies, interests, and lifestyle. This helps surfers and hosts determine if they are likely to get along.
When you sign up, the website will check your name and address to be sure they are valid. You can also be “vouched” for by other members or have other members leave a “reference” for you on you page. Many members will only deal with other members who are verified and vouched for. For safety reasons, many women will also only stay with or host other women or couples.
Hosts – accept a request
As a host, it’s up to you to decide whether or not to accept a request from a surfer. If the dates don’t work out or if you just don’t feel comfortable with that surfer, you can always decline. If you do accept, be sure to lay out the ground rules ahead of time.
Find out when the surfer will be arriving, how long they plan to stay, and what they expect to do on their visit. Let them know exactly what you can provide and what you can’t, when you’ll be available to let them in, if they will be given a key to come and go or if they can only be in the house when you are there, what your schedule is, and how much time, if any, you would be available to hang out with them or show them around. If any of the conditions are unacceptable, it’s perfectly okay to decline.
Hosts – welcome your guest
Once your guest arrives, be a good host and do whatever you promised over email. Treat your surfer as you would hope to be treated as a guest. If you hit it off and want to show the person around your city, make an offer, but don’t be offended if it is declined. Many people have fully packed itineraries. Offer to give them some inside tips on the destination or help them navigate the city.
Surfers – send a request to surf
Once you’ve made your travel plans, scope out a few potential hosts based on your needs. You can search by location and then filter people based on what they can provide, such as a bed in a private room versus a couch, and then email them a request. Let them know your travel plans – when you’ll be arriving, if you need parking, what your schedule will be like and when you expect to come and go each day, and who you are traveling with. Once you’ve been accepted by someone, confirm details with them a few days prior to your arrival and always let them know if your plans change.
Surfers – be a courteous guest
Be respectful of the person who has opened their home to you. Clean up after yourself, be quiet when they are sleeping, and generally act as you would hope a guest in your own home would. It’s also nice to volunteer to help out around the house in some way – cook dinner, do the day’s dishes, walk the dog, or help with a project.
A host gift like a bottle of wine, bunch of flowers, or souvenir from your hometown is always appreciated. If your guest shows you around or takes you to their favorite café or bar, show your appreciation buy buying them a drink if you can and definitely don’t expect them to pay for your share.
CouchSurfing requires a certain degree of “go with the flow” attitude that can be difficult for Type-A personalities who need every plan set in stone. If you are hosting, be as flexible with your guest’s arrival time as you can – traffic happens, planes get delayed, and people run late. If you are surfing, have the name and number of a back-up host in case things don’t work out or your host in unavailable. If you are going to be late or won’t be coming at all, let your host know immediately.
Keep an open mind
Even if the person you are hosting or staying with turns out to be not exactly what you’d hoped, try to stay open to the experience. If you feel unsafe that’s another story, but if you just differ in opinion or personality stick it out and see what happens. You may not end up becoming best friends with the person, but they might open your eyes to a different way of thinking or teach you something new. And that’s really what CouchSurfing is all about.
Read more about budget travel:
- How to Travel Around the World on $40 a Day
- 10 Free Ways to Discover Your World
- The Art of Traveling in Developing Countries
- The Real Cost of Traveling the World Like Rolf Potts
- How your Couchsurfing Host’s environment can Wreck You (or Heal You)
photo credits: sleeping by urbanmkr on Flickr, party by cemre on Flickr, hosts and guests by Lyndi&Jason on Flickr