Couchsurfing: how to

In the words of someone who commented on this post: “This extreme sport deserves more attention!”

Couchsurfing is probably the travel topic I get asked about most frequently and I’ve decided to answer all of your questions in one place. And yes, that is supposed to be a surfing pose in the cover photo. So, without further ado, I give you my complete “how to” guide to couchsurfing:

What is Couchsurfing?

Couchsurfing is literally what the name says: you get to sleep on a stranger’s couch for free, i.e. “surf” the world from couch to couch. In its essence it is a social networking service, connecting travellers across the world with hosts who are willing to offer them a place to sleep. It is accessible through the website www.couchsurfing.com and the corresponding mobile app, where you can join the community and get in touch with potential hosts.

It is free:

Couchsurfing is fully based on sharing and gift economy, so hosts are not allowed to charge for accommodation and you can sign up on the website and create your profile for free (update as of 2020: there’s now a nominal fee for joining couchsurfing, hopefully they’ll change it back to being free after the effect of the pandemic wears off – other free alternatives can be found online, but I haven’t tried them out yet). However, if you want to have your profile verified via your mobile phone, credit card or personal ID to prove that you’re a real person, there is a fee of about 50 euros. They recently changed policy, so you only need to pay it once and you are a verified member for life. It is certainly advisable to do so, because it makes you seem more serious and trustworthy to potential hosts.

How it works:

After you make a profile on the website, you can look for registered hosts and send them a message request to stay with them, based on their profile. If they like your request, they will accept it. Then you get to confirm it again and iron out the practical details of where to go and how to get there with your host. The hosts will take you in because they enjoy having guests at home, so you can usually expect to get to know them and hang out with them. Some of them will take you out sightseeing or partying in the evening, depending on how busy they are with their own lives, but most all of them will make sure you’ll feel welcome. Every profile also has a references section, where people leave feedback on the members they’ve met to ensure a safe and self-regulating community.

Things to know:

You’ll be staying at someone’s home, so don’t expect it to be like a hotel. It will not always be perfectly clean or warm enough for your tastes, you might sleep on a rickety old couch or in a bedroom fit for a queen, so you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get. The hosts describe the important stuff about their homes in their profile section, but it’s still a bit of a gamble. Same goes for the hosts, even if their profile seems like you could be the best of friends, sometimes it just doesn’t click and might feel awkward until you leave. You should also be prepared to get up early and adapt your schedule to the daily life of your hosts, as they might need to go to work and won’t want to live you alone in their home. I’ve had people give me their spare keys on the first day when I arrived and I’ve also gotten up at 6 am to spare them the trouble, so just be flexible and patient.

Here’s me with the friend that got me into couchsurfing, at karaoke in a bar in Canberra, Australia.

Getting started:

First you’ll need a good personal profile: try to introduce yourself in such a way that a stranger would want to hang out with you. Yes, I know it sounds a bit awkward, but keep in mind that the hosts will invite you into their home, so they’d like to know as much as possible about you. Write a bit about what you do in life and what you’re passionate about, what you like and where your interests lie etc. Make sure to include some photos of yourself and some quirky fun facts, which set you apart from everyone else. Couchsurfing has a default profile template, which will help guide you and you can have a look at my profile as an example here.

Additionally, make sure someone you trust always knows where you’re going and where you are. The Couchsurfing website will ask you for an emergency contact and it’s good to have one on your own, because accidents and crime do happen. I usually tell my boyfriend and sometimes my family members where I’m heading next, but I make sure that at least one of them knows the name of the person I’m going to be staying with and that they are expecting me to check in at some point during the day (I usually update my people about my travels when I’m getting ready to sleep, even just a short message of “everything is fine” will do the job).

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