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 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. 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.
EDIT September 2021
It appears that Couchsurfing.com is no longer a transparent community-based initiative under the new leadership or free for everyone as there is a mandatory fee as of 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of the core community members have since migrated elsewhere and it has changed a lot as a platform, so I feel it may not be the best place to find the authentic local travel experiences that we all want anymore (you can find more about the history of couchsurfing and their current situation here). I sincerely hope that I’ll be proved wrong as I love couchsurfing and what it represents, but in the meantime there are other similar sites I’m planning to try out in the future, like Couchers.org, BeWelcome, Servas.org etc., so I’ll add more information about those once I know more. However, this post is still a good general guideline for starting out with homestays and the travel sharing economy, so don’t be discouraged. 🙂 Hopefully the spirit of couchsurfing will endure, even though it might not be on Couchsurfing.com.
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.
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.
Use the search bar to browse available hosts and make sure you specify your travel dates in the calendar there, so you don’t waste time finding hosts, which are unavailable. When you’ve found one you like, read their profile carefully, particularly the part describing their home to learn whether they’re offering a bed in a shared space or a private room, how far from the city they live, whether they smoke, have pets, which you’re allergic to, or kids you don’t like. That section will also state how many people they can host at once, how long they’d prefer you to stay and whether they accept last minute requests or not.
How to get a host:
Next, write them a message request, preferably several days before you’re planning to arrive. You can also send last minute requests if you’re in a hurry, but pick those hosts which have a high response time for that. Make sure your request is personal and based on their profile: write a short introduction about yourself, where you’re planning to travel and why, then explain why you think you’d get along with your chosen host, stress the parts you have in common based on your profile etc., and tell them what you can offer as a grateful guest. Don’t send the same requests to everyone as most hosts will immediately reject insincere and generic requests.
Of course, everyone has their own approach to writing requests, so do it in your own personal style, but I’d advise you not to lie for the sake of getting a place to sleep, as couchsurfing is supposed to be a community for meeting genuine people you can be friends with, so let’s try to keep it this way. Also, it’s bad manners to write to too many hosts at once. Try to send your requests early enough that you can send them to the next host after the first one rejects it, so you don’t need to cancel on a lot of people after they accept.
Unfortunately, there’s always a risk associated with meeting complete strangers over the Internet, even more so if you’re going to their house. That can’t be fully eliminated, but it can be considerably mitigated: always check the references, particularly when travelling alone and even more so if you are female. I cannot stress this enough, so don’t ever stay with a host with no references at all. I know everyone needs to get started somewhere, but a person who is serious about being a good host will make sure they at least have some personal references and a verified profile, because they understand how the system works.
I know some people accept any accommodation when pressed for time and money and lots of people tend to experiment with hosts with no references because they expect to get a place more easily, but ask yourself, do you really want to risk it? I’m aiming this particularly at my fellow women, as we tend to be statistically more vulnerable to harassment and violence as solo travellers. Although I love solo travelling, it would be foolish not to acknowledge that and ignore taking precautions when you can, especially since there are so many great hosts with references, that choosing an unknown one is just asking for trouble.
After you’ve chosen a host and they’ve accepted your request to stay, don’t be afraid to talk to them, to get their information beforehand and even get to know them a bit if you can. It will make both of you feel more comfortable, particularly if it’s your first time couchsurfing. Similarly, don’t be afraid of looking stupid by asking for clarification if you don’t understand something, because different cultures perceive things differently, just make sure you do it in a respectful way.
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).
And lastly, always trust your gut. If something feels off, don’t accept the hosting request or leave if you are already there. Don’t feel obliged to stay just because they offered to host you, if the person feels shady, if their house is weird in any way or if you just plain feel uncomfortable for some reason, leave. There’s always another option, like a hotel, a different last minute host or even an open bus station waiting room in a pinch, although that is not particularly recommendable. Try to leave in a polite way without offending them, but go and remember to leave a reference afterwards to alert future travellers. However, be honest and exact when you write your reference, because sometimes people just don’t get along and unless that person did something nasty, there’s no reason to unjustly tarnish their reputation.
How to be a good guest
Now, let’s talk about what the hosts are getting from you in return for hosting you. If you’re thinking to yourself that they’re getting the privilege of your excellent company, then you’re right, but it is not quite that simple. Couchsurfing is about sharing your life and should be a mutual experience of connecting to your guest/host, so make sure you fit some quality hanging out time into your sightseeing schedule, if the host is not busy. Some people will offer space to crash even when they don’t have time to get to know you and that’s fine, but you should still try to make them feel appreciated as they are saving you quite a bit of money if nothing else.
It should probably be obvious, but it needs to be said anyway: always clean up after yourself and don’t take what the hosts are offering you for granted. If they allow you to take food from their fridge don’t just clean it out like it’s an eating competition and if they don’t offer, then don’t take it or ask first if you need something. It’s also common courtesy to offer to contribute money for the food you ate if you’re staying for longer and to help out with the chores around the house. After all, the host is losing valuable free time by choosing to spend it with you, which they are only happy to do if you’re not a douchebag.
Always tell the hosts the exact dates and preferably even the time of when you’re coming and going, whether you’re solo or travelling with someone else. It’s bad manners to just unexpectedly spring an extra person on your host and usually the hosts require each traveller to have their own couchsurfing profile, but some will accept additional people if they are properly presented as normal people in advance.
Personally I also like to bring a small gift from my country if I can and cook them dinner or take them out for a drink if there’s time. It is not meant as payment, but rather an expression of appreciation and gratitude – the thought is usually appreciated, but by no means mandatory. Cooking dinner for the host will also give you an additional excuse to hang out, get to know each other and smoothen out the awkward edges if there are any left.
So this should about cover everything you need to know to get started with couchsurfing and their website also has plenty more information about it. Personally, I love it and try to do it as often as I can, particularly when travelling solo, but I still haven’t done it nearly enough. I’m planning to write about all of my experiences at some point and you can find the ones I’ve managed to write so far under the Couchsurfing tag here. In short, they have all been extremely positive and I’m still in touch with lots of my hosts.
Let me know if you want to know anything else in the comments or if you’ve tried couchsurfing before. 🙂