How come you’re not Couchsurfing yet?

chicago couchsurfers

Whenever I hear a traveler say that he or she has never tried Couchsurfing, I die a little inside.

Seriously, if you’re not Couchsurfing, you’re way behind the times. For those stuck in a time warp, allow me to explain. Couchsurfing.org is a worldwide network of people who let strangers crash on their couches for free as part of a cultural exchange.

It’s just that simple. You login to the website, browse the available couches in the city you’ll be visiting, send out requests to people and wait for a confirmation.

It’s kind of mind-blowing to see “budget travelers” brag about getting 50% off a hotel room, when they could have couchsurfed for free – and gotten the companionship and wisdom of a local to go along with it.

The first question always asked by people who have never Couchsurfed is, “Is this safe?” Of course it is! Read on for more.

Basics about Couchsurfing

All potential surfers and hosts fill out a detailed profile with photos, age, interests, their outlook on life, what they hope to get out of the site, and so on. Hosts describe how many people they can accommodate and what kind of sleeping arrangements they can offer, which can range from an actual couch to an air mattress to a full-size bed.

Members accumulate references from those they have stayed with or hosted. In that way, the community polices itself. If you’re gunshy about trying CS, make sure the first person you stay with is someone with lots of positive references. That way there’s no risk at all.

You’re not really staying with “strangers,” because the Couchsurfing community is overwhelming friendly, open-minded and generous. Most will go out of their way to help you and will often show you around their city.

couchsurfing visitor

One of the best things about Couchsurfing is it gives you access to like-minded people. You can easily find someone whose personality is similar to yours and weed out those with whom you may not click. If you’re a bike-riding dumpster-diving vegan, you can find a kindred spirit to stay with. If you’re all about drinking and partying and urban nightlife, you can find a local host who will take you out on the town. If you’re a gay person traveling to a conservative place, you can find a supportive local host.

Not all hosts are willing to play tour guide – some have busy schedules and can only offer a place to sleep. Their generosity is still appreciated. It’s up to you which kind of host you’d prefer to stay with. Just read the profiles carefully to find someone who is a good match.

There is literally no reason for a traveler not to use Couchsurfing. Bringing your kids along? No problem, many hosts welcome children. Traveling alone as a single female? No problem, find another single female to stay with. Are you an older traveler who may not feel at home shacking up with 20-somethings? No problem, just seek out an older CS host.

And if you’re introverted, couchsurfing is by far the best way to travel, because it gives you an instant friend and potential companion to help you explore the city.

Obviously, for travelers, couchsurfing is pretty much the best thing ever invented. So what do the hosts get out of it?

Hosts get the satisfaction of showing off their city and getting to know people from different cultures and backgrounds. Many couchsurfers are international, so hosts get insight into other parts of the world, like when I hosted a girl from the Netherlands who taught me a bunch of Dutch phrases and cooked a traditional Dutch meal.

Couchsurfing is a reciprocal arrangement in many ways. You host people and make their stay as pleasant as possible so that others will do the same for you.

The CS community

One of the best parts about Couchsurfing is the awesome community. Many cities have regular events where CSers get together and socialize. In Chicago, we have weekly meetups at bars, theater events, board game nights, potluck dinners at someone’s house, and lots more.

couchsurfing

I didn’t know anybody when I moved here, but I went to a Couchsurfing meeting that first week, and some of my best friends in the city are still those people I met at that meeting.

If you’re unsure about jumping into Couchsurfing, just sign up for the website and check out one of the groups for a city you live in (or will be traveling to.) If they have an event going on, attend the event to meet some of the CS folks in person – that should put your mind at ease.

My couchsurfing experiences

I stayed with awesome single hosts in Seattle and San Francisco who showed me around town for a few days. My host in San Francisco hooked me up with a free pass to the California Academy of Sciences, where I saw African penguins and albino alligators.

My host in Minneapolis gave me an extra ticket to the Basilica Block Party, where I saw Matt Nathanson and the Hold Steady perform in concert. In Albuquerque, I stayed with a cool couple who grow 90% of their own food in their garden – which inspired me to start growing my own food here in Chicago. In Philadelphia, I stayed in a house full of indie kids who fed us perfectly good produce they had rescued from a dumpster.

When I swung down to Tijuana, Mexico, I stayed with a bilingual local who showed me around town. Had it not been for CS, I would never have felt safe enough to experience the Tijuana nightlife alone.

In Las Vegas, I stayed with a guy who had literally just moved to town and had no furniture. I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of an empty apartment – and I was grateful for the accommodation.

In New Orleans, I stayed with a guy who was hosting seven people at once. Now that is dedication! I became friends with the other surfers and later stayed with one of them when I visited her hometown of Greeley, Colorado.

new orleans surfers

Did I mention that I didn’t pay for these accommodations? Actually, that’s not entirely true. Like most CS guests, I usually do something to show my gratitude, either by taking my host out to dinner or bringing them something like a package of toilet paper (TP is always appreciated by busy hosts – you can never have enough!) Other guests pay back their hosts by helping out with simple tasks like cleaning, doing dishes, etc.

The experiences, the people you meet, the things you learn, these are the factors that make Couchsurfing special. The fact that it helps travelers save money is just an added bonus.

Couchsurfing hosts can be found in just about every country around the world, so don’t think that because you’re headed to Thailand or Chile that you can’t use CS. Do a search on the website to see all the available hosts near where you’ll be staying – you may be surprised at how many there are.

If I haven’t sold you on Couchsurfing by now, I’m afraid you’re beyond help. But if you’re still curious, here are a few more helpful links.

Additional useful couchsurfing links:

For more detailed information on Couchsurfing, check out the Roy Marvelous extensive “Couchsurfing for Dummies” guide.

Have you Couchsurfed (or considered it) before?

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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

24 comments on “How come you’re not Couchsurfing yet?

  1. Thanks for this article. I’ve been thinking about trying couchsurfing in my upcoming travels and I was wondering what type of lead time the typical couchsurfing host needs. How far in advance did you typically arrange your stays?

    Also, would you recommend that I try hosting a little since I have a perfectly good home, in order to build up my reputation before I hit the road?

    • Hey Laura, good questions. I would suggest hosting once or twice if you can. I think I only hosted once before I went on my big road trip. It helps to see things from the host’s perspective first, and to get a reference on your profile. You can also ask other CS people you know for references – I would be happy to give you one.

      Generally, most hosts like to receive requests about 1-2 weeks in advance. Any more lead time than that is usually too much since people don’t know their schedules that far ahead of time. Some hosts are cool with last-minute requests, which is good because I often had only 3-4 days lead time when I was traveling. In that case, I would look for people who wrote on their profiles that they don’t mind last-minute requests.

      Roy’s intro to couchsurfing is another good resource for info: http://roymarvelous.com/2010/12/getting-started-with-couchsurfing-cheat-sheet/ and feel free to ask me any other questions!

  2. Well, Scott — I strongly disagree that I’m behind the times even though I haven’t couchsurfed! 🙂 I should at least get credit for already knowing what it was. I also think it’s a terrific idea. It really opens up the world for a lot of people who couldn’t or wouldn’t travel otherwise. Might even do it myself someday — Just not the thing for me right now.
    Cathy Sweeney recently posted..Sleeping on the Seine

  3. I am a huge couchsurfing fan. It is really one of the best ways to learn a culture. And for people who don’t want to stay in a strangers house, I actually met up with a lot of couchsurfers when I traveled – in Lima one of the community took 6 travelers on a day tour for free and then afterwards invited us back to her house to learn how to make pisco sours.
    Ayngelina recently posted..Maui on my mind

    • True, meeting up with the local CS groups is a great way to experience the culture, even if you don’t stay at someone’s house.

  4. Excellent post! We love couchsurfing – we had so many ‘local’ experiences through couchsurfing – we would have NEVER had them, had we not couchsurfed with someone. Great local hangouts, the best breakfast in town, free open-air concert… so far, we’ve always been very lucky with our hosts & they usually took the time to show us around or gave us plenty of tips if they didn’t have time. By the way – we also had our first couchsurfing experience in Toronto!! 🙂 We didn’t make it to any of the Chicago meetups when we were in town last year, but it sounds like a pretty cool community and we’ll definitely try to go to one of the meetups next time we’re in town.
    Dani | Globetrottergirls recently posted..When travel dreams die…our disappointing trip to The Beach

    • It is such a great network of like-minded people. Even if you don’t stay with them you can benefit from the community!

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