Note: This article was written in 2012. Since then, the Couchsurfing community has become less active, as folks move on to Airbnb, Meetup, and other social media networks. Consider this piece a historical document at the height of the Couchsurfing era. See also: This later article about a Couchsurfing censorship controversy with ambassadors and account suspensions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Have you Couchsurfed (or considered it) before?