In May 2014, Antoine and I went on a 3 months backpacking trip from Paris to New Zealand. During that time, we couchsurfed in 10 different countries and met some of the most generous people on earth. If there is one thing we are more than happy to talk about, it is Couchsurfing. It has taught us so much about generosity, open-mindedness, sense of sharing and tolerance, that we became Couchsurfing addicts.
But the decision to join Couchsurfing took a long time. When I was an Erasmus student in Edinburgh in 2009, some friends of mine were members. At first, it sounded to me like something strange and a little scary. Welcoming strangers into one’s home does sound a little creepy, but when you get to know the concept of Couchsurfing and the people who are part of this community, all fears and doubts are immediately swept away.
To those of you who don’t know what Couchsurfing is all about, who are maybe a bit scared about the idea of welcoming strangers into your home and staying in a stranger’s home, let me introduce you to the beautiful concept of Couchsurfing.
What is Couchsurfing ?
Couchsurfing.com is a hospitality exchange website on which people from all over the world, of all ages and of all social backgrounds, can meet locals and find free accommodation. Now let me emphasize on this. It is entirely FREE. Is it not the best reason to join ? I have to admit, it is probably the first reason why we decided to join in the first place. And after our first few experiences, we got a better picture of the whole idea. It’s not JUST because it’s free, it’s the people, the culture swap, the sharing, the generosity, the travel stories, the locals tips, the discoveries, the laughs, the all-night-long talks over bottles of beer (or wine), the memories, the life-long friendships you create that make Couchsurfing so amazing.
Who is it for ?
Couchsurfing is for everyone, and especially not just for young people. It could be for a family who want their children to learn English like we met in Beijin, it could be for a retired couple who needs a hand with their house or have plenty of time for travelling, it could be for a single person who just moved in a new town and who would like to meet people, it could be for students who like to make friends from all over the world, it can really be for everyone.
How does it work ?
It works a little as a social network on which everyone has a detailed profile, with pictures, personal descriptions and friends.
When you join the community it is important that you fill in your profile in details. Tell people who you are, what you do with your life and what are your hobbies. The writing part is important as it will obviously be a way for people to know they can trust you. No one wants to read a badly written profile.
When planning a trip, you will search for hosts in the area you are going to and send a Couch Request to the profiles that inspired you. As a host you will receive those requests and decide if you want to host them or not.
You can also decide not to host anyone nor surf, if you don’t have the space or if you’re not ready just yet, and say that you are only available for coffee or showing people around.
Couchsurfing is also a good way to meet your fellow hosts in your city and talk to travellers, especially by going to meetings.
Generally, guests will stay 2 to 4 days, depending on their host’s conditions, but it can also be more if you get along really well. The sleeping arrangements can be anything from a mattress on the floor, an actual couch, a tent in the garden or an actual bed in a room to yourself.
Of course, it is expected of guests to do something nice for their hosts like bringing a souvenir from home or cooking a meal, and of hosts to treat their guests like friends.
And don’t forget to leave a detailed reference about your host/guest, which will be a way for the next host/guest to trust (or not) that person.
How safe is it ?
There are safety features that can reassure you that this person you are staying with or hosting, is not a creep.
Hosts and guests leave a detailed feedback, telling others about their experience, what they did with their host/guest, how they enjoyed their stay, how was the couch & flat, if they recommend others to stay with or host this person, etc. If you had a bad experience, it is important that you say so in the reference.
Members have to write a detailed profile, whether they are hosting or surfing. You have to be specific in your profile, tell people what you do in life, what interests you, what are your hobbies, etc. All these information will help others get to know you better and trust you.
You can become friends with people on the website, whether it’s persons you already know or surfers you meet. The more friends you have, the safer your profile will look.
Members can choose to get verified by donating $25, which means their name and address has been verified. It’s a good way to support the organisation and to show that your are involved.
Vouching is not a feature members can get anymore as Couchsurfing.com wants to focus now on references and verification as ways to trust & verify members, but you can still see the joined-hands vouch icon on some profiles. This means they have been vouched for by 3 other members that went through the same process.
What has Couchsurfing brought us and why you should join
It’s a life changing experience
- Meeting people
When I think about our past CS experiences, I can feel my heart beating. It sounds cheesy, I know, but we encountered so much kindness and generosity, from all kinds of people. Plus, we got to meet persons who we would never had met otherwise. Guys who didn’t especially shared the same interests nor did the same studies. We made friends, people we know we will keep in touch with. It’s definitely a life changing experience.
- Staying with locals
That’s probably the best thing about Couchsurfing and so much more fun than staying in a hotel or hostel. Hostels are fun, I like them too, but staying with a local gives you the opportunity to live like a local. You don’t just visit the must-sees and go to the big tourist attractions, you go with your host doing what he does usually with his friends or family and they show you places you would probably never have gone to if you were backpacking on your own. In Lithuania, Meta showed us around Vilnius, in Moscow we had beers alongside the Moskva with Max & his friends, in Beijing, Cherry took us on a rickshaw tour in the Hutongs, in Scotland we hiked with Rhian to Lochnagar and watched Al & Maïlys fly fish on the River Dee ; just to name a few.
Yes, it is scary. Inviting strangers into your home or going to a stranger’s place sounds creepy, but it will do you good. It will help you expand your horizons, trust people and get out of your comfort zone. After all, he could be a rapper or a serial killer right ? And what if she/he steal my stuff ? What if she/he loses my keys or break my favorite glasses ? Couchsurfing is all about trust. And trust is something money can’t buy. Everyone is in the same boat here, you are going to a stranger’s home but this stranger is welcoming a stranger into her/his home as well.
- Opening yourself to something new
Don’t you love meeting someone new ? We all have friends from school, work or hometown, and when you are in these groups the occasions to open up to someone new are rare. I’m not thinking about talking to the cashier or your yoga class mates here. I mean getting to REALLY know someone. You know when you go to a friend’s party and you start talking to people you don’t know. Sometimes nothing special happens, and sometimes you’re thrilled because you have common interests or this person can teach you something and vice-versa, and then you exchange your phone number or connect on Facebook. It’s exactly what happens with Couchsurfing. Except you sort of know the person beforehand since you had a look at her/his profile.
- Learn & teach
Learn about a new city, a new culture, a new country. Learn about cooking recipes or playing an instrument. Teach what you know, share your culture and interests.
There it is, a quick introduction to Couchsurfing that will help you understand what it is all about. The next steps for you are to fill in your profile, get references and start hosting or surfing !
There is so much more to say about Couchsurfing, I will obviously continue working on how-to guides that will help you get the best of it.
Was this beginner’s guide to Couchsurfing helpful to you ? Tell us in the comments below !