“No. What’s that?”
“It’s a database of people that let you stay with them for free in places all over the world.”
“What??” I replied incredulously. “For free? But why would they do that? And how do I find them? And how do I know I can trust them?”
I took a chance. My very first couchsurfing host (in Paris) picked me up from the airport, cooked us delicious French food, showed me around the city on her day off, then left me alone in her home with a set of keys while she jetted off on her own vacation. I could get used to this.
When 2012 rolled around, I set off on the trip of my lifetime – leaving my entire life on the east coast to travel the country (and eventually the world) with all I own in my station wagon. I didn’t know where I would end up. I didn’t know how long I would be on the road. And I planned to couchsurf the whole way.
It is February 2013 at the publication of this article, and I have not yet paid for a night’s sleep since I wrote my final rent check last May. I have been traveling this country for seven months entirely on the kindness of strangers, and loving every minute.
You want in? Read on.
Couchsurfing.org is a website that makes the age-old practice of hospitality more organized, safer, and more accessible. Anyone can make a profile either for the purpose of hosting, “surfing,” or simply connecting to others in a place.
If you host, you get to say who comes in your home. You can specify your preferences on the number of travelers at a time, pets, kids, smoking, etc. You can offer a spare room, a couch, a space on the floor, or a space to pitch a tent in the yard. You can even just offer your services as a “guide,” simply having coffee with someone or showing them around, without necessarily committing to host them. And you can always say “no” to a request.
Showing that you’ve hosted on your profile will make you a more attractive guest. People like to see that you return hospitality, although this is certainly not a requirement. In fact, ironically, I have not yet hosted because I have never lived with roommates who were comfortable with the idea. So I’ve only been a surfer and fellow traveler. It has never been an obstacle for me when securing a host.
WHO ARE YOU? – Making a Great Profile
When making your profile, start by looking at others. Filter your search by those who are “most active” so you can see examples of successful, current profiles.
- Be honest and thorough. Don’t try to be overly clever. Sometimes reading others’ profiles feels like a who’s-the-most-badass-traveler competition. Trustworthiness trumps coolness any day.
- Include LOTS of photos, especially travel photos and shots of your face. DO NOT focus on sexy pictures. Nothing makes me want to stay with or host someone less than a whole album full of shirtless or bikini shots. This is not a dating site.
- Get as many references and friends as you can, right away. This might mean hitting up Facebook and real-life friends for references. If you’re a dude, try to get some from female friends to show that you’re honorable and not a creep. Sorry, but you know we’re going to think about that.
IS IT SAFE? - How Not To Get Axe-Murdered
The main reason I use the site rather than just relying on the spontaneous kindness of strangers I meet along the way is that I can “stalk” people before meeting them.
- Decide ahead of time what your standards are. Personally, I never stay with single men – only couples, families, and group houses. Not all solo female travelers have my mindset, but you should feel free to set whatever boundaries you’re most comfortable with.
- Read someone’s ENTIRE profile before you send a request to surf with, or agree to host them. Look for personal deal-breakers. Do you have the same opinions about “vices” (smoking, drinking, drugs, etc.)? Do you only want a place where you can have your own room? Will pet allergies be an issue? Does anything stand out as a possible red flag?
- READ REFERENCES. I do not stay with anyone who has no references. I want to hear from real people who have interacted with this person.
- Couchsurfing.org offers a few services to make safety less of a concern. Hosts can have their street address and identify “verified” by receiving a code by postal mail and text message. They can also be “vouched for” by other CS members who have spoken to their trustworthiness. Both of these statuses have icons that will appear at the top of someone’s profile.
You’ll get as much out of couchsurfing as you put into it. You can simply glide into and out of someone’s home for a few nights, or you can make their lives richer because of your presence.
- Obviously, BE CLEAN! Like in the wilderness, leave no trace. Wash, dry, and put away the dishes you use. Keep your belongings tidy and in one place. Without being asked, clean the bathroom or kitchen, run the vacuum, sweep the porch, etc.
- If possible, offer to cook at least one meal for your host. They will often feed you, but never expect it. Do not eat food from their fridge or cabinets unless it is offered to you – duh.
- Keep a nice conversational balance. Ask lots of questions – people like to talk about themselves. But also don’t be afraid to share some of your own stories – people often host because hearing from travelers makes them feel like they’re traveling too.
- Remain curious and respectful about “hot button” topics like religion and politics. Good travelers are always looking to learn, not to prove their own opinion. Never take for granted that someone shares your views, whether in your home country or on the other side of the world.
- Don’t overstay your welcome. Only stay the agreed-upon amount of nights, unless your host offers more or you are quite sure they would say yes to an extension request from you. Hosts don’t like to feel obligated.
- LEAVE GIFTS! I always leave a thank-you card and a small trinket like a candle, incense, silly finger puppets, boxes of worry dolls, etc.
ONE WORLD - More Than Just a Free Place to Stay
I don't just love this way of travel because it's free. This isn't about being a freeloader. Couchsurfing is about coming one step closer to erasing the illusion of separateness between us.
Phrases like "my" house and "my" food and "my" car just won't serve us for much longer as humans. It is not natural for humanity to be closed up in separate boxes like houses and offices, pretending we must do this life thing alone. For the majority of human history on this earth, we have lived in small communities, sharing food, shelter, and the tasks of life with one another.
Couchsurfing brings people together under the premise that your happiness is my happiness. If you are safe, warm, and well-fed for the night, then I am fulfilled as well. We all have things to teach each other, and we can all benefit from meeting another kind soul on this journey of life that ultimately is shared.
Melanie Cobb is a Writer, Life Transformation Coach, Full-Time Traveler, and Professional Wild Woman. Her mission in life is to be and help others be their best, brightest, wildest selves. You can read more of her experiences, see photos of her travels, and be inspired on your own journey at her website, www.journeytowildness.com.