“Isn’t couchsurfing where you surf couches down a hill?”, is what I was asked after I kept raving about how much I loved my experience couchsurfing in Europe. No, not quite. Not even close.
Couchsurfing is probably the greatest idea in travel after Skype, both of which I discovered while abroad. The idea is simple: share your couch with a stranger. The idea completely threw me for a loop, and I was confused on how someone would be willing to let me, a stranger, stay at their place for free.
How do you know the person you’re staying with won’t be a serial killer?
Fair question. Essentially, members have a profile and it works similar to any review system. Instead of reviewing as you would on tripadvisor or amazon, people get rated and references by people who vouch they they are indeed great people. There are also “ambassadors” that are even in charge of couchsurfing groups and host a ridiculous amount of people a year in their region or city. You’ll have to check out the site for more specifics, but I have never regretted choosing a CS experience over a hostel/hotel when possible. I would not have met all of these people, received such great advice, or shared some unforgettable experiences otherwise. All of my hosts that have a facebook are now my friends on FB as well as on CS. I hope to have the pleasure of showing them around my city if they ever hit The States.
What do they get if they let you stay? Nothing is free in life. Didn’t anyone teach you that?
You’re right. It isn’t free necessarily. I think anyone who expects to get a free place to stay (sometimes a couch, sometimes a guestroom) should not expect to walk in there and just use their water and electricity without ever saying a word. While some have donation jars in the room where you can leave money to go toward utility bills, most hosts just expect to hear about you. Yes, you. Share your cultural experiences with them. Share about who you are and get to know them. Some hosts will spend more time with you than others, which is fine. Don’t go in expecting something specific. They likely aren’t expecting anything either, but it would be nice of you to do something. It is completely up to you what you get them. When Richard and I couchsurfed in Rotterdam, we knew we were staying with Canadians. We got them old-fashioned syrup as a gift. For some hosts, I gave gifts and for others, I restocked their fridge with some things they were low on such as yogurt, bread, and juice. When hosts take us out, we are more than happy to grab a few round of drinks or even dinner. Organize their bathroom, cook them dinner, teach them something new, what have you. If you stay a week, you should probably contribute more than if you stayed the weekend but I’ll assume you can make a good judgement call.
Is it only for free accommodation?
Definitely not! While I love to couchsurf when possible, it often isn’t possible. Hosts are overbooked or there aren’t enough hosts in the city you are staying or you don’t find a profile that you think you would mesh well with. I would say I use couchsurfing more for asking questions regarding travel and recommendations on restaurants. Before we travel, I always send some messages to some CSers to ask about the cheapest way to get from one place to another, where to eat, best bar, etc. There are also couchsurfer meet ups where you can meet locals, sit and grab a beer or coffee, or bar hop. If you’re even remotely interested, check out your local couch surfer city group meet up. It’s monthly!
Okay, it sounds a little less crazy…but how did this idea even start?
How all great ideas start: in college. In 1999, Casey Fenton found a ridiculously cheap flight from Boston to Iceland. He randomly e-mailed 1,500 students from the University of Iceland asking for a “couch” or place to crash. Most of the students probably thought he was crazy (I would). However, he received more than 50 offers. That in a nut shell was the inspiration for the Couch Surfing project that officially became public in 2004. Today, there are over 1 million active couch surfers.
The Couch Surfing Virgin
At first, the idea of couch surfing intrigued me because it was essentially a free room. Even cheap hostels in Europe add up quickly, especially when I was abroad and the Euro was 1.5 the USD$. $20-30 per night on a hostel adds up all too quickly, but what ultimately started as hoping for a free place to stay quickly turned into some of my most memorable experiences and my preferred mode of travel whenever possible.
My first couch surfing experience was with my Euro-traveling buddy, Karen. We wanted to head to Milan for the weekend and thought that would be a perfect time to try out couch surfing. Our home city of Padova was only a short train ride away and we figured if we thought the people were crazy, we could easily book it. We were lucky to have the best first couch surfing experience possible. Vincenzo was our first host, and we were his first guests after his trip to the States. He had just returned back from traveling from roadtripping California and beyond, and we were lucky to get him right as he returned. He was more than happy to immediately continue hosting despite being exhausted from his travel! He had some great roomates and friends – Davide and Andrea Paglialonga, brothers from Sweden. Vincenzo was also so generous that he had new sheets and let me and Karen take the bed while he took the couch! If that weren’t enough, they took us on a tour of the city at night, happy hour, and we watched the TV show Friends before we retired for the night. They are now facebook friends and are more than welcome to visit next time they are in the states!
Dublin – Our flight out of Dublin is at what time?!
After the first CS trip, we just had to take another. Karen and I found ridiculously cheap flights on Ryan Air to Dublin (5 Euros each way) and we couldn’t resist. We went straight to Couch Surfing and completely lucked out! We got Loch who has hosted over 100 guests! Loch was by far one of our sweetest hosts! He hosts on a regular basis and not only picked us up from the airport but dropped us off at 4am for our return flight as well! We wanted to just pay for a cab fare, but he insisted that he didn’t mind. He had flatmates there that weekend, but he had an air mattress for us ready to use. He took us out to meet some other CSers in town that weekend and took us out to eat at his favorite restaurants. Although we got him a thank you gift, it truly didn’t feel enough for all he had done for us. We both left leaving Dublin with great memories of the city and of his generosity.
Malta – The more the merrier
Ryan Air definitely had a hold on us that year. We found another set of tickets to Malta for 5 Euros each way. It was again so incredibly cheap that we couldn’t resist. We booked a flight to Malta and quickly realized hostels on the small country/island were ridiculously expensive! We lucked out again via CS. Jorge – originally from Spain – could host us in his guest room! Before we arrived, we found out that he had his friends from back home that would be in town the same weekend. We were almost sure he was going to have to tell us he could not longer host us. Instead, he told us to take the sofa couch/futon and he hosted all 4 of us that weekend! I say that we were completely lucky because since Jorge wanted to show his friends around Malta, we all went along! We would have had to take buses to every single stop, but Jorge drove us around practically every single place we wanted to go. Karen and I both knew how lucky we were because if he had not driven, there is no way we would have gotten to see some of the far off places we visited that most tourists never get to visit in a short trip.
Prague – If you fit in the living room…The best way to see Prague is with Martina by your side. Martina is another host that is more than generous to her guests. She was so generous in fact that we had a key to her apartment. She hosts as many people as her living room will fit! The weekend we stayed, she had 4 guests which made roaming the city that much more fun. She had the best advice on where to go, what to see, and where to eat. Although she has hosted many guests, she had never be hosted herself (since we have chatted anyway). I know that her generosity will not go unnoticed and one day, whenever and wherever she chooses to travel, there will be many people vying for her to be their guest.
Paris – One of my last CouchSurfing experiences in Europe was with my friend David in Paris! Dimitri had a beautiful apartment with an amazing dog, Ryu. Although he was really busy with work, he took the time to get to know us and have some late night chats. I was even so lucky as to be a guest for him twice! A year later, I was back in Europe and hitting Beligum. I learned that Dimitri recently moved from Paris to Brussels, and he was kind enough to host Richard and myself.
CS Take 2 – My most recent CS guest experience was with Richard. He was a CouchSurfing Virgin at the time. We only had one night in Rotterdam and stayed with some amazing Canadians! Matt and Ashley were inspired to host after they had been guests themselves. Although Matt was busy with school and Ashley was injured, they both still took the time to get to know us and we had a lovely chat our first night there. I only wish we could have extended our stay, but I am sure if they ever come to California, we will be happy to see them!
Whether or not you choose to couchsurf and be a guest or a host, definitely grab some coffee. Maybe it’s just me, but I am incredibly proud of the area I am from. I hate it when tourists get ripped off or go to restaurants that they shouldn’t or miss out on the must-sees. Spread your love for your city whether it is via an online recommendation or a cup of coffee. Check out the website and try hosting or be a guest!
It’s that simple. Any questions?