In the fall of 2012, I was traveling in Turkey and in the Istanbul for about three weeks. During this trip I was first introduced to the community and traveler's website called Couchsurfing. I had heard of it before from a friend who also enjoys traveling a lot, but had never much read into it.
One of the nights at a hostel in Istanbul, one of the hostel staff mentioned something about a get together at a local bar for travelers initiated by Couchsurfing members. I ended up going to this and it was a eye opening experience that I will never forget. For several hours that night I remember speaking with like-minded travelers from all over the world. I met some pretty awesome people, and made some great connections for future traveling and advice. When I returned from that trip, one of the first things I did was get established on Couchsurfing.
So what exactly is Couchsurfing?
Couchsurfing is a network of like-minded people who enjoy traveling and want to see and experience the world. This not only involves traveling to different countries to see places of interest, but also to experience the culture of that region and meet the people who live there. Couchsurfing offers a great ability to do both of these, and allows a traveler to do this very inexpensively. This network is pretty much offered throughout every country in the world according to the website. I did have a tough time finding anything available in North Korea though. I can only imagine its not a popular Couchsurfing destination! The about section provides even more details about what Couchsurfing is, directly from their website. http://www.couchsurfing.com/about/about-us/
Couchsurfing has many different benefits for those who love to travel. It gives you truly a first hand experience of how people in a certain country may live. I mean you are literally staying at someone's home, apartment, condo or something similar. It doesn't get much more personal than that. You are interacting with them prior to meeting up, and while you are staying with them, you likely will have interactions. This all depends of course on your host's schedule though.
Through these interactions with your host, you can learn all about their day to day lifestyle, interesting things about the city and country they live in, about the culture, different types of foods typically eaten, and more!
You can also host people from all over the world too if you have a spare bedroom or a couch that is available for people to sleep on. Hosting provides another great experience to meet people from all over the world, and learn about their country and culture, without ever leaving the comforts of your own home. You can also help them experience the area you live in by providing them with the best places to visit, foods to try, and hidden gems not many tourists may ever discover. If your schedule allows, you can also plan days to bring people you are hosting to different locations, or hang out with them. Often times some hosts who are more active in the night life scene, often like to bring their guests out for a night on the town. This sort of falls under the college age group of travelers for the most part that I mentioned earlier.
Aside from the main two functions of Couchsurfing, it is a great place to start a discussion with fellow travelers. It's online forums provide a great wealth of knowledge about traveling to specific locations, and asking for advice from locals or people who have been to a particular destination before. I have used these forums countless times to research a particular country, and ask for advice on what to do while I am there.
I have also used the forums to find fellow travelers to meet up with while I am abroad. You can find people who have similar trip itineraries who are looking to meet up, split costs, and enjoy a awesome adventure together. This works out great when you are solo traveling especially! If you are considering solo travel, check out my other blog article which can be reached by clicking here.
There are also weekly events and meet ups being held through Couchsurfing as well. This is how I got my first introduction to Couchsurfing as I mentioned earlier in this article. This can be dependent on your area you are in (typically bigger touristy cities) and if anyone is proactive in hosting and planning events. These are a great way to connect with people from all over the world as well.
Who actually does Couchsurfing?
There is no exact correct answer to who actually utilizes Couchsurfing. The one general thing typically is that most people are all passionate about travel, and meeting new people. I feel like Couchsurfing is most popular in the early 20's-mid thirties crowd, but I have seen people all the way up to their 60's on it! It is amazing the diversity of people it has attracted in its short time frame its been around (early 2000's).
Broke college students, nomadic travelers, a group of friends, couples, and even financially well off people can all be found using it. They all participate in this traveling community by using it's website, and getting that first hand unique experience provided by Couchsurfing.
I have once received an awkward message from someone who was looking for a place to stay due to family issues, which was rather odd, but aside from that I have only received messages from people looking to travel to the Twin Cities(Minnesota).
Typically, I think good portion of couchsurfers are in their twenties, and are looking to travel the world inexpensively, and or party in a specific city or region. Possibly even both.
You will find people of all ages though who are so strongly passionate about world traveling and immersing themselves in a culture that they will couchsurf no matter what age they are (of course, over 18) and how they stand financially. It truly is one of the best ways to learn about a country and its people.
Don't feel discouraged about utilizing this great website just due to your age. If you are a traveler and love meeting people, this is right up your alley. Take a chance and check it out!
What does it cost?
Essentially, Couchsurfing is FREE! This is one of the greatest aspects about this website and organization. Hosts are not technically allowed to charge you money to stay at their home. Though, it is a kind of a expectation that you provide some sort of something in exchange. After all, you are staying at someone's home for free. Perhaps it could be as simple as teaching them about your own culture, buying a token of appreciation, or cooking a popular meal from your own country for your hosts.
If you eat any of their food, use any of their hygiene products, or something similar to this, it would be a nice thing to provide replacement or do some something to show your appreciation for your host providing you these things. They may do it out of generosity, and may decline any replacement, but at least offer!
Just because it is free doesn't mean you should exploit this great community and program. Be respectful as both a host and a guest!
General rules and etiquette
Don't be an ass. This is probably rule number one. You are a guest in someone's house. Treat this as how you would behave in a guest in someone's house in your own country. Maybe be even more courteous!
Be respectful, be helpful, and most importantly, be flexible. Hosts may not be home all the time. They are not on vacation, they are still living there every day life and are most likely just hosting visitors on the side. Make solid arrangements and avoid backing out of plans if plans are made. Especially if you may need a pick up from an airport, or are planning to meet them somewhere prior to arriving at their home. Don't make them alter their schedule too much versus yours. You are the one on vacation after all!
If you utilize their bathroom, a spare bed room, a laundry facility, or kitchen, you should clean up after yourself. Don't leave messes for them to clean up. Why would someone want to host a foreign traveler at their home for free if all they do is create messes and take advantage of their hospitality and generosity?
Be trustworthy, sometimes these hosts may leave you to be by yourself in their own home, with their hard earned possessions, or they may offer you complete access to their home, with a key and all, and allow you to come and go as you please. Don't take advantage of people's good nature.
The rules and proper etiquette are pretty much self explanatory. Just be a good genuine human.
Generally, Couchsurfing works best for the solo traveler, or perhaps a couple people. Overall, it is not meant for a big group of people traveling together to stay at one host's residence. Though some hosts may be willing to allow that.
Couchsurfing is not solely about getting a free place to stay. It is about making connections and networking. It is about sharing and learning about different cultures. It is to promote traveling and befriend people from all over the world. If you are Couchsurfing, be friendly and social with your host when they are around. Learn from them, teach them things in return. Talk about your travels and ask about theirs. They will enjoy this, and likely provide you with a positive reference in the end!
Invite your host's to come visit you in your country some day. Get their contact information and stay in touch with them via Facebook or some other social media outlet. They may not ever come visit you, but least the offer is on the table if they ever want to!
I wish there wasn't a need for this addition to the article, but it is. While Couchsurfing is safe 99 times out of 100. There is always going to be bad people out there that take advantage of good people. Always do you research first about a potential host or guest. Get a good online conversation going with them ahead of actually meeting to determine if anything is fishy. Check their references. If something doesn't add up, find a different host, or decline to have them as guests.
I can't stress safety enough in today's times, there has been some pretty bad situations that have popped up all starting from Couchsurfing, though they are few and far between. Make sure to update friends or family about where you may be staying. Th is important to do while you are traveling in general. Provide them an address to where ever you may be staying.
How to get started?
Its simple. It all starts with going to the Couchsurfing website. (www.couchsurfing.com) From there it is pretty self explanatory. It's also convenient now too because you can create an account with most of your Facebook information, and quickly find your own friends who might be Couchsurfing already. That way you can befriend them on the website and then begin build your credibility and reputation. It is important to have connections that provide references for you.
Having references and friends makes you more credible as both a host and a guest. It can be tough to find people to accept you if you have a blank profile page, no friends, and no references. Hosts want to see that you are a respectful and responsible person. They want to see that you weren't a jack ass when you stayed at another host's home. It's similar to how reference checks work with employment, and how prospect employers want to see good references before hiring someone.
It is important to have a detailed profile including photos, so potential hosts and or guests know who they are contacting and dealing with. People like to be able to put a face to a name who is messaging them on Couchsurfing.
After getting your profile set to go, you just have to find your destination and begin to search for available hosts, or establish your location as a host. Most of this is explained on the website in more detail.
Don't forget you can also use this website's forums as a great networking tool to find people who will be in a specific area and may be looking to meet up with other travelers as well. And even if you may not be looking for a host, hosts in a country may just want to meet up for lunch or dinner, or just go out for drinks to share stories of traveling!
Summing things up...
Couchsurfing is a awesome organization and website to pop up in recent years for those who love to travel. It provides a inexpensive way to see the world, and a great way to make new friends across the world. For more tips on cheaper world travel, see my previous blog post focusing on inexpensive travel by clicking here.
If you enjoy traveling and meeting new and awesome people. Give it a shot. Couchsurfing is a great opportunity.
Please remember to be a respectful traveler if you are staying in a host's home. It is their home, follow their rules. Don't just use this opportunity just as a free place to stay. That's not what its about. Its about building a bigger worldwide network of travelers, and setting up connections all over the world. Help others learn about your culture, and learn about theirs at the same time.
One other organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) provides a similar experience as Couchsurfing. Except you work voluntarily on a host's farm with whatever assitance they may need. It sounds like a great program, and I intend on writing about it when I get a chance to try it out! You can find their website in the following link. http://wwoof.net/