How to Use Couchsurfing to See the World

What if I told you there was a different way to travel? A way to see the world outside of the hotel chains, guidebooks, and tourist traps. A way to intimately experience the real culture of everyday life. A way to connect with like-minded travelers and interact with some of the most hospitable locals you could possibly find.

Well, it's not too good to be true thanks to CouchSurfing.com. Sure, it takes some effort, a little kindness, and a dash of confidence. But let me reassure you, it's well worth it. My ultimate goal is to help take you from the “I would never do that” phase into the “huh, this might be something I should look into” phase. I hope simply to pass along just a small portion of the incredible amount of hospitality I've received from the site and the community in the last couple of months.

What exactly is Couchsurfing?
Technically, I believe it's referred to as a “hospitality exchange network”. But in reality it's a social networking site, much like Facebook or Myspace, but that focuses on enabling fellow travelers to connect, meet, and even host each other. And yes, it's free.

After becoming a member, you fill out a profile with personal information, hobbies, passions, beliefs, places you've traveled, etc… You then have the option of setting your profile to be available for advice, meeting for coffee, or even hosting others for a night or two. If you are currently traveling or planning your next adventure, you can utilize a wide variety of filters to quickly search through available host profiles.

Despite the name, it's not just for people with a literal spare “couch”. We've personally seen the term “couch” loosely defined as: air mattresses, futons, private bedrooms, random space on the floor, tents, camper vans, sleeping bags, and even completely empty houses. The potential hosts vary as much as the accommodations. All within the same area, we managed to find a crash pad for the young party crowd, a cozy farmhouse with a retired couple in their 70s, a family of eleven who live down by the beach, and a snug bunk on a 30-foot sailboat.

But wait, how can you possible trust a stranger you met online?
Security is a valid concern, and the CouchSurfing.com staff and community make it a top priority. The network features a couple different ways to verify other users:

    1. First, there is an official “verification” system. It's completely optional, but is a good way to help build confidence as both a “surfer” and a host. A small minimum donation is required to verify your name. It's currently only $25 dollars for U.S. members (My wife, Courtney, and I actually plan on donating more than that once we get a permanent address)! After verifying the name off of your credit/debit card, they send you a postcard with a code to finalize your address verification. You can easily filter people who haven't completed this process, if you so choose.

 

    1. References from previous “surfers” or hosts. After you've either hosted or stayed with another member of the site, you can leave a reference on their profile. You can leave positive or negative comments (negatives are rare), while also ranking how well you know the person. This system makes it very easy to see which members are well-loved, connected, and/or known by other members. Also, you have the option to avoid those whom may be newer to the hosting process.

 

  1. An exclusive vouching system. This simple system started with the founders “vouching” for people they personally knew and trusted. Once “vouched for”, you can continue the chain by “vouching” only those members you intimately trust. This adds yet another layer of protection to the site.

You'll also find that as you trade messages with a potential host, they will usually give you a contact number. I've established phone contact with the majority of our hosts before we've actually met. This has been a great way to help both parties feel more comfortable.

And just in case you're thinking this is just a tiny, niche site, let me shatter that quickly. According to wikipedia, “as of March 2009, [CouchSurfing] had more than 1 million members in 232 countries and territories.” It's exponential growth is no surprise to those members who have experienced all the benefits of this type of network.

Why would anyone want to “Couchsurf”?
There are tons of reasons! Yes, it is a free place to sleep. But as you can tell from the title of the post, the external benefits have been so much more valuable.

Courtney and I were able to step off a plane in Australia, without knowing a single soul, and develop several great connections within a week or two. These weren't people we met at a local bar or individuals whom we stopped for quick directions. These were families who had flung open the doors to welcome us in. They were genuinely interested in our story, our background, and our plans. They passionately shared the type of local knowledge for which you'd gladly pay a pretty penny. It was the sort of situation where you e-mail them after you've left to make sure everyone is still doing well, even though it's only been a couple weeks.

I can't imagine a better way to experience “real life” in a foreign place. Here are some of the things we've personally learned from our Couchsurfing hosts:

  • Why rugby league is better than rugby union
  • A crash course in the local public transport system
  • Which budget airlines fly the cheapest domestic routes
  • Why they put a “beetroot” on my vegetarian hamburger
  • Why New Zealand police don't carry guns (handy to know)
  • Parts of the cities where you shouldn't walk at night, let alone live in
  • The best hole-in-the-wall restaurants in the city
  • Exposure to people willing to pick you up from the airport at 2 a.m. (over 45 min away)
  • The difference in home prices and how mortgages differ
  • Why rugby union is better than rugby league (not the other way around)
  • How the interview process is usually conducted
  • The difference in public school philosophies from ex-teachers
  • How rental leases and holiday-letting work
  • Why no one would put gravy on their “biscuits” (a.k.a. cookies)
  • How one cricket match can last 5 days in a row
  • The secluded beaches that have 10% of the tourists and twice the beauty
  • Why you really don't want to “root” for the home team in Australia/New Zealand

The price for all of these experiences and lessons? A couple nights of volunteering to do dishes and the willingness to share stories about ourselves. How's that for value?

I should also mention that hosting/surfing isn't the only way to utilize the network. Even if you already have accommodation, you can leverage the website to find locals willing to answer questions, meet for dinner, or even take you on a day tour of the city. There's truly something for every type of traveler.


Doing work while couchsurfing can be an adventure!

 

Tips on finding fantastic hosts
There are a couple of basics that contributed to my family being able to having truly amazing experiences even with limited experience. Here are some suggestions to get you out of the gate:

    1. Spend quality time on filling out your profile honestly! This is by far the biggest tip I can give you. Regular users of any social networking site can tell you that it's fairly easy to spot authentic people from just a couple seconds browsing their profile. Other members will want to host you because they would like to meet you, not because having strangers around is fun.

 

    1. Put up as many pictures as you can! You can actually filter people out who don't have profile pictures, which is something I always do. It's hard to establish trust if people can't put a face to your name. Double points if you put previous picture of you with other couchsurfers!

 

    1. Utilize the filters when searching for hosts! If you need a host quickly, limited your options to those who are “Yes” or “Definitely” hosting at the current time. If you are planning more in advance, you may want to include “Maybes” or “Meet for coffee” status. You can also exclude unverified members, those without pictures, or those who haven't been “vouched” for. You can even sort by gender or age limits. I have to admit, that since we travel with our 14-month old daughter, I usually search for other families with a minimum age of 25 or 30. I also sort the entries by the “most recent log-in date” to show the most active members towards the top.

 

    1. Completely read the profile and references of potential hosts! You'll want to review the type of accommodation they are offering, in addition to their hobbies, interests, and past experiences. Do their previous guests leave long, genuine references or simply “they were nice… we enjoyed our stay”. Do your best to ensure that you and the host would be a good fit. The more time you spend in this phase the better the experience will be once you get there!

 

  1. Reference parts of the host's profile when requesting to “surf”! Once you've located a potential host, it's time to message them. Once again, it pays to be thorough in your request. I've talked to many hosts who say they often get one-sentence messages! How can you possibly expect to connect with someone like that? Instead, impress hosts by including a section about yourself (even if you copy it from your profile) and why you would like to meet them specifically. Do you both love fishing? Maybe you'd like to learn more about scuba diving and they are an instructor. Maybe you'd always wanted to experience farm-life in rural New Zealand. Be thorough and eliminate any concerns they may have ahead of time!

Hopefully, you can start to get the feeling for how amazing the Couchsurfing experience has been for my family. We are exploring staying in New Zealand even longer and have now entered into cheap flatmate situation with one of our Couchsurfing hosts. They've even offered to let us house sit for free when they visit Canada for a month in August. This is yet another benefit of tapping into this amazing community. Honestly, I can't think of any way I'd rather travel!

What are your thoughts on Couchsurfing? Any additional tips for new users? Would it be something you would ever consider?

Photo by striatic.

More about...Frugality, Travel

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Justin Philips
Justin Philips
11 years ago

How willing are host families with regard to children?

Mrs. Money
Mrs. Money
11 years ago

What a great overview! This is definitely something I will look into now. 🙂

Jason
Jason
11 years ago

Nice article. I would guess you also need to tell your potential host that you are bringing your child(ren)? As a parent, I’d certainly not want to impose my brood on someone who wasn’t ready for them, and I’d not want to host someone who wasn’t ready for a house with children.

I like the vouching system idea, as well.

Lucas
Lucas
11 years ago

good post on CS. Couchsurfers were our lifeboat when we moved from Seattle to Melbourne, and we learned quite a bit straight away thanks to them. I’ve seen a few articles, but this one really captures the spirit of how things are intended to work.

One thing to add: a lot of hosts resent folks who use the site for free accommodation and disregard the cultural/knowledge exchange element that keeps the true believers involved.

Kosmo @ The Casual Observer
Kosmo @ The Casual Observer
11 years ago

This sounds like a very cool concept. If I was single, I’d probably try it. I sincerely doubt that I could convince my wife, though 🙂

Erin
Erin
11 years ago

Yay! As the CS ambassador to Costa Rica, I am so happy to see this post. You’ve hit the nail on the head — CS offers a free place to sleep, but its real value is in the people you meet. I’ve hosted dozens of surfers (only surfed once), and have learned so much about the world though them. Thank you for highlighting the true meaning of CS, and showing people how to get the most out of this wonderful community.

Lea Woodward
Lea Woodward
11 years ago

Great post Adam with some really practical advice.

As someone who is location independent & travels a lot, I’ve always been a bit reluctant to try this – but from your post and hearing of your experiences on your blog/Twitter makes me think it could be worthwhile for at least a night or two!

I’d also be interested in the willingness of hosts to host those with children/babies…

Erin
Erin
11 years ago

To answer the above questions about family hosting, some hosts are perfectly willing, while others are not. When you request a couch, you’ll answer a few standard questions (when do you arrive? how many in your party?), and then you’re asked to write a short note. In the note, you should obviously explain that you have kids. Some hosts will state in their profile that they are a CS family and prefer to host other families — you may want to start there. Additionally, there is a new Family Ambassador designation. These ambassadors represent “multiple people” profiles, as in, one… Read more »

Ryan Stackhouse
Ryan Stackhouse
11 years ago

Great post Baker. I like your site as well. Thanks for the great tips on Couchsurfing. I love to travel and have never explored this option. Something else to add to my list of definite “to do’s.”

I’m also curious how traveling and Couchsurfing works when you have children. Looking forward to your follow up posts!

Cheers!

Russ
Russ
11 years ago

No, it’s not something I’d ever consider. I find travelling a chore at the best of times, but this just sounds creepy. Sorry if that sounds blunt, but there it is. *shudder*

Amber
Amber
11 years ago

You can read more details of his adventures on his Man Vs Debt blog – http://manvsdebt.com/ He is traveling with his young daughter and they have been hosted by families that also have children. Honestly, my first reaction was that it sounded a bit out of my comfort zone, but this post and his other descriptions have made me want to give it a try. It seems like a great way to meet locals and get a real taste of another place that you wouldn’t get by traveling on your own. I especially like the idea that you can just… Read more »

Eugene Krabs
Eugene Krabs
11 years ago

So JD, when do I get to come over? 😀

Tyler@FrugallyGreen
11 years ago

I can “vouch” for couchsurfing. My girfriend and I spent two months in Europe last summer and stayed in hostels for less than 1 week total. The rest of the time was spent in the homes of either exchange friends of mine from high school or extremely awesome couchsurfing hosts. It was an amazing time that allowed us not only to significantly lower the cost of our trip, but to make real, valuable connections with people that we still talk to today. And the exposure to a local in a foreign place is a fantastic resource as they’re always willing… Read more »

guinness416
guinness416
11 years ago

Hey, interesting post and comment from Tyler. I’ve been thinking of doing this for a while from the hosting side (I like my hotel rooms at this stage of my life when travelling).

But rugby union is indeed far, far, far superior to league. You were led astray the first time on that one. Sorry.

CC
CC
11 years ago

I learned about Couch Surfing a few years ago when I was traveling a lot. It seemed like such an amazing experience, and I was fascinated in it at the time. Since then, though, I’ve let my membership lapse, and I started listening to the less travel-savvy people around me who thought it was a little dangerous and weird.

This post has stirred me to start looking into it again. In fact, my boyfriend is in the process of planning a trip to Europe with some friends, and I’m going to recommend they read this post before they go.

Sara A.
Sara A.
11 years ago

Am I the only one interested in the abovementioned differences between US and antipode mortgages?

Todd @ Personal Finance Playbook
Todd @ Personal Finance Playbook
11 years ago

I’ve been hearing about couchsurfing for a while now. It sounds like a really cool and interesting program. One of the comments above mentioned that he wasn’t sure his wife would go for it. I’m the same way. My wife is very frugal, but draws some lines when I get too creative. It’s something I’m going to consider pitching to her, though.

Great post.

Libby
Libby
11 years ago

Couch surfing is something I have done throughout my life, but not through any organization:) I have often relied on family and friends and friends of friends for a place to stay while wandering the globe. I am glad there is a group now trying to connect people in this manner as it definitely helps to have a local show you how to get places more easily than any guidebook will ever show you. I am definitely recommending the Couch Surfing site to my friends as they prepare to travel to San Diego for visits – especially for those that… Read more »

Jeff
Jeff
11 years ago

I can 100% vouch for Couch Surfing as well. Did it in Denmark, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands last Summer. It was so much better than our nights in the hostels (crammed 12-18 deep in a room)! Plus it gives you a true local perspective of the city rather than digging through guide books and maps.

Do this for life experience, not the monetary savings.

Baker @ ManVsDebt
Baker @ ManVsDebt
11 years ago

Hey gang, Thanks for the great feedback thus far! I wanted to help answer a few questions: As Erin & Amber pointed out, there are plenty of great potential hosts for families. Our daughter is now 15-months old and we’ve stayed with 6 different host families now in the last 2 months. All, but 2 of these were other families with children, as well! Everyone that I’ve had contact with has details about their children directly within their profiles. I like to include details about Milligan in the introductory message I send to host families, as well. Some people will… Read more »

HollyP
HollyP
11 years ago

Love this. Can’t wait for my kids to grow up so I can travel on my own & try this.

@Sara: there was a GRS post on antipode mortgages last year, I believe.

J. Money
J. Money
11 years ago

Another great post Senor Baker! Keep it up my man, I hope you get the gig 😉

Ophelie
Ophelie
11 years ago

Very cool. I wonder how it works when hosts have to be out of the house all day. Do you give a key to the couchsurfers? Do you arrange to meet up after work? We finally have a small guest room, and I think it would be pretty cool to host people.

Kylee
Kylee
11 years ago

First things first. Rugby Union is far far superior to Rugby League. A hamburger isn’t a hamburger without beetroot. Thansk, that had to be said. As a couchsurfer myself (and a New Zealander living in the USA), I have to say I recommend it highly. When I was single and travelling alone, I couchsurfed with NO problems. You can specify female only hosts, and all manner of different criteria to ensure security. It’s a fabulous way to see the world on a shoestring and benefit from the wonderful locals in the places you visit. You couldn’t PAY for such an… Read more »

Dave
Dave
11 years ago

Seems like I find you everywhere these days. Great article. I have yet to take that leap….I am still stuck in the hostel mentality. The sad thing is all I have heard are good things. Suggestion while down in NZ and Aussie: Pick up Sleeping Around. It follows an Aussie writer on his journey around the world through couchsurfing. Great book!!!

Well wishes….
Dave

Kate
Kate
11 years ago

This is a really interesting idea. I think that for some vacations it would work better than others. I’m planning a honeymoon and I think that we’ll prefer a hotel stay or house rental for the privacy. But I’m definitely going to keep this in mind for future travels when we’re much more interested in seeing new places. I also think that if I was traveling to a place where English wasn’t the standard language, I would love the opportunity to stay with locals. It might make it less intimidating. I also wonder if it’s possible to sort by profession?… Read more »

PT Money
PT Money
11 years ago

Excellent overview of the concept. Seems like a nice adventure you’re having. This is totally something I should have done more of when I was single. I can’t see my wife going for it now though. I’m a bit more flex than her.

MoneyEnergy
MoneyEnergy
11 years ago

Nice job. I’ve “couchsurfed,” before I knew there even was a website that did that…. it was in Australia, too – and parts of U.S. and Canada. Would be interesting to learn more about age and couchsurfing – it is just young 20-somethings, and what range is there for older groups doing this (less, I’m sure, but would there still be some?)?

Matt
Matt
11 years ago

I’ve never surfed however my girlfriend does and I have met some awesome people who have stayed at her house. We usually become friends afterwards and while we don’t stay in touch very often they are all just an email away. It is great to have a network of friends all across the world when you are planning major trips!

Mike
Mike
11 years ago

Hello All,
I can completely vouch for the couchsurfing project…
In fact, I just got back from couchsurfing through Oman, Lebanon, and Syria, and had some of the best travel experiences ever…

My hosts fed me more food than I could possibly eat, introduced me to their friends, took me to parties, bought me tea, and much more. If you have some confidence, an attitude towards sharing, and offer to help out your host around the house, you’ll find you get to meet lots of people and experience lots off the regular tourist track.

Torrey
Torrey
11 years ago

The first thing that comes to my mind when I read about this is creepy! But then, once the initial shock wears off, I think it would be a great opportunity to see the world and save money.

Many people want to become more cultured and see new things, so that is yet another viable alternative for them.

I can’t say whether I’d do this today. Maybe 10 years ago, though

John Bardos - JetSetCitizen
John Bardos - JetSetCitizen
11 years ago

This seems like a great idea, but one bad experience can go really bad. I would love the opportunity to get connections with natives in foreign countries, however I don’t know if I trust the situation 100%. If I was traveling alone, I wouldn’t have any hesitations. But for my wife and I, I don’t know.

Anyone had any problems couchsurfing?

Bible Money Matters
Bible Money Matters
11 years ago

This is the first I’ve ever heard of this concept, and it truly is an interesting idea. I’m not sure my wife would go for it, but I think the benefits of having a friendly face in a foreign place would be worth it to me. Someone who can give you all the inside info..

Great post!

Foxie@CarsxGirl
11 years ago

Hey, if it works well for travel… I’ll have to look into it for the European tour trip I’d like to start planning. Wouldn’t be for a while yet, but my husband and I would like to cut the travel costs down so we can do the fun things we want. (All car-related, so fairly expensive too.) If I ever live in an interesting area and have some spare room, I’d totally let people crash at my place, too. 🙂 I’m really going to have to look into this. Even the travels I’d like to do around the states would… Read more »

Gustavo Bonato
Gustavo Bonato
11 years ago

The idea is interesting and the post have changed my mind from “I would never do that” to “huh, this might be something I should look into”.

Hey, J.D.: when you have guest posts, the authors name should appear below the title, and not “(by J.D.)”

SpecialFXLady
SpecialFXLady
11 years ago

I absolutely LOVE couchsurfing. I’ve been a member for about 4 years now.

My boyfriend and I combined profiles when we moved in together.

We’ve hosted some very interesting people over the years. For people who don’t feel comfortable staying at someone’s place or having a stranger in yours – you can set your profile for ‘coffee or a drink’ which means you’re willing to hang out for coffee or dinner or to play tour guide. You can make whatever you want of the site. Choose your own adventure!

Studenomics
Studenomics
11 years ago

Hmm sounds interesting so far. I have only tried the all inclusive option down south but would love to travel somewhere new for once. I would absolutely love the idea of staying with other folks that are the same age as me.

Wendy H
Wendy H
11 years ago

You know I started this article with an attitude of “Sounds neat but definitely wouldn’t work for my family” to “I should show this to my husband and we could give it a try sometime”. Thanks for broadening my horizons!

Kevin@OutOfYourRut
11 years ago

Baker–Not to throw cold water on the party here, but how does this square with the folks at the Internal Revenue Service, who might conceivably view this as some sort of barter exchange?

Have there been any issues or challenges that you or anyone else might be aware of?

Michael
Michael
11 years ago

I lived in Hong Kong for several years, and as a result of living among the ex-pat community there had the chance to meet many people from all places around the world. I now live in a tiny little backwater of a place (Tybee Island, GA) where world travelers are a bit more rare, tho it is surprising how many Europeans and Asians i have met here! At any rate, i miss the daily interactions with such diverse people, and you BET i’ll be checking into this further. Thanks, Baker, for sharing, and JD – yours is one of the… Read more »

kat
kat
11 years ago

I heard about this a few years ago and spent some time poking around on the site. I’m intrigued by it and think it would be really fun, and know people who do it (both host and travelers) but I (sadly) have to agree with the person above who said it was out of their comfort zone. I have concerns about it not only as a petite female, but as an introvert who doesn’t always have an easy time “connecting” with new people — it sounds like it could very easily be super-awkward. I did think about hosting, but my… Read more »

Matt Jabs
Matt Jabs
11 years ago

First let me say… kudos to the Baker’s for doing what a lot of us DREAM of doing – throwing caution to the wind and setting off on globe trotting super adventure! Also, how cool to be able to share your experiences… thanks a ton for sharing. Secondly, you have motivated me. My wife & I have a trip coming up in two weekends. We are going to the Adirondacks and were considering renting a cabin or a Yurt… instead I’m going to talk my wife into couchsurfing. WHEN she gets skeptical, I’ll take her straight to GRS & this… Read more »

Craig
Craig
11 years ago

I am a big fan of traveling and although never have personally used the service, have known people who have used it with great success. Really helps you meet people and get to know the locals better, and save money.

EscapeVelocity
EscapeVelocity
11 years ago

I’ve been thinking of doing this when I go to New Zealand, which I’m planning to do in a few years. Seems like it might be a little less awkward than “friends of people you don’t actually know all that well,” which I have done some, not to mention “relatives who live in the middle of nowhere and watch TV from supper until bedtime”.

Is that pickled beetroot? Sliced? I suppose if you’re eating a hamburger, one stain more or less isn’t really a big deal.

Dustin
Dustin
11 years ago

Posts like this are what keep me coming back to personal finance blogs when I get a bit bored with the financial side of things. This sounds like a great way to travel AND save much needed cash. What a great post Baker, and keep ’em coming!

Kevin M
Kevin M
11 years ago

Great summary of Couchsurfing. I’m vacationed out for this year, but I’ll definitely keep it in mind for our next trip. Convincing the wife may be an issue though, as others have mentioned.

Glen Allsopp
Glen Allsopp
11 years ago

Baker has quickly became one of my favourite bloggers and clearly a favourite of many more. His writing is always personal but relevant, I like this post as well.

I’m going travelling in a few months and have no set destinations so I like the idea of this. Safety is a small concern, but besides that, I think it’s a feasible option for the future!

Thanks!

SS4BC
SS4BC
11 years ago

Great post!

One of my good friends is huge into Couchsurfing. He always has someone at his place (in the Netherlands) and used the network to go all over Europe for just the cost of food and train tickets.

I’ve always been skeptical as a single female as to the safety concerns. And personally just feel safer staying in hostels, but if I were part of a couple or staying with female hosts I would be fine with it. =)

penelope
penelope
11 years ago

im sorry but i wouldnt try that couchsurfing thing

Baker @ ManVsDebt
Baker @ ManVsDebt
11 years ago

Wow, thanks for all the great comments! I’m ecstatic that some of you are up for considering it after reading the post. That was my goal! Also, it’s neat to hear all the other CS’ing experience. It amazing me how positive it’s been for everyone I’ve talked to. @Ophelie – Everytime we’ve been in an extended situation, they’ve just given us a spare set of keys. However, some people only host on weekends for example if this is going to be an issue or have a stay-at-home spouse, etc… It’s case-by-case really. @MoneyEnergy – There are two distinct groups really.… Read more »

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