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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.