Do you love to travel, but barely have enough money to buy two-minute noodles and tea for the week? I do – I am always on a shoestring budget and planning my next trip anyway.
That’s what Couchsurfing is for. When I was traveling around Europe, I signed on to Couchsurfing and used the platform to meet expats in Germany, to stay in countries I could catch a 15$ flight to with Ryanair, and explore places in a totally unique way, with locals.
Here’s how you can too! If you’re a little confused about what couchsurfing is, we’ve got you covered. We’ll explore what to look for and what to avoid, and all the fun stuff in between.
What is couchsurfing?
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Couchsurfing is a new take on a very old ‘broke traveler’ experience – to sleep on someone’s couch so that you have a roof over your head while traveling somewhere. Usually, it’s someone you know or a friend of a friend.
Now, (since 2007) there’s a site for it, where you can search the place you’re going to and find dozens, often hundreds of hosts who are happy to have you come sleep on their couch, or spare bed, for free.
Hosts often do it to meet new and interesting people and share experiences with like-minded or totally radical people. It’s also a really great way to explore your own area through a new pair of eyes.
Hosts often take their guests around town and enjoy it as much as the travelers do.
Do people still couch surf?
They do! Some people say the Couchsurfing community is dying because of a ‘freeloader mentality’ rather than the original idea of reciprocity and respect. But I disagree. It’s not as popular as it was five years ago, but it still has lots to offer.
Every experience I have had has been a positive, reciprocal one. An opportunity to experience the local culture first hand and get to know interesting people. And while the freeloader mentality can be an issue, it’s possible to separate the good from the bad. There are still many members looking for the real experience.
The Couchsurfing app says ‘You have friends around the world, you just haven’t met them yet’. And I’m inclined to agree with them!
The benefit of couch surfing Europe is that most places are safe, and have many hostels as a back-up plan in case things go wrong. European couchsurfers usually also have a lot of experience on the site, hosting travelers often, and are open-minded and fun!
Avoid profiles that have never been reviewed – there are handy Couchsurfing reviews which you can use to thank someone for a great time, or flag them for a negative experience.
It’s tough for hosts starting on Couchsurfing because of the need for reviews, but hosts can also get references as guests or friends, and build their profile that way. Because an empty or an unreviewed profile is a red flag.
Another red flag – unless you’re into it – is a profile which says something along the lines of ‘I only have one bed, but you’re welcome to share’, or ‘no couch but an open mind’. These characters are usually using the site as a hookup platform, which some surfers do too, so they can find each other. If this isn’t what you’re looking for, steer clear of these kinds of profiles.
Couchsurfing dangers: Is couchsurfing safe?
Couchsurfing dangers are actually few and far between, but there are always concerns about being kidnapped, or sexually harassed, especially for women. There’s also a possibility that after confirming your visit, a host will just not pitch up, or leave out their address, and you land in town with nowhere to go.
This doesn’t happen often, but it can. I always keep enough cash for a hostel and the address of one or two places to stay, in case my host flakes. So, as with all traveling, keep your wits about you and come prepared.
If you still have concerns, travel with a buddy. When I couch surf I usually do it with my sister/s. Hosts specify how many people they’re willing to take in, and it’s usually more than one. So, if you feel that traveling in packs is safer, do so! It can be more fun too.
How does Couchsurfing work?
If you want to join Couchsurfing, you can use the couchsurfing website or download the app and build a profile. This includes a description of what your interests are, where in the world you’ve been, what you can contribute to the experience and one amazing thing you’ve done. You should also add some photographs of fun times so people can get a feel for your character.
Once your profile is complete, you can search for people in the area you want to visit and look through their profiles. You can find hosts in most parts of the world – my mum once hosted young foreigners in Oudtshoorn, a tiny town in the semi-desert of South Africa and a six-hour drive from any international airport. Hosts are everywhere.
I would suggest you message quite a few people, and with a personal message linking to something in their profile. This makes hosts feel like you want to stay with them because you find them interesting, not just because you need a free place to sleep.
Often people are unavailable for the period you’re looking at or are already hosting someone, or just aren’t keen. So message a few people!
Is Couchsurfing free?
Yes, couch surfing is free! It’s all about connecting people and helping low-budget travel. It’s always nice to bring a gift, something local to your country or city. But if you’ve been on the road for a while and have nothing to give, it isn’t a problem.
Sometimes I just bring my charming self, and everyone is happy. As long as you can make the experience worthwhile for your host, they’ll be happy they welcomed you in.
More than just free accommodation
The first time I tried couch surfing it was with my sister in Corfu, Greece. The man we stayed with, quite a bit older than us but charming and fun, bought us food and drinks every night and gave us the bed to sleep in while he took the couch because he was shorter than us and our legs stuck off.
He left us with a key to his house while he went to work, and we would sit with coffee and breakfast, and watch the activity at the docks before we set off on our adventures.
He and his friend took us around the whole island on their motorbikes. We even got to see a traditional Greek wedding in the mountains, beautiful ruins, and an incredible restaurant nestled in the mountains, which only a local could find.
It was a fantastic experience, and he, in turn, had people to come home to for a few days, to get to know and have fun experiencing Corfu with.
When we left, he kissed us each on the cheek and said ‘come back whenever you want’. If he ever comes to Cape Town, we’ll host him, and show him all the best places.
Final thoughts on couchsurfing
It’s fun to make friends around the world. So whether you’re interested in meeting new people and sharing your home, your culture, and interests, or in experiencing new places on a shoestring budget, give it a try!
It’s a wholly unique and often life-changing experience, and one of the greatest ways to travel.