Using the CouchSurfing website, particularly in more expensive places such as New York or Paris, can save you a lot of money. So far on this trip around the world, it’s saved me at least a few hundred dollars in lodging costs, and it’s introduced me to interesting people from the places I’ve visited in the process. If you want to try it out, here are some tips:
- Philosophy: Don’t be skeezy. Don’t be a mooch. If you’re joining CouchSurfing, be willing to host people and actually do so. If you’re staying with someone, expect to spend a reasonable amount of time hanging out with that person — but, conversely, you should be ready to be independent because this person’s life does not revolve around you. Above all, be flexible and open-hearted, and listen a lot. If you have 20 sites you need to visit per day or you hate talking to strangers, CouchSurfing is not for you. If you need to be in control of your environment, it’s also not for you. CouchSurfing is about connecting with different cultures in new and interesting ways more than it is about getting a free place to stay.
- Contacting potential hosts: Try to find people who have a lot in common with you and who haven’t been worn out on hosting people. Propose a kind of cultural trade if it’s appropriate, such as cooking for them if you are a decent cook in your country. Strike up some kind of comradarie before you arrive at this person’s house — consider becoming friends on Facebook, for example.
- Communication: Be straightforward and do not use euphemistic phrases. For example, I once told someone who said he could host me for two nights that I had a host for Monday, but asked if we could we meet up Tuesday evening. He thought I meant meet up only, like for coffee, and made other plans for the couch. Say what you mean as politely as possible and as clearly as possible, particularly if there is a language barrier.
- Planning: Have a phone that is capable of texting in the country you’re visiting. Short of that, have Viber or Whattsapp or whatever your host uses for internet-based texting. Set up a meeting time and place before you arrive. A café close to their house where you can get online is a good option if neither of you are rushed. Be on time and find a way to tell them if you’re running late.
- Manners: Bring a small gift to establish your non-mooch status, preferably from your own country and obviously of decent quality. Personalize this as much as possible, but typically good chocolate and small bottles of alcohol make universal gifts (unless, obviously, the person does not drink alcohol or eat chocolate for one reason or another). Clean up after yourself and all the other normal human things you’re supposed to do with housemates.
- Safety: Stay with hosts who have good references from other travelers, and have a back-up plan you could execute on your own, such as going into the city center and finding a hostel. Don’t stay with anyone whose house can only be accessed by car unless you have a car and are fit to drive. If you have a bad experience, tell CouchSurfing about it. And, obviously, the police if necessary.
- Comfort: If you’re uncomfortable, there’s no reason you have to stay as long as you said you would. Plans change. But be polite if it’s for sanitation or cultural reasons, even if you’re leaving because there are flies all over the kitchen. Don’t mention the flies all over the kitchen.
- Flexibility: Your proposed hosts’ plans may also change. Remember, they don’t owe you a place to stay. Be understanding. If you need a 100% sure plan, CouchSurfing is not for you.
- Experience: As I have found, you may have a great experience, or you may have a less than stellar one. It’s a bit hard to predict which will be which, though you can always try contacting previous guests and asking specific questions if you’re curious.