Most savvy travelers have heard of Couchsurfing by now, but I’m still surprised by how few people I meet on the road who have used it to travel for free. If you are a budget traveler, you can’t beat this option. Even if you have all the money you need, you should be mixing some Couchsurfing in with your Airbnb and hotel stays.
I promise your trips will be better for it! So, read on if you either don’t know what it is, or would like to hear more about it from someone who has a lot of experience!
What is it?
Strangers will let you sleep in their house for free. It sounds scary to some, but I promise it isn’t. It’s just like meeting up with friends. The idea behind it is that you get to bypass the generic tourist experience by meeting locals.
The benefit to you is that it’s free and you get a unique view of the place you’re visiting. But, it is supposed to be a cultural exchange. So, you don’t just come in, drop your bags and leave. That would be really rude. You sit and share stories and a few beers or you cook dinner together.
So, hosts offer their houses to travelers and in return they get to learn about the visitors’ culture and travels.
Here are the pros:
- Travel for free.
Pretty big pro. There are a lot of trips we wouldn’t have been able to take or cities we wouldn’t have been able to visit (Dubai, Singapore) if we didn’t have Couchsurfing hosts. They have helped us make our trips longer by stretching our budget.
- You will meet amazing people!
We’ve made some lifelong friends through this website. But, even if you don’t become best buddies, you’ll still meet some inspiring people who will teach you something and introduce you to new things.
- Authentic travel experience
Your hosts will steer you away from tourist nonsense and show you places you would never find on your own. You won’t be isolated in a hotel or Airbnb. It makes your experience less like visiting a city and more like living there for a very short time.
Here are the Cons:
- Strange strangers
Sometimes people (read: men) are creepy. This has never happened to me, but I’ve heard stories. A fair amount of female travelers have stayed with a male host only to find themselves turning down his advances, sometimes to the point where they have to leave and get a hotel in order to feel safe.
This is obviously bullsh*t and if any person ever tries to use Couchsurfing for romantic gain, you should kick them in the groin and leave immediately (unless you’re into it). Make sure you report them to the website and leave a negative reference on their profile which warns other travelers. Read on below for my tips on how to best avoid this situation.
- Plans can fall through
It’s rare, but sometimes your host will cancel last minute and you have to find a new place to stay. Obviously this is inconvenient and potentially expensive. One nice thing is that other hosts will usually go out of their way to help you if someone has canceled on you.
- Monetization of the site
The site is still technically free. You can create your profile and send 10 messages a week with a free account. For most people this should be plenty, but if you find yourself in need of more messaging power, you have to pay $60 for an unlimited membership.
This move made a lot of people angry and some even started their own site based on what they believe to be the true spirit of this type of travel unencumbered by corporate stuff. It’s called Trustroots, and it’s pretty great! For more info, read my article about what it’s like to use Trustroots.
Unless you are a pretty hardcore traveler, then 10 messages should be enough. If you are a full-time traveler, digital nomad or are on a very long trip then the $60 one-time payment is actually very worth it to pay. I resisted it for a long time, but finally gave in when I realized the money I would save through the site far exceeded the fee.
Here are some tips:
- Read references
CS functions on a reference system, much like Airbnb. Always read a person’s references when deciding whether or not to write them. This is where you’ll find out what it’s really like to stay with them. I choose to only write hosts who have 5 or more references.
- Ladies pick ladies
If you’re a solo woman traveler and you want to be careful, you can choose to only stay with women.
- Screen the dudes
If you read a man’s profile carefully, you can usually tell if he’s trying to turn Couchsurfing into a dating site. I don’t write men who only have references from women even if they are all positive. They may not be creeps, but it does let me know that they are probably looking to hang with a single woman which means I would waste a lot of time by writing them a message.
- It’s all about the message
Always write a personal, detailed couch request! This will make your chances of being accepted sky rocket. Remember, the host is putting their faith in you too by letting a stranger into their house so tell them a little about yourself.
I always include a detail from their profile to let them know I bothered to read their stuff. For instance, “I see you’ve been to Cambodia, I’d love to hear about your trip!”
- Be authentic
It isn’t all about the free place to stay. Only write people you think you’d actually enjoy spending time with. Your experience with the site will be so much better if you are in it for the right reasons.
Yes, the free stay is awesome and is a huge part of it, but you need to be into the idea of meeting new people too. Don’t write someone if you don’t think you’d get along.
- Remember there is no pressure
It is perfectly acceptable to ask someone to Skype beforehand or meet up for a coffee to see if the vibe is right. Most importantly, if something is off or if you ever feel uncomfortable for any reason you can always just leave!
Why should I do this if I have enough money for my own place?
Simple: You can’t pay for the experience. No matter how many tours you go on, you’ll never get the feeling that this exchange provides.
There are a lot of things in the world that can get you down. There is hatred and violence, all of which we get 24/7 exposure to on the news. We are constantly shown reasons why we ought to be distrustful of each other, why it is safer to stay in our own little bubble.
But, Couchsurfing is a force for good. It makes you feel connected to people. It shows you that we all basically want the same things. It shows you that strangers, after a drink and a chat, aren’t strangers anymore at all. Most people are kind and good and generous. We need this reminder. It engenders more kindness.
I highly recommend that you give it a try. Couchsurfing is a way to meet awesome people and travel for free. If you have any questions about it, feel free to contact me and I would be happy to answer them for you!