In this post I’m going to discuss the ins and outs of couchsurfing. We will look at Why I think every traveler should couchsurf, How to couchsurf when you’re traveling and how to Host when you’re at home. Additionally, I’ll discuss how to Stay Safe while couchsurfing and I’ll give some examples of awesome experiences I’ve had myself.
The first thing I would like to say about couchsurfing is that it’s not just about a free place to stay. Rather, it’s a worldwide network of people who can help to make your stay in each place something you will never forget.
My First Couchsurfing Experience
I signed up to Couchsurfing in the Czech Republic on the 24th of December 2013. I was staying with my friend Jana and had traveled across from London staying with friends along the way. After Czech Republic I didn’t know anyone, and since I previously heard about this couchsurfing thing I decided to sign up. I sent some requests and got an offer from a French dude living in Oświęcim, Southern Poland. I stayed with him and the following day went through to Krakow where I planned to stay 2 nights before heading south to Slovakia.
I went to my first Couchsurfing meet up that night. The meeting was at a bar with about 40 other couchsurfers. I met all these awesome Polish people who invited me to meet the next day, and the day after. One week later I left Krakow with amazing memories. Because of that experience, Poland is still one of my top 4 favorite countries. Long story short, Poland is where I learned to couchsurf.
On another notable occasion, in Alaska, Graceie and I hosted Mark, a couchsurfer, at our house three times with his friends before we even met him. We were working crazy hours on a Salmon fishing boat. We told them they could come and go as they please and left the door unlocked. They would arrive after we went to sleep and we would leave before they woke up. On his 3rd visit it was our day off and we went salmon fishing for the day and caught 12 salmon together with his friends who actually were couchsurfers he was hosting at his home and brought down to go fishing. One of those couchsurfer friends was Jon from Australia. Jon came and visited my home in New Zealand the next year. To wrap up this crazy story, we stayed at Mark’s house in Anchorage a year later after our trip Sailing The North West Passage while he was away in Germany. In general, couchsurfing is full of trustworthy and friendly people.
How I Use Couchsurfing
When I travel, the most important thing to me is meeting people along the way, whether it be locals or fellow travelers.
I don’t usually stay with people. Instead I send people a message and meet up for drinks or to explore. Usually, I like to meet local people but sometimes exploring a city with another traveler is fun as well.
A lot of my best travel experience started with a couchsurfing meeting. For example, at a couchsurfing meeting in Istanbul I met my best friend and partner for 3 years, Graceie. We met at the Istanbul couchsurfing weekly meet-up and she was sick of being hit on by Turkish men, so she came to talk to me. We met again the next day and she invited me to go with her to Greece. Luckily we were both drifting in the same direction and so decided to hitchhike from Greece to Barcelona via the Balkan countries. 3 years later we have traveled together to over 30 countries, sailed in the Arctic and Greenland, worked in the Southern Ocean and had many other adventures.
Check my post Selfies With Locals In Asia for more photos of people met through Couchsurfing
How it works and why it is so trustworthy.
Anyone can make a profile couchsurfing, so what makes this safe is the references people leave on each other. After two couchsurfers meet, it’s recommended they leave references for each other. These are public for everyone to see. Before meeting or hosting a fellow chouchsurfer, you should always read up on their references to make sure they are trustworthy. Additionally, you can read their personal profile to learn more them and to see their photos.
Couchsurfing is NOT a dating website.
Some people use couchsurfing as more of a dating website and a way to meet romantically. I’ve frequently heard New York couchsurfing being described specifically as such. This is not the idea of couchsurfing. Anything can happen when 2 people meet but its better for everyone if the main idea behind couchsurfing is to bring together travelers and locals. (There are plenty of other websites for dating).
How to start.
1. Make yourself a profile
Go to Couchsurfing.com and make yourself a profile. Try to fill in as much information as possible about yourself. Upload some of your best photos. Tell some of your best stories and favorite experiences. This is your chance to make people like you while being as honest and truthful as possible.
2.Find Hosts or Travellers in a city you want to visit
At the top of the Couchfurfing webpage you can search for members, hosts, other travelers and events in a specific city. Events are a great way to start if you’re not confident to stay with someone right away. Most cities in the world will have a weekly meet up where all travelers and locals are invited. This can start from 3-4 people getting together for a beer in a small city and evolve to 200-300 people meeting for a BBQ in Central Park, New York. The biggest event I’ve attended had 1000 couchsurfers in a club in Milan, Italy, for The Carnival.
What to look for on someone’s profile before sending a request.
Make sure the Person has a complete profile, photos, and a personal description.
On the “Personal Overview” it tells you if the person’s profile is complete. It’s not essential to be 100 percent complete but it does tell you how much effort they have put in.
Read the person’s interests, philosophy, current mission, about me, and countries visited.
Here you can read about the person and see if you want to meet them or not. Maybe you find some common interests that will make for an interesting connection. You can also use these to make your request/message to them more personal.
Check to see if they have references and friends.
Read their references. Look at the person leaving the reference. Make sure there are references from both guys and girls, and people from different countries. Don’t trust someone with references from just their home town! Remember – friends can write references for each other to make their profiles “look better,” but these can’t be trusted very much. If there are neutral or negative references read them and seriously consider not meeting this person. I think its best to only meet people with at least 2 references from other travelers. Sometimes you can’t find people with lots of references so just be very smart and schedule to first meet in a public place.
Friends don’t mean very much. No one has to leave a reference to become someone’s friend. However, if they have lots of friends then they are probably experienced couchsurfers and therefore are more trustworthy.
Look at their Photos.
Don’t judge a book by its cover…but it certainly is nice to see what a person looks like. Trust your gut feelings. Remember what they look like for when you meet.
Check when their last login was and make note of their response rate.
If they haven’t logged in for more than a month then there’s probably not much point sending a request because chances are you won’t receive a response. Same thing goes for their response rate. If it’s below 30 percent you may not get a response unless you send an awesome request.
How to send a couch request or message.
Some people in busy cities will get over 50 requests a day. So unless your request is AMAZING you won’t get a reply.
Make your message/request personal.
As a general rule no one replies to messages that seem like they have been copied and pasted a bunch of times. Read up on the person’s interests, profile, countries visited and so on to find some common interests or something to comment on. Describe yourself and make them want to meet you. I always list a couple of my amazing/favorite experiences. I’ve learned that if I mention that I’ve been to Antarctica I’m about 50 percent more likely to get a reply!
To make it easy to send requests I have a rough template with my story and experiences that I can copy and paste to start. To that template, I always write another section about why I want to meet that person. I take a few minutes to comment on a country we have both traveled to, a mutual interest, or something amazing they have done.
Send lots of messages.
Most people live a busy life and won’t always have time to host, meet-up, or even reply. Keep your options open by messaging lots of people.
Recently before going to Bangkok I sent 10 messages and got 2 very short basic replies. I sent 15 more messages and got 10 positive replies! So many that I didn’t get to meet everyone in a week.
Try to be specific with your dates.
Most people have a tight schedule. Try to let them know when you will be in their city. I struggle with this because I don’t travel with a set timetable, and sometimes choose to hitchhike, so it’s very hard to know when I’ll be arriving. Do your best. Some of the best couchsurfing hosts will host 1 or 2 people every day and will have a calendar with a schedule of who they are hosting weeks ahead.
Send requests ahead of time.
Again, unfortunately this is also not something I’m good at but if you know where you’re going to be ahead of time send your requests out early. If you want to be hosted in any large touristy city like New York, London, Paris, Hong Kong or smaller busy backpacker towns then you might have to send requests out 1-2 months in advance to have hope of getting a host.
Meeting someone for the first time.
So – you have sent some messages, had some replies and they have agreed to meet or host you! Before you meet:
Add them on Facebook.
There is no better way to get to know someone than to check out their Facebook. It’s my number one tip to help you understand if you trust someone. Look at their photos and make sure their Facebook and cousurfing profiles match. In Laos I recently decided not to meet someone after adding them on WeChat (a social app in Asia). The person’s profile and pictures didn’t match between Couchsurfing and WeChat, so I decided to follow my instincts and go with someone else.
Read their profile again and look at their photos.
Remind yourself who they are and look at their photos to help you recognize them at your meeting place. Sometimes it’s very busy and travelers don’t always have WIFI or Data connection to message if lost and can’t find each other.
Decide on a public meeting place.
Try to never meet at your home or accommodation. Instead always try to meet in a busy public place. This way you can get to know the person before you are alone with them. No one is ever going to try anything dodgy in a public place. If you feel comfortable then you can continue to their home if they are hosting you or to a bar for a drink or whatever you have planned. If you don’t feel comfortable, this is a great time to tell them you don’t want to continue with the meeting and leave.
Make sure to add your references after you have met someone new.
This is an important part of the circle. It helped you to read references, so make sure to do your part by adding an honest reference to help the next person.
It’s especially important to ask the first couple of people you host or meet to write you a reference. There’s a lot of people who won’t look at your profile until you have references.
Always have a plan B.
If someone offers to host you I recommend always having an alternate plan just in case things get uncomfortable, creepy or untrustworthy. Know where to find a hostel or hotel if you need it. Maybe screenshot the address on your phone so you can tell a taxi driver if need be.
Hosting someone is a great way to meet like minded travelers when you’re not traveling yourself. If you couchsurf when you’re travelling it’s also nice to give back to others as people have given to you.
Hosting is much the same as being hosted. Check their references and profile to ensure they are trustworthy. Remember that you are letting this person into your home so you have to have complete trust.
Don’t be self conscious about your house or apartment.
Remember that it’s a free place to stay so don’t be too self conscious. The main thing is that you put your self out there to give shelter to fellow travelers. I’ve slept on floors, couches, hammocks, shared beds, a private room or even on more than one occasion people have given me their bed and they slept on the couch! Whatever you have to offer is good.
General do’s and dont’s.
Do – Share Costs.
It’s meant to be an exchange of cultures or friendship and it’s best to keep money out of it. So share costs between host and surfer. Maybe you cook dinner together, or go out for drinks. It’s best if both parties pay their fare share. It just always feels better that way. Leaving a gift is a good gesture but not necessary as long as you share some cool stories!
Don’t- Ask someone if they are single.
I think this one is self explanatory. Don’t be a creep! If you do want to ask someone, then maybe you should be on a different website. (Tinder couch cough!). Couchsurfing is about reaching out to other travelers or making friends when you’re on the other side of the world.
Do-leave a neutral or negative reference if you feel that way.
Just remember that if you had a bad/creepy experience with a person/host then the next person might as well. People put a lot of trust into your reference, so be honest. If you had a guy get creepy at 3 in the morning then INCLUDE it in you REFERENCE. Warn other people so they will avoid being in a bad situation themselves.
Do-Report someone if you feel they shouldn’t be on Couchsurfing.
I have done this once in Mexico. Graceie and I met an older guy who we felt to be a creepy ex-pat hosting young girls for the wrong reason. We could just tell something wasn’t right. We read his profile and his stories didn’t match what he told us. I didn’t hesitate in reporting him. Its easy. You just click on the MORE button and then REPORT. You can also block people without reporting them. After reporting someone Couchsurfing admin will send you a thank you email. If you feel it’s right don’t question yourself. Just do it.
There’s so many Couchsurfers out there, there’s no need to have creepy people as well.
Don’t-Trust a girl with a sexy photo, no friends, and one reference from a friend.
I’ve seen this one many times and I’m not sure whats behind these profiles. In Morocco especially I would get lots of offers from these very sexy looking girls with no profiles. I never met with any of them but I’m guessing they were fake profiles made by creepy guys. Just look for the references.
In Thailand however I found a lot of people didn’t have many references as most people weren’t very experienced. Thai hosts are some of the nicest I’ve met in the world.
Read my post Crazy Asia, Four Ways To Experience Bangkok to read more of my Couchsurfing experiences!
Most of all have fun!!
Couch surfing is amazing. I’ve met with hundreds of people in over 30 countries though Couchsurfing. A lot of them I keep in touch with via Facebook. Graceie I traveled together for 3 years after we met in Istanbul at the couchsurfing weekly meet-up.
Before I met these people though I read their profile, checked their Facebook, chatted to them online and then met in a public place. Follow these steps and I don’t think much can go wrong.
One of the most common things I hear from solo travellers is how travelling alone has helped them come out of their shells. If you don’t have someone to talk to then you are forced to socialise with other people and with time you learn how to start a conversation and make friends with anyone. After 5 years of travelling I can walk up to anyone on the street and start talking to them. No problem. 5 years ago that would have been too scary for me!
Couchsurfing makes it a little bit easier than talking to complete strangers however. Most people can easily chat with people over the internet so you already kind of feel you know the person when you meet.