Update: Due to new developments at Couchsurfing, I no longer recommend using the site. You can read full details here.
I spent about a week in Norway recently. On my first night, I stayed in a small cabin in the town of Neiden. I don’t actually know if you could call it a town. It probably only had eleven people living there.
We arrived in the late afternoon, stashed some beers in the fridge, ate some crab with the neighbour, and then headed over to the sauna for the night. After sweating out twelve gallons of sins and demons, I stumbled back to the cabin and passed out on one of the couches.
The cabin was actually pretty flash – in the summer months it was rented out to tourists who come to catch fish and king crab from the nearby fiords. About a thousand bucks a night. But in the winter it was mostly empty. That’s how I ended up there. The owner needed a chef for his nearby hotel, so he hired some Finnish guy for the job, and put him up in the empty cabin for the winter.
That Finnish guy just happened to be my Couchsurfing host.
People often ask me how I always manage to have such “authentic” experiences while I’m travelling. I think what they mean by this is, how do I manage to get connected to locals so quickly and easily? While there are many ways, Couchsurfing is up there with the best of them. When you get involved in Couchsurfing, experiences like the one I’ve described above are not rare. You’ll find yourself staying in all sorts of interesting places, with interesting people, and having experiences you would never hope to find in a hostel or hotel. But to get the most of the community, you need to understand how it works.
What is Couchsurfing?
Couchsurfing is a travel community. The concept goes like this:
When travellers go overseas they need places to stay. And there are many locals who have spare beds, floors and couches. Couchsurfing matches these two together.
“Hosts” will list their available spaces on the site. Travellers will then search through them and request to “surf” with hosts they think they’ll get along with. Alternatively, travellers can publish their travel plans, and hosts can offer to accommodate them.
No money ever changes hands. The exchange is done in the spirit of travellers helping other travellers. Some of you might find it odd that anyone would do this. Why would you offer a bed for free? Why go to so much trouble to accommodate someone and get nothing in return? Why not list it on Airbnb and make some money instead?
It’s pretty simple. Travellers know travellers. And we know how important it is to help each other out. Plus you get to meet some pretty cool people along the way.
How to find a Couchsurfing host
Quite a few people struggle to find a Couchsurfing host, and usually it’s because they misunderstand how the community works. This leads to most people trying to get hosted once or twice, not hearing back, and giving up on Couchsurfing altogether.
To avoid this happening to you, try and follow my guidelines below. This will give you the best chance of finding a host, and help you get the most out of the community on your travels.
1. Complete your profile!
This is super important. Most people only spend about five minutes on their profile and think that will work. Try to remember – you’re asking to be invited into somebody’s home. And it’s also quite competitive – there are far more surfers than hosts active at any one time.
Your profile is the only thing hosts have to get an idea of who you are. It’s what they’re going to use to judge whether you’re fun to hang out with, whether you’re a serial linen thief, whether you’re going to start cooking up heroin in their bathroom. If you want to get hosted, spend time crafting your profile to show the best sides of yourself. Here are a few tips:
- Fill out all the sections fully. In the “About me” section actually write a few paragraphs about who you are and what you’re about. What are your hobbies? What do you do in your free time? These are things that hosts will look at to see if you have anything in common. In the “Amazing things I’ve done” section, put something interesting. It doesn’t have to be mind-blowing, maybe something as simple as graduating from high school was amazing for you. This isn’t a douchey job interview where you need to impress everyone. If you can’t think of anything, write something sarcastic. Something funny. In the “Music and Movies section”, write something! Things like this matter. If you’re a Tupac fan, the chance of me hosting you goes up 1,000%.
- Add lots of photos. Not two or three. More like nine or ten. And make them clear – so your face can actually be seen and we can be sure that you’re a real person. Sometimes people send me couch requests and they only have two photos – one of a sunset that was probably stolen off Google, and then another of them 10,000km in the distance where I can almost make out the colour of their jacket but not really. Needless to say those people are never getting hosted.
- Try and get some references. While the best references are from hosting and surfing, there is also a third reference group from “friends”. If you connect your Facebook to your Couchsurfing account, you’ll probably see you already have friends on the platform. Ask them if they would take a few minutes to write you a reference – this can be quite helpful to get you started.
2. Look for hosts
When looking at Couchsurfing hosts, it’s important that you find a host that is trustworthy. While hosts are concerned about their own safety, you should take the necessary precautions for yourself too.
The search function in Couchsurfing is pretty straightforward. Once you’ve searched for hosts in your destination, you’ll get a list of profiles like this:
You’re looking for a few things here. First, look for people who are accepting guests. They’ll all be listed first in the results anyway. Next, look for references. If they’ve been well-referenced, you can be pretty sure they’re good people. And finally, look if they’re active. Couchsurfing will show you when their last login was, so if it was within the last couple of weeks there’s a good chance they’re still active on the site.
Obviously the next step is to click into these profiles and take a closer look at their references and photos, and if you think they’re someone you’d enjoy hanging out with. Once you’ve found a few hosts that are suitable (I’d recommend choosing around ten), you can start sending your requests.
3. Send (good) Couch requests
It’s important to take time when writing your requests. I actually don’t mind receiving copy/paste requests if the person is an experienced Couchsurfer and I can see they’ve given a lot to the community. Even I send them sometimes if I’m really pressed for time. However, if you are a new Couchsurfer, with zero references, you shouldn’t be copy pasting your requests. It comes off as lazy, and even a little arrogant, that you would expect people to welcome you into their homes without even taking the time to write a short request to them. At least take the time to write to hosts personally to show that you’re making an effort.
What does this mean?
Read the host’s profile. See what their house rules are. Find out their interests, think about whether they’re someone you’ll get along with, check if they have any requests of their own (for example, some will ask you to not make requests for weekends or particular dates, some will only allow females etc). Then write a request to them personally where you introduce yourself and then give a few reasons why it might be a good idea for them to host you. If they love Italian food and you have a secret gnocchi recipe, you could offer to cook it for them for dinner. Things like that.
Here is an example of a good Couchrequest that I would accept, even if your reference count was low:
Here is an example of a bad Couchrequest that I don’t even bother looking at, even if your reference count is high:
4. Post a Public Trip
Another way you can find hosts is by posting your travel plans. Your trip will get listed on the “public trips” list and people might offer to host you. It looks like this:
I always thought this option was a little odd and never really use it. It’s also where most of the Couchsurfing horror stories come from (and it’s not just a problem for girls). Often it’s harmless funny stuff, but one of my guests recently told me a story that ended with him out on the street in the middle of the night after his host was left a little, errm, heartbroken. Of course this doesn’t mean you can’t find a host through this function, but I prefer to keep my trips private and choose my hosts.
4. Arrange your stay!
As I said earlier, you should send out multiple requests. At least five, but I find that closer to ten is better. In some places you’ll send just one or two and get accepted (woo Norway) and in some cities you might send twenty five and not even get a response (looking at you Stockholm). So just send as many as you have time for to give yourself the best chance of finding someone.
If someone does accept you, simply get their details and make arrangements for your arrival.
5. Follow the rules
There are a few “unwritten” rules when you Couchsurf.
- Surfers are expected to give back. Despite Couchsurfing being constantly described as a “free accommodation” website, this is not what it is. Surfers might not pay anything in monetary terms, but they are certainly expected to offer back in other ways. One of the most popular ways is paying for food and cooking for your host, helping with the housework, and maybe even teaching your host something cool that you’re good at. The idea is to make life easier for them while you’re around, not harder.
- Be an engaged guest (and host). It’s as much about cultural exchange as it is about finding a place to sleep. It’s expected that hosts will make an effort to show surfers around, and that surfers will be engaging guests and not just put their headphones on and hide in their rooms. If that’s what you want to do that’s cool – just stay in a hostel.
- It’s not a dating site. Even though there are quite a few stories of Couchsurfing couples and marriages and babies. But just keep in mind that’s not what the site is designed for.
- If you surf, you host. It’s not cool to be surfing hundreds of times, and never hosting anyone in return. When you’re back in your home country, try to host a few people to give back to the community.
- Respect your host. If you had arranged to stay for 3 nights, stay for 3 nights. Don’t loiter and put them in the uncomfortable position of kicking you out. Clean up after yourself. Keep your area of the house tidy (I’m bad at this). Don’t treat it like a hotel. Don’t treat it like your own house. Treat it like the home of a very important person who is doing you a very big favour.
6. Leave a reference!
References are in many ways the currency of Couchsurfing. They’re the stripes that let people know you’re active and giving to the community. If a host has taken you into their home and been good to you, leave them a good reference (and if they’ve been a schmuck you should leave a bad one). Much of the site relies on the reference system to function (after all, we’re all strangers), so it’s important to do your bit to keep the community safe.
Meetups and events
Another (and probably more popular) aspect of Couchsurfing are their events, meetups and forums. As it has gone more mainstream Couchsurfing has almost become like a social network, where other travellers can connect and share travel plans and knowledge. This is useful for meeting up with other travellers in the city you’re visiting, finding hitch-hiking partners, finding someone to fill an extra spot on a group tour or road trip, or even just for asking for travel advice and ideas. If I’m in a city where I know nobody and have nothing to do I’ll usually check the events list that night for something interesting to do. Even if you don’t surf or host, you can still get involved in the community this way.
Is it safe?
The million dollar question.
In my opinion, it’s actually safer than hotels and hostels. If you stay with a well referenced Couchsurfing host, you’re staying in the private home of someone that has been vetted and vouched for by a community of other travellers. And because the connection is personal, they will generally be more concerned about your well-being than any hotel receptionist. Many times I’ve gotten lost and I’ve had my host on the phone giving me personal directions, or even coming out to pick me up. When’s the last time a hotel did that for you? (without charging you a million dollars and three human souls).
Your belongings will be a lot safer too. In a Couchsurfer’s home you’re staying with one stranger. In a hostel or hotel you’re with hundreds of strangers. Things get stolen out of hotel rooms all the time. Much rarer in the home of an experienced Couchsurfer.
And probably the biggest reason that the community is so safe is because of who we are. We’re travellers. And you probably need to be a traveller at heart to understand why this community works. I don’t think I know a single friend from home who would ever try this. It’s bizarre to them. But it makes perfect sense to me, and the thousands of other active members. Couchsurfing takes a lot of time and energy to be involved in and there is no money to be made here. The members are involved for the love of the people and the community and nothing else. That’s the easiest kind of stranger to trust.
In the end Couchsurfing requires the same common sense that the rest of travel requires. Of course there are incidents, but no more common than incidents in any other aspect of travel. Do your homework, use your instincts, trust good and kind people, and everything should be fine.
Just head over to the website and sign up for a free account. You’ll then need to set up your profile, and start making arrangements to host or surf. You can also attend the events and join trips to get involved. How much you get (or don’t get) out of the community is totally up to you.
See you there.
P.S. If you’re new to Couchsurfing and there is something you’re unsure about – like whether a host looks trustworthy or what the protocol might be in some weird situation, feel free to contact me (or another experienced Couchsurfer) and I’ll try to help you out. This is a friendly community and we’re all here to look after each other!