Websites like couchsurfing.org are increasingly popular for finding free accommodation, but users may need to get to grips with the etiquette
Mark had stayed at Miguel's for eleven nights already before he decided it was time to move on. He was going to hitch-hike to Seville. Never mind that it was approximately a million miles away and hitch-hiking is uncommon in Spain: logic be damned. He left early in the morning, and that afternoon Miguel and I realised we were alone together for the first time in a week.
It didn't last long. There was a knock at the door, and Mark swept in again. He dumped his rucksack in the corner, flopped down on the sofa, picked up Miguel's laptop and started looking stuff up on the internet. “I think the problem is you suggested a bad place to stand,” he announced. “So, it's okay if I stay another night, right?”
This is the point at which many people will claim that Miguel was partly to blame for Mark overstaying his welcome. But there are a few variables to consider. First of all, they broadly got on, though Mark apparently took this as tacit approval for his couchsurfing stint to continue. Secondly, the prospect of telling a guest in your home that you'd like them to make other arrangements now, please, may not appeal if you'd rather avoid conflict. And perhaps most significantly, Miguel just wasn't expecting this approach. He didn't have time to consider.
Same with Armin and Dalius, who hosted me in Vilnius. A previous pair of guests in their home had returned from a day out sightseeing, sat down at the kitchen table and asked, “So, what's for dinner?” Yes, the correct response would be to tell them where to go: the homes of couchsurfing hosts are not simply free hotels. But Armin and Dalius were so stunned by their guests' audacity that they found themselves meekly donning aprons, as if in a dream.
As couchsurfing.org gains popularity, newcomers may sign up without a real grasp of its spirit of reciprocity. The basic idea is quite simple: hosts provide a free place to stay, and guests are supposed to respond by not behaving like arses. Nobody is actually expected to do anything else, but frequently the two parties will spend time together. And most of the time – I say this having hosted dozens of people – this goes without a glitch. But although it's massively enriched my travel experiences, there are concerns that the quality of connections forged through the site will become diluted as it moves from alternative to mainstream.
If you set up a profile the day you show up in town and find that all the hostels are booked up, a veteran host is liable to regard you with suspicion: do you just want something for nothing, or are you prepared to welcome guests to your own town also? This needn't involve actual hosting: it's recognised that not everybody is able to do this, but there's nothing to stop you showing a visitor around. And if you've barely filled in your profile and you're sending generic “Can I surf your couch?” messages without the personal touch, don't expect positive results. Newsflash: those of us who open our homes to strangers generally like to have some idea of who those strangers are.
Similarly, show interest in your host and not just their couch. Explain why you're interested in meeting them – what interests do you share? What was it about their profile in particular that appealed to you? Why do you think you'd get along?
You could show your appreciation by offering to bring duty free, or giving your host something you made; split the bill if you go grocery shopping together, or buy a round in the pub. One memorable guest of mine not only took me out to dinner one night, but made me a smoked salmon omelette for breakfast on her last day. This was lovely, of course, but crucially, none of the above is mandatory, so all such instances are just a pleasant bonus. Still, if you've got no money and you can't cook, it's always a nice idea to at least do the washing up.
Above all, it helps to have some awareness of personal boundaries. Although your host may encourage you to feel at home, this probably doesn't extend to moving in long-term, scattering your belongings liberally across the floor, or creeping up behind them to inspect whatever they're viewing on the internet. Mark, though generally pleasant company, not only seemed to have a certain sense of entitlement to Miguel's tiny studio flat, but bragged about how long he'd gone without washing. The sofa, when he finally left, smelled so rank that Miguel needed to have it cleaned. Jess, who's hosted couchsurfers in Khartoum, notes that those who'd done “seriously hardcore things like walked or cycled from Europe” were “generally desperate to have a go of my shower, rather than avoiding it for the sake of rancid authenticity.”
So, to recap: be nice, offer to help out, respect your host's space, don't take the piss, and, for the love of all that is good and holy, wash yourself regularly. It's not really that hard.
Some names and details have been changed, to protect the rancidhttp://www.couchsurfing.org