CouchSurfing for Beginners

If you want to travel, meet interesting people and not spend a fortune CouchSurfing could be your answer.

Feature by Nine | 07 Oct 2009
  • Couch

I got my first couchsurfer almost by accident. My friend had agreed to host her, but realised at the last minute that his flatmate had already reserved the sofa for someone else. My sudden guest, a friendly Canadian, was hovering in a phone box somewhere in the city centre awaiting further instructions, so I took her in. After that experience, I figured it couldn’t hurt to sign up to properly, and almost five years on, the only drawback is an occasional uncertainty in the mornings when I can’t remember whether anyone’s sleeping in my living-room.

The concept is simple, but the system through which it operates has been well thought out. The basis is that people offer their sofas (or spare rooms, or bits of floor, or whatever they can) to travellers for free. Like most people on the site, I’m both a host and a guest; I routinely put up visitors to Edinburgh, but I’ve also couchsurfed in numerous countries. And in the interests of full disclosure: yes, among the dozens of couchsurfing experiences I’ve had, there’s been one negative one. A host in Istanbul let me down at the last minute, and as I was travelling with two friends who wanted to stay together, there were just too many of us to find a suitable back-up host, so we shelled out instead. Still, as these things go, it’s a far cry from the axe-wielding bogeyman people seem to envision.

So let’s talk about safety. For starters, users of the site fill in profiles and upload photos, and if they’re really serious about the couchsurfing experience, they’ll provide enough info to give you a good sense of who you’re dealing with. People leave references for one another, so you can see how many couchsurfers had positive experiences with them and whether anything sounds dodgy. There are also systems in place for verification and vouching, so you can be sure of who you’re dealing with and that they’re trustworthy.

It's up to you how you play it. For example, there’s no requirement to say yes to every couchsurfing request that comes your way. You’re electing to open your home up to a stranger, and if you feel the tiniest bit uncomfortable about somebody, or you just want some space to yourself, you’re perfectly at liberty to say no. And you don’t have to give your guest a set of spare keys. It’s often more convenient to do that, but you can set whatever rules and boundaries you like. Often, hosts mention on their profiles whether they’re liable to be busy or whether they might have free time to show guests around.

You needn’t even offer accommodation in order to take part. You can select the ‘coffee or a drink’ option so that visitors to your part of the world can contact you just to hang out. This is a handy way to ease yourself into couchsurfing culture if you still have reservations. Many cities have active couchsurfing communities, so find out if there’s a group near you and check out the events they’re holding.

As a guest, you’re not expected to pay your host, but typically people might do the washing-up, cook a meal, or bring a small gift from their home country. It’s entirely up to you: sometimes there isn’t time, sometimes you’re too broke to even bring anything, and overall your sparkling company should more than suffice, but obviously it’s a nice gesture.

Don’t use like it’s a dating site – that’s not what it’s there for, and such an approach is generally considered sleazy and obnoxious. If you do wind up couchsurfing with somebody you’re attracted to, then who knows where things could go, but take extra special care before making a pass at a guest in your home – you don’t want to make them feel awkward, especially when they’re dependent on you for a place to stay.

Finally, bear in mind that the benefits of couchsurfing extend far beyond saving money. Primarily, it has enabled me to see places through the eyes of people who actually live in it, rather than just sticking to tourist areas and hostels. But more than that, it has resulted in many lasting friendships, along with creative collaboration and future travel plans. Oh, and all the shampoo my couchsurfers keep forgetting to take with them when they leave.