Free Accommodation – the holy grail of travel. Second only to free flights, and as far as I know, you only get those if you have fancy frequent-flyer miles to use up. If you’re a shoestring traveller or backpacker like me, I’m sure you will have heard of the travelling phenomenon that is Couchsurfing and may be wondering how to take advantage of it yourself. You may be wondering if it’s safe, viable, or even possible. I’m here to give you a quick run-down of my own experience and a few pointers for making the best of it yourself.
Couchsurfing was first launched in 2004 and has a user base of 10 million people in more than 200,000 cities. This means that if you’re going anywhere these days, Couchsurfing probably has a user there, unless it’s seriously remote. The thing about Couchsurfing is, that just because they have hosts there, doesn’t mean you’ll find a bed. Over the years Couchsurfing hosts have become increasingly more selective about the people they choose to take in and as some are inundated with masses of requests every day, they even have to be selective about who they respond to. This means that to get accepted you usually have to read the host’s profile extremely carefully, write an extremely friendly and impressive request, and have loads of references to even be considered. It can all seem a bit much but I promise, now and then somebody will take you in on instinct when you most need it and you will be so grateful you will want to kiss them. My advice for writing a request is to pause for a moment, take around ten or fifteen minutes to write it, and be yourself. A rushed plea can seem rude to hosts and they will be more likely to want to meet you if you take the time to put some of your personality into the request.
The wondrous thing about Couchsurfing is the connections and friends you can make – in bypassing the usual social norms between meeting and staying in someone’s home, I find it gives you a certain vulnerability that people are more likely to open up to. Hosts will sometimes open their entire lives to their guests and surfers in return often like to offer whatever they can, be it a meal, help around the house or just a bit of company.
Couchsurfers, please be as selective about your hosts as they are about their guests. Never stay with somebody who you have a bad feeling about, even if they have references. If you arrive and you feel uncomfortable, leave immediately. They may be absolutely fine, but why risk it? Trust your instincts. Tell somebody back home where you will be staying and give them regular updates on your wellbeing!
The final thing to remember is that you don’t need to log onto the website to be a ‘Couchsurfer’ – I have stayed with friends both old and new all over the world; on their sofas, their floors and even their hotel-room baths. If a kind soul is offering you a place to stay or vice-versa – you are entering into the Couchsurfing spirit! Enjoy!