2 December 2015 | BY ANDJELKA JANKOVIC | Travel
Home is where I want to be, but I guess I'm already there
You won’t find a 1886 medieval mansion with a greenhouse and butler’s quarters on Airbnb. It is unlikely your hostel will greet you with a cup of artisanal coffee and I have never heard of a concierge at a hotel taking you to a punk house show.
If you are craving a more engaging or adventurous accommodation experience (because it’s more than just a change of scenery, right?) embracing Couchsurfing is a way to travel cheaply and meet locals around the world. A travel community based on global altruism, Couchsurfing connects like-minded travellers on an online platform where ‘surfers’ request to stay with a local host in a city. A fun fact – apparently there are more hosts on Couchsurfing than rooms at the Hiltons! The major difference is that Couchsurfing is accommodation at no cost.
In my six months of travel across North America, I have stayed with over 12 hosts in 10 cities so far. Before doing it myself as a solo female traveller, the idea of Couchsurfing made me nervous and I couldn’t help but think “what if they kill me?” (If you are having these same thoughts, don’t worry.) Arriving at my first house in Portland, I didn’t know what it was all about but I was curious enough to find out. And I am so glad that I did. I was on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and I was going to waste a moment of it by playing small.
Turning up to a stranger’s home has been fertile ground for transformative experiences. In a matter of minutes, complete strangers have become good friends – sharing not only a place to lay my head, but also their time, friends, weekend plans and personal tours of the city. Couchsurfing hosts have gone above and beyond for me, and this weary traveller will be forever grateful for the goodwill offers of a fresh towel, hot shower, washing machine, a cup of tea, pickled preserves, bikes, WiFi passwords, cat hugs, spare keys, and shared time. The ethos of Couchsurfing: ‘Expect nothing, be grateful for everything’ makes you appreciate how big-hearted humanity can be.
Travel is a thousand unseen helping hands. – Joseph Campbell
The good intentions and generosity in the Couchsurfing community are unlike anything else I have experienced. Couchsurfing can open doors to new experiences – not to mention people’s homes – but there is some etiquette to keep in mind when using such a service.
How To Couchsurf Across The World
- Create A Profile – Join the community and invest ample time to fill out the online profile and upload pictures of yourself. Sound genuine and sincere in your descriptions. Your personal references are your clout – ask a friend on CouchSurfing to recommend you if it’s your first time. Get verified to prove you are a real person. Update your city to each new one you visit and set your profile to ‘meet up’ to let fellow travelers know that you are keen for adventure.
- Do Your Research – Scourer the profiles of hosts in your destination. Read hosts’ references and advice about their homes to see what’s right for you (some may say: must have car, be okay with dogs, prefer quiet nights or is a late night party animal). A rule of thumb is the bigger the city, the more requests your host is getting so being authentic will help you stand out. Show you have read their profile by pointing out that you share something in common (yoga, hiking, Forrest Gump, indie folk music). Apply early, 10 days prior to your arrival date is ideal.
- Send A Personalised Message – Only write to people that you genuinely want to meet. Send a concise ‘couch-request’ message saying why you think you will connect and when you’ll be travelling in their city. Sometimes it’s difficult, I sent 15 messages in Chicago before I received a response. The more honest and friendly you are in your ask, the more likely it is that you will get a reply. Never copy and past messages and definitely avoid ‘mass blasting’ (as it’s called in the Couchsurfing community) – people can tell immediately!
- Confirm A Host – Once a host has extended an invitation, you need to share your arrival time and travel arrangements. Exchange phone numbers and message them on the day of your arrival. Confirm how many nights you can stay – one night is sometimes all a host can offer, but most prefer you stay two or three nights so they can connect, get to know you and show you their favourite places. Look out for the minimum night preferences on their profile, and read their references to see how they like to host.
- Being A Guest – Be respectful of house rules and use common sense – take shoes off, don’t smoke inside, don’t bring meat into a vegetarian kitchen, take short showers. Do more dishes than you think you should. Don’t spread your luggage out (packing cells are your best friend). Take your host’s suggestions, be flexible and say yes. Whether it be a hike or a new restaurant, hosts often say they love seeing their own city through the eyes of a traveller – so extend an invitation to your yoga class, farmers’ market visit, neighbourhood walk or comedy night.
- Give Back To Your Host – Offer to cook a meal (I like to prepare breakfast), contribute to the groceries or help them make dinner. If you go out offer to pay for a meal as a gesture of gratitude. Leave a small thoughtful gift (flowers, jam, thank you card) to show your appreciation. The biggest gift you can give your host though is your time and presence, so show genuine interest to get to know your new friend.
- Leave A Reference – The Couchsurfing review system is the currency that gives you credibility and also helps to keep you safe. Write a positive recommendation to thank your host, and they will leave one back for you. Gaining positive references increases your chances of finding a host again and makes you feel a part of the community. I am more proud of my Couchsurfing profile than I am of my resume!
The Pillars of Couchsurfing
- A Gracious Attitude – Be open-minded, positive and arrive with no judgment or expectation. Go with the flow and have a curious spirit. But also follow your intuition and stay safe. If your host insists you share a bed or makes you feel uncomfortable, leave the situation immediately and write an honest reference to advise future surfers. Thankfully this has never happened to me, but you can contact Couchsurfing in an emergency if something does go wrong. As a precaution to staying safe, read their references and trust your ‘second brain’ if you are not getting good vibes from your interactions.
- Get Involved With Community – Couchsurfing is an inspiring global community that you can feel a part of even when you are not travelling. Attend a meet-up, show a newly arrived surfer around, and write friend references. Start a conversation on the online message board and find a road trip companion, fellow markets enthusiast or a new yoga friend in the community.
- Return The Favour – Repay the community by hosting surfers when you return home. Sometimes people don’t need a place to stay but rather someone to have a coffee or beer with – so do it! Through Couchsurfing you learn that there are no bad people, just ‘quirky’ or ‘interesting’ ones, and everyone you meet has something to teach you.
The community is kept alive by a genuine intention for connection, where the currency of the service is presence – show up, leave expectations at the door, have an open mind and go with the flow. Invite to a band I’ve never heard of? Sure! Want to try Peruvian food? Would love to! Couchsurfing is not for you if you are looking for someone where to throw your bags, party all night and sleep in until 2pm. It’s a community for travellers, not tourists. Your host may well want to party (and those spontaneous nights in a new city are the best!), but also embracing the opportunity to hear someone else’s stories and perspectives (that lead to conversations late into the night) is where the magic is.
I have been driven across the Canadian border to catch a train, shown inside an abandoned church in Detroit, cooked vegan curry for a conscious community in Boulder, taken for a jaw-dropping leaf-peeping hike in Vermont, stayed with two male ballet dancers in Montreal, shared Korean bibimbap with a Turkish surfer direct from his first transatlantic flight, and serenaded by an all-male acapella group while being shown around MIT in Boston. I’ll never forget the midnight bike rides, sharehouse dinners, music swapping sessions, eating tours, wall jumping adventures, road trip sign-alongs, and every open-hearted soul who did not in fact “kill me”, in actual fact – they made me feel more alive than ever.
Far more than just a free accommodation service – Couchsurfing is a safe, fun and adventurous way to meet like-minded locals, have life-changing experiences and find out that we are made up of the same matter — human gold!
Hopefully, you are now ready to dive headfirst [sorry, bad surfing pun] into the world of Couchsurfing. If you have any questions, feel free to ask below or find me on Couchsurfing.