Want to travel the world but have limited budget for accommodation?
Join Couchsurfing, and you get to stay anywhere in the world for free! Of course, it’s not just the free accommodation which makes it attractive; it’s also the opportunity to interact with locals in their own milieu.
First, though, what is Couchsurfing? Simply speaking, it is an online community of travelers whose motto is to “Participate in Creating a Better World, One Couch at a Time.”
The concept is that anyone can stay in any members’ place for free; as long as that member indicates in his profile that he can host. Other options include “Meet for Coffee or a Drink” which means that he cannot host but he can meet someone and maybe show him around, and “Traveling” which means that he is not available to either host or meet up.
A member who is planning to go to another country sends a request to a potential host. When accepted, they then agree on when and where to meet-up when the traveler arrives in the country. The space allotted to surfers (the one who’s requesting) is called a “couch,” which can refer to any sleeping area, from a mattress on the floor, to a real couch, or even a whole bedroom with a king-sized bed.
I first learned about CS from an article in the Reader’s Digest sometime in 2006. The idea intrigued me but full of anxieties about hosting someone I didn’t know, it wasn’t until 2007 that I signed up and began hosting people.
Since 2008, I have been hosted a number of times—all over Asia and Europe, and even in the Philippines—and I have slept in all kinds of beds, from huge four-poster type of beds, to just a mat on the floor.
All my hosts have been extremely friendly and accommodating. My first host in Shanghai, John from Edinburgh, met me a few minutes before he went to work, gave me the keys to the house, and left. My friend and I had the whole house (and his Persian cat, Harry) all to ourselves.
Again, what makes CS all the more memorable is not just the free accommodation (although it is a HUGE savings for a budget traveler like me), but more importantly, the opportunity to chat and interact with the locals in the area.
When I was in Indonesia, for example, I had been hosted by two of the warmest, sweetest, and kindest people I have ever met—Zuky and Fivi. We had spent hours talking, and I deeply regretted not being able to spend time with them longer. Without CS, I wouldn’t have had a chance to meet these lovely people.
One drawback is that after establishing bonds with your hosts or surfers, the time eventually comes when you (or they) have to leave, and sometimes it can be quite painful. I had gotten along very well with my first surfer, Jacob (from the U.S.). After three days, when he was scheduled to leave, he wanted to cancel his trip to stay longer. I had felt the same when I was with Zuky and Fivi in Indonesia.
What about safety? Living solo as I am, my friends have always been concerned about the security of my hosting strangers in my home. While it is a real issue, CS does have some safety features, including references in the profile (feedback given by CS friends, hosts and surfers), a verification system (identity and physical location are confirmed by CS), friend links (where you can see the type of friendship, from being an acquaintance to a close friend), and a quick and responsive CS team which addresses reports of abuse seriously and quickly.
I also take some precautions whenever I decide to accept surfers. Here are some of the tips I follow:
- I review the member’s profile very carefully. I make sure that he has been a member for some time and did not just join up to contact me.
- He should have positive feedback, not only from people he met during CS meet-ups, but more importantly, from his previous surfers and hosts as well.
- He must have been vouched for by other CS members.
- Unlike other CS members, I don’t give my surfers a set of keys to my house, and when I go out, they go with me. I don’t leave them behind (although this is more about hospitality and less of a security measure).
Do I recommend CS? Absolutely. It is the true measure of your faith that despite everything, it’s still a wonderful world.
Update (January 2012): I’ll be using Couchsurfing a lot in my 70-day solo backpacking trip to Europe next month. Thanks in advance to my CS hosts! Without you, this trip wouldn’t be possible, as I’m not rich and would need all the assistance I can get to make this dream come true.
What about you? Are you willing to try surfing abroad or hosting a traveler in your home?