Travel Tips

Couchsurfing full guide: what is it, how do you do it, and why is it the best way to travel?

At first, I thought Couchsurfing really wasn't for me. But I ended up falling head-over-heels in love with the community when I was encouraged to give it a go by a friend. I've now couchsurfed all over Europe and some parts of Asia, had unbelievable experiences, made countless new friends, and gained some great travel memories (and stories). But getting started is a challenge. My friend guided me through my first couchsurfing experiences and now I want to share how to get started with everyone - the more the merrier!

Airbnb kind of hit of the marketing nail on the head when they started their campaign ‘Stay with a Local’. After all, that’s the dream when travelling right? Immerse yourself into culture, laugh with the people that live there, find out things you could never find out from a tourist brochure, and have an epiphany that will lead you to secrets of eternal happiness, right?

But the thing about Airbnb is that it is paid – which makes it a transaction between you and someone else for money. There’s no problem with that, but what if that transaction actually swapped the money element for one of the other things listed above? That’s where Couchsurfing comes in, baby.

What is Couchsurfing?

Despite its name, it’s not some extreme furniture sport. Couchsurfing in it’s basic form refers to sleeping on people’s couches for a few nights at a time. But, in practice, you could sleep anywhere: in private rooms, in shared rooms, on an air mattress, on the floor, on fold-out couches or futons.

In my couchsurfing experiences I’ve stayed in all extremes, from laying in bed next to a guy I’d only met that day (with no hanky-panky!) in Estonia, to a swanky room in a hotel owned by my host in Montenegro, to a multi-million dollar yacht in Greece – and everything in between.

In each Couchsurfing experience you have a host: someone who has agreed to have you as a guest. In turn, you are their surfer.

The key thing with Couchsurfing is that these people are inviting you into their home without charging you money – it’s free in that sense. But, they could easily charge for accommodation, so you really need to bring something to the table. For some surfers, they just love hearing travel stories, or about your home country. For others, they just want to make new friends. And others are super busy, but just enjoy having the company around, even if you can’t spend much time together.

How do you start Couchsurfing?

CREATE A PROFILE

Start by opening an account on couchsurfing.com – and fill in as much as you can about yourself. It’s a big deal to invite a stranger into your home, so potential hosts want to see that you take couchsurfing seriously and are not just using it as a free bed for the night. They also want to know about you, and see if you will have things to talk about!

Two girls eat bakery items in Kosovo.
The best tip we ever received: traditional Kosovan bakery items. We never would have found this place if we hadn’t been taken there by our host. (Still lusting after that delicious white pastry snack)

UPLOAD PHOTOS:

Make sure you upload lots of photos so your potential host can get a feel for you – no one ever trusts the person who thinks they are an anime character in their profile picture.

Try to provide a range of photos – you, with your pets, with a group of friends, doing activities you enjoy – anything that tells a story about the type of person you are (spoiler, you’re a great one!).A

TRY AND GET SOME REFERENCES:

This is a biggie: the biggest hurdle in couchsurfing is getting your first couch when you have no reviews. Potential hosts don’t know if you are trustworthy – or if you will spill beer on the their favourite picture of Grandma.

There are three types of references on Couchsurfing:

  1. From Surfers – these are references written on your profile from people you have hosted.
  2. From Hosts – when you have stayed with someone and they have left you one (hopefully it says some good things)
  3. Personal – these are from people you haven’t necessarily stayed with or hosted, but might have met on your travels.

To start getting some reviews on your profile, the easiest way is to go for the third option: Personal. Try and find some other travellers who use Couchsurfing. The easiest way to do this? Hosting and Hangouts.

I’ll get into Hangouts later, but consider Hosting some Couchsurfers if you are able! Couchsurfing is a real give-and-take community, so if you can show that you are willing to host people, hosts will be more willing to do the same for you.

If hosting isn’t a possibility for you due to your living situation, check out Hangouts instead!

What are Hangouts?

Hangouts are an awesome extra to couchsurfing. When you go in to Hangout in the app, it will geographically locate you with other travellers who also want to do this same, letting you meet up and meet some awesome people. This is not for accommodation, but for grabbing a coffee, exploring and area, or heading to a music show.

Girl hangs in hammock on a beach in Montenegro.
Couchsurfing in a makeshift house on a Montenegrin beach. The sun was amazing; the sandflies were horrendous.

But, if you want to get started on Couchsurfing, turn on Hangouts and find some other travellers – if you had fun with them, offer to write them a personal review and ask if they will do the same!

Keep in mind you don’t need to be travelling to do this – you can hang out with travellers in your own city and meet some cool people or show them the sights from a locals perspective.

Another way to find people to do this with is to explore the various events and bulletins over the Couchsurfing website. Most big cities host weekly Couchsurfing Meetups, language exchange, or even free tours!

How do I find a host on Couchsurfing?

Okay, you have a profile and it’s looking pretty damn good – now what? If you have a trip planned, you can start trying to find a host. Put in your city, dates, and set it to find hosts and you’ll be presented with a list of available hosts!

Now, just because they are available doesn’t mean they will host you. Take the time to look at different profiles taking note of:

  1. Their Interests: do they sound like someone you would like to spend time with? Are they a die-hard vegan but you can’t go a day without a delectable, juicy steak? It doesn’t mean you can’t be friends, but it could mean it’s not the best fit to live together.
  2. Their Reviews: do they have some good reviews? If not, are you willing to go to someone who doesn’t have any? No reviews shouldn’t be a dealbreaker, but it is something to consider, especially if it your first time on a couch.
  3. Their Home: do they have a giant fluffy huskie but you’re allergic to dogs? Is their house far from the city with no transport options nearby? Can’t deal with children in the house? Or not keen on sleeping on a couch and really want a bed instead? Make sure their home will suit your needs.
  4. Their Expectations: if they work a demanding job they might not have time to show you around. Alternatively, they may be wanting to spend days with you but you need to work online for eight hours a day.

Taking the time to really read their profile will make it easier to avoid any potential personality clashes and it will prepare you for the next step: sending the request.

Requesting a Host

Writing the perfect Host Request is an art form – how can you prove to a host that you can improve their life with your presence? Follow the rules below to craft the ultimate initial contact:

A man and woman juggle in a beach shack in Montenegro.
Spend time with your hosts – you never know what skills you can learn, teach, or share!

The Golden Rule = No Copy-Paste: sometimes you need to reach out to many hosts to find someone who can host you in a city. Regardless of how many requests you send out, each of them should be tailored to the recipient. For them to give up their space is a big deal, so they need to know you are genuine.

Show you’ve read their profile: include information in your request that shows you know they love juggling, or reading Harry Potter, and tell them why that means you will have things to talk about.

Tell them about yourself: some hosts gets dozens of requests a day, so include all the relevant information in your first email. Tell them why you will be great friends, what you can bring to the table (do you know a fun skill? Can cook an amazing dish? Got some great travel stories?) and tell them a bit about your trip.

Reiterate how much you would love to spend time with them: Wrap up your email telling them you hope to meet up, even if they can’t host you – after all, more friends is better than none!

What should you do once you get a host?

Congrats! A host has accepted your request and you’re gearing up to spend some sweet time with a local. But there are a few things to remember first:

Never show up empty-handed: Show your appreciation to your host by preparing a small gift for them. This doesn’t need to be expensive or big – a great idea is to bring something from where you are from, like a small souvenir, or a snack that you eat in your home country.

Stay in touch: Let them know how much you’re looking forward to your visit – some hosts like to exchange some messages before you arrive, others are happy to start talking once you’re there. Just make sure that you always keep the lines of communication open!

Let them know your plans: Are you arriving by bus/car/train/plane/jetski/mooseback? Let your host know when you think you’ll be arriving. Some hosts will pick you up from the station, others will wait for you to make your way to their door – it all depends.

Be a good houseguest: It goes with saying but be respectful – your host has welcomed you into their home, and you’re hopefully going to have a great time together. Be tidy in their home, help them in the kitchen, and maybe even offer to cook a meal. If they’re free to spend time together, make the most of it!

What should you do when you leave?

Waved goodbye and moved on? Send your host a message thanking them for having you. Then write them a review talking about how they were as a host, any things you enjoyed, and a reminder of some of the great activities you did together.

Two foreigners write on a piece of paper in a house in Vietnam.
Some hosts will ask for a picture, others keep memories of their surfers in a special book! Image: Phuong Lam Dang.

Reviews are not only great for future travellers, but they’re on your profile so they make some great records of memories of travelling. I love to look back on my reviews and remember the times I had with my hosts!

What else should you remember?

Safety first: You’re not at a hotel, so make sure you send your location to someone you trust – just in case. I’ve never been in a position where it’s had to be used, but travellers do go missing at times for lots of different reasons. I’m yet to come across a serial killer, but if I do I’d like someone to know where I was last.

You can always leave: if things aren’t clicking or you’re getting some weird vibes you’re not hurting anyone by leaving. Just tell your host it isn’t working out, or if you feel really uncomfortable tell them your bus schedule changed.

It’s not always going to be a fairytale: Sometimes you won’t click with a host, you won’t meet their expectations, or they won’t meet yours. That’s okay – unless you feel like you have to leave you’re still likely welcome to stay – just adjust! Give your host some space or take some space for yourself.

Now go start!

Some of my best experiences travelling have been through Couchsurfing – while it sounds a bit odd at first (I definitely thought this!) you’re actually joining an awesome community full of likeminded people.

So go on, get to it! The sooner your start building your profile the sooner you can start experiencing it.

Got any questions, comments, tips, or great couchsurfing stories? Drop them in the comments below!

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