If you want to travel more, the best thing you can do is make your money go further. You can walk or use public transportation instead of taking taxis; you can also try to plan your own trips instead of taking a tour. However, cutting costs in these ways is not always positive in cost-benefit analysis. Being too bare-bones on your expenses may mean you have to give up too much.
That’s Where Couchsurfing Comes In
Couchsurfing is the concept of sleeping on locals’ couches for free (at least, no monetary cost) while you travel. The most well-known network of Couchsurfers is on Couchsurfing.com. Through the online portal, people who are looking for housing in a certain city can contact hosts who are willing to invite them over. The hosts can decide whether they are available during the Couchsurfer’s stay in the city and whether to offer them a place to stay. It is then up to the two of them to coordinate the rest.
I first used Couchsurfing when I was volunteering in Cochabamba, Bolivia. I was looking for a host during the month that I was going to be in town. Since then, I have saved thousands of dollars using Couchsurfing, meeting hosts who are genuinely eager to show off their city and make your experience incredible. While saving money is a benefit of Couchsurfing, I have also met friends and deepened my understanding of local culture through talking with my hosts.
While Couchsurfing is not the only platform of this kind, but it is the most well-known.
What to Look For in a Couchsurfing Host
Sometimes, having any host at all is a blessing. However, you don’t want to stay with a host who will endanger your safety or otherwise hinder your trip.
Reviews, personal references, and friends
- Connecting with other Couchsurfing profiles can indicate the profile is real. Reviews and references can give you a good idea of what staying with the person might be like. Someone with no references at all may be sketchy, but if they have friended other profiles and/or have contributed to forums, you can give it a shot.
A completed profile
- The more personal information can help you understand the host better so you know how to connect with them. They are also more likely to accept you and be active on the site if they have a complete profile. This doesn’t mean that the profile is completely safe, but it is more likely to be safe if they include personal information.
A language that matches one you speak
- While it can be fun to communicate with someone that doesn’t speak anything that you understand, it is incredibly challenging. If you have your pick, try to choose someone that speaks a language you know. If you’re not sure, the language in which they complete their profile can indicate what they speak. If not, message them, and see what language they use to respond.
[Recommended Read: Why You Should Start Your Travels With a Host]
How to Protect Yourself While Couchsurfing
When you mention Couchsurfing to some people, they will immediately think of safety. There’s a good reason for it! Ultimately, you are entrusting your experience, person, and things to people you have never met. Unlike with a platform like AirBnb, there is no monetary incentive to treat guests well. Every now and then, a news story will blame Couchsurfing for a death or violent crime. Petty crime, such as theft, is even more common. Either way, safety should come first! These are some tips to decrease the probability of a bad experience:
Listen to your intuition
- The vast majority of the time, you can sense whether a situation is suspect or not. Bad things often happen when you ignore discomfort. Even if you don’t have much money and will have to make sacrifices in other places, say no if you even start to suspect that something is wrong. In your exchanges with the person, do they make racist, nationalist, assault, or violent jokes? Joking is a way to feel out the other person’s feelings without committing to an idea; if someone makes a violent joke, they are seeing how you respond to that topic. You are risking your safety by not walking away.
Find a host with a family
- Hosts that live with family, either parents or children, are more likely to be trustworthy. They are less likely to stay up late drinking and get violent, and they understand how to take care of someone.
Don’t trust Couchsurfing Verification
- Couchsurfing introduced Verification for $20/year as a way to ensure a person’s identity, phone number, and/or address. However, it is unreliable. The price is low enough that someone could easily buy a prepaid card or use an unverified PayPal account to pay. There are also many countries around the world where cards and virtual currency are hardly used. The Verification process is not reliable enough to completely trust.
Meet the host in a public place and/or with someone
- Reduce the probability of the host trying to pull something by having other people around, even if it is just your taxi driver.
Use city meet-up groups instead
- The Couchsurfing website has many forums for each city listed, or you can use a website like Meetup.com to search for gatherings. You can attend their events and meet hosts in person before staying with them.
Let a friend or family member know where you’re going
- This way, someone knows to alert the police if they don’t hear back from you by a certain time.
[Recommended Read: When You Should Book Accommodation in Advance]
How to Get More Couchsurfing Offers
If you have picked some potential hosts who have a promising profile and seem to be a match with you, how to you get them to say yes? You can actually think of this like online dating; you’re both looking for a match! The fact of the matter is that most people will send potential hosts an obviously copied-and-pasted message, sometimes even forgetting to change the name. However, you are much more likely to get offers if you spend just a bit more time crafting your initial message to host. After all, that message is the first impression they will have of you.
Complete your profile
- Having something that the hosts can read will make you seem more personable. You are also more trustworthy if you have filled out your own profile.
Address them by name
- Not only does this make the host feel better, it shows right off the bat that you know who you are messaging.
Explain who you are
- Even if the host doesn’t read your profile, they can get a better idea of what kind of traveler you are.
Make a personal connection
- Talk about something that you read in their profile that you also identify with! If they are a huge fan of Harry Potter, mention that you are too. If you have both lived in Belgium, this is another point of similarity! This way, it is clear that you have read their profile and already have something in common. If there is nothing else to talk about, at least you can spark a conversation about what you have in common.
Talk about something that you are looking forward to seeing/experiencing in the city
- In this case, the host is the expert. Experts love to contribute their two cents. Asking them for advice directly or indirectly shows that you value their time and expertise. They are more likely to want to show off their city if you have some knowledge about it already; it shows that you are really looking forward to having a great experience in that city.
Talk about how you will respect their space and things
- One of the biggest nightmares of hosts is being woken up at 3a.m. by unruly and drunken guests, or finding out that guests have stolen their property. Directly addressing these concerns will make hosts more lenient towards you if something does happen, and more likely to want to help you.
Follow up if you don’t get a reply
- If you see that someone has signed in after you sent your request but hasn’t responded to you, send a kind reminder. This is not to say you need to persist until the host wants to block you. However, it’s always possible that they read your message, meant to reply, but got distracted, or weren’t sure about whether they would be free and forgot to reply once they solidified their schedule. Some hosts who receive hundreds of requests may ignore those that don’t follow up simply out of necessity.
Send a reply even if you’re not a match
- If for whatever reason you are turned down or you cancel your plans, follow up with a simple thank you! You never know if the host will change their mind or their schedule, and suddenly be able to host you. In the event that you are offered a place to stay from two hosts, you never know if one will cancel. Having replied may be the difference between having a backup and being left without a place to stay.
[Recommended Read: How I Cut Costs to Just $2/Day in Bolivia]
How to Not Take Advantage of Your Couchsurfing Host
If you find a matching Couchsurfing host, congratulations! However, don’t forget that these people are likely going out of their way to offer you a place to stay free of charge. They typically ask for very little in exchange. If you can repay them in a small way, do it! Here’s how:
Bring a small gift
- A token of appreciation given when you arrive is a great way to start off your stay! Make sure that your host feels appreciated, and the gift can be something as small as a pen from your home country or something bigger, like a bottle of wine. The idea is just to say that you want this to be a give and take, not just take.
Keep them company by sharing your travel experiences and exchanging culture
- Most hosts offer their homes because they are lonely or enjoy having people to talk to when they get home. Or, they love to travel but can’t for whatever reason. Either way, they invite people into their homes because they want other people to be there! They are typically curious about your experiences, your viewpoints, and your impressions of their city. Sharing your company with them can move your relationship from being purely one-sided to one of mutual exchange.
Listen to their advice
- If your host is very busy or doesn’t have much time to chat with you, asking them for recommendations of places to visit and eat can show that you value their opinion. Plus, they probably know way more about the best places to see and eat than a non-local. With this, you can also give them feedback on their suggestion, especially if you loved the place.
Offer to do some chores
- Save your host some time and/or money by doing housework! It can be something as simple as wiping the tables or as time-consuming as doing the laundry. This is a more visible method of repaying your host than simply chatting with them. Just be sure to ask them what you can do before jumping in to do it.
Be respectful of their things
- This is self-explanatory. If hosts have a good experience with you, they are more likely to accept the next traveler who is looking for a place to stay.
Couchsurfing can be one of the best ways to travel because you can stretch your savings and meet new people all in one!
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Have you tried Couchsurfing? What has been your best experience?