Couchsurfing: More than just a free bed for the night

The growing popularity of couchsurfing is revolutionising travel for impoverished students. But what is it, and how can you get the most out of the site?

Online ‘travel communities’, which enable you to explore both your own city and the rest of the world, meeting likeminded people along the way, are becoming more and more popular.

'Couchsurfers' are able to stay on a host’s sofa or in their spare room for free, and the host will often show the surfer round the city and welcome them into their daily life. Various websites exist which facilitate contact between would be surfers and potential hosts, and all you need to do is sign up. In many ways the system is as simple as it sounds, but there are definitely blunders to avoid and tricks that will help you out.

Getting started

The most popular website of its kind, the Facebook of couchsurfing if you will, is www.couchsurfing.org, which boasts 6m members in 100,000 cities worldwide. It’s free to set up a profile, and before you travel you can either send out a general couch request to the area or send a message to a specific host, searchable via the site. Similarly, when hosting, you use the same profile to either message people who are looking for a host, or wait for them to contact you.

Compiling your profile

Firstly try and fill in as many categories as possible. While information such as your favourite film may seem trivial, it all adds up to give a holistic picture of you as a real person, and therefore reassures potential hosts.

Michele Legge, a veteran host and surfer from Perth, Australia, says that ‘empty profile pictures generally mean rejection’. Older hosts are wary of people who mention that they are looking for a party, so along with free accommodation that is a word to avoid. The key things that any host or surfer should focus on are the references an individual has been given by others.

But everyone has to start somewhere, so how can a virgin surfer increase their chances of finding a host? Michele has the answer: "My advice to any student thinking of travelling is get involved before you leave home: join couchsurfing, invite travellers for coffee, show them around your local area, take them on a night out, go to local meetups and host if you can. This way you start building networks and get references which always looks good. Some hosts will not host if you have not got any references which makes it challenging to get started sometimes."

Just a free hotel room?

Most users of the site insist that the main draw is not the free accommodation - indeed, anyone who focuses on this aspect in their request is unlikely to be met with a positive response. Instead, the main pull is the same as that which inspires people to host strangers for free - the ‘couchsurfing spirit’ and a keen interest in different cultures.

But for students, economic benefits are difficult to disregard, and though many surfers may not admit it, the offer of a free bed is undeniably attractive. The key, then, is just not to mention it on your profile or in private couch requests. Hosts tend to associate comments such as ‘can’t afford to stay in hostels’ with the sort of person who will treat their house like a hotel and steal food or make a mess.

Additionally, remember that they’re on the site solely to meet people from another culture, with no financial incentive. They’d like to think you feel the same. You can help show this by offering to cook and helping to wash up if you’ve been eating together.

Safety

When I tell people I’ve been couchsurfing, and am trying to explain what it consists of, their immediate concern is always safety. People forget that the site enables a two-way exchange, with the risks extending both ways. It’s a big deal for a host to give a stranger the keys to their house, and I remember feeling reassured at the realisation that my first host, Silvia, was as nervous as I was about the exchange.

All the same, surfers still need to be savvy about who they choose to stay with and what information they share. Avoid obvious mistakes like putting your mobile phone number on your profile page. Always read your host’s profile and references carefully. Ultimately, if there isn’t anyone suitable, don’t let the thought of saving money override your instincts, and stay in a hostel instead.

Absolute don’ts for surfers

The biggest mistake for any surfer is to come to a host’s house and treat it like a hostel. Keep the house tidy and put your sheets out for washing when you leave, or even do it yourself if you have time. Try not to ask for just one night’s accommodation in general as this doesn’t give the host the impression you want to get to know them. Don’t constantly check your phone if you are participating in a family activity such as playing cards - it’s just as rude as if you were staying with anyone else.

All these things will help turn your references from average into positive ones. And who were the worst people Michele has hosted? Top contenders are: two German girls who spoke perfectly good English, but who would only speak to each other, in German, and a man who just disappeared one day without even leaving a note.

And lastly, some dos

Michele advises couchsurfers to ‘accept what your host has to offer without judgement’. This is certainly something I found useful during my second CS experience when staying in Munich. At first the realisation that Stefan got all his food from bins was a bit repulsive, but I soon came round to the eco-friendly notion of Dumpster Diving!

Similarly, the lack of brakes on the bicycle I was lent posed a problem at first, but I soon got used to it. Hosts love it if you offer to cook for them, and you could even bring them a little present from your own country.

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