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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Arts and Entertainment
Game Of Thrones
Uh-oh, winter is coming. Ouch, my eyes! Ygritte’s a goner. Lysa’s a goner. Tywin’s a goner. Look, a dragon
tvSpoiler warning:The British actor says viewers have 'not seen the last' of his character
Sport
The Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City
premier league

The Independent's live blog of today's Premier League action

News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
voices
Sport
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
athletics
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

KS2 Teaching Supply Wakefield

£140 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Primary Teachers Needed for Supply in Wakefield

£140 - £160 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1&2 Supply Te...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam