14 REASONS WHY COUCHSURFING IS THE BEST (ONLY) WAY TO TRAVEL

Teri Clifton’s collection of essays, THE THINGS I CANNOT DO, is now available on Amazon and if you plan to visit California, check out our new On A Dime Guide!

Today’s blog post is written by seasoned traveler Lexie Davis, and her On A Dime spirit offers a way to enjoy varied lodging sans fees but rife with hospitality.

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By the Berlin Wall

14 REASONS WHY COUCHSURFING IS THE BEST (ONLY) WAY TO TRAVEL  

Most of my conversations about Couchsurfing begin with the question “but isn’t it really sketchy?”, accompanied by a raised eyebrow and look of concern. It’s difficult to convince people who have no knowledge of Couchsurfing’s mission that the hospitality exchange network is not only not sketchy at all, but is in fact the best possible way travel, especially for those who want to fully and deeply experience the culture of the place they are visiting. Here are 14 of the many reasons why Couchsurfing is the best option for an adventurous and open-minded (and not to mention, cash-strapped) traveler:

1. YOU’LL LEARN NEW THINGS

The first time I Couchsurfed was in Oslo. As soon as my friend and I arrived at our hosts’ apartment, they greeted us with a dinner of trout and potatoes. Throughout the meal, we discussed the differences in Norwegian and American culture, and they taught us how to peel our potatoes like Norwegians do. During our one-week trip, we learned so much about Norwegian culture—about their history, fairy tales, customs, and social systems. We learned about all the small things that would never be written about on a Wikipedia page or in a travel book: about the raisin buns that Norwegians like to eat on long road trips and the correct pronunciation of Edvard Munch’s name (as well as the accompanying story of how that correct pronunciation has actually changed over time).

hitchhiking

On our way to Bergen, Norway

2. YOU’LL EXPERIENCE A NEW CULTURE FROM THE INSIDE

 Most travel guides pride themselves on authenticity: If you want to do as the Hungarians do, then you have to go to eat at this place, and shop at this store. Yet nothing’s really more authentic than an actual Hungarian taking you around Budapest to all of his favorite places, telling you things about the city that only someone from that city would know. Whereas most people only get to dip a toe into another culture, Couchsurfing allows you to dive in headfirst. You may not walk away knowing all the details of Hungarian history and society, but you’ll come a way with a sense of what it’s like to walk around in the shoes of a Hungarian, even if just for a few days.

Troll

In Oslo, Norway

3. YOU’LL BREAK OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE

 When most people travel, they’re surrounded by their American friends and family. They eat with them, sleep in the same hostel/hotel rooms with them, ride the train with them,  and go to bars with them. Sometimes I travel this way too, and sometimes it can be fun. But it’s not the greatest way to fully experience another culture, and it’s definitely not a good way to escape from that safe little bubble that surrounds so many travelers, and protects them from really integrating themselves into the cultures of the places they visit. Showing up at a stranger’s home, having beers with them, and sleeping on their couches is a pretty intense thing to do for most people. Not knowing what to expect is a nerve-wracking feeling, but also an exciting one, and is very often insanely rewarding.

4. YOU WILL UNDERSTAND THE TRUE MEANING OF GENEROSITY

When I first began Couchsurfing, I thought that I would be offered a couch, and that’s it (and letting someone sleep inside your home for free is already a pretty generous offer). However, every time I’ve Couchsurfed, my hosts have given me breakfast, and on many occasions I’ve walked through the door to a home-cooked meal. Couchsurfing hosts are by and large people who share because they love sharing, and ask for nothing in return. My hosts in Norway made my friend and me a thermos of hot chocolate to bring with us while we walked around the city. My host in Ghent called in sick at work in order to show my friend and me around the city. My host in Montreal lent me a pair of beautiful Swedish clogs when my own shoes started giving me blisters. When I was traveling from Berlin to Warsaw, I accidentally missed my connection, and ended up on the last train to a Polish city I’d never heard of, all by myself, with nowhere to stay. I called the girl I was supposed to stay with in Warsaw, and in the space of an hour, she called all of her friends until she found one who lived in the city where I was headed, and set up a place for me to spend the night. All of these people had never before laid eyes on me, and were still willing to help me out in ways that normally only the closest of friends would.

5. YOU’LL MAKE NEW FRIENDS

 The Couchsurfing experience is most often about cultural exchange. While there are a lot of hosts who are okay with merely providing a place for a traveler to sleep, most want to get to know you, to learn about who you are and where you come from.

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You might even make new animal friends, like Poulet, our littlest host in Montreal

6. YOU’LL DO AND TRY THINGS YOU NEVER THOUGHT YOU WOULD

Eating raw herring from a street cart. Going to a heavy metal concert. Riding on the back (“begagedrager”) of a bicycle. Scaling a snow-covered hill at midnight, and breaking wine glasses along the way. Trying brown cheese. Attending a stranger’s going-away party. Watching Frank Zappa documentaries until 4am. Eating fries with—yes—mayonnaise. Couchsurfing is full of surprises. Good surprises!

7. YOU’LL SEE THINGS THAT AREN’T IN GUIDEBOOKS (AND HEAR THE STORIES BEHIND THE FAMOUS SITES)

The “cool” bars and “trendy” neighborhoods outlined on travel sites are usually already passé (and not to mention touristy) by the time you get there. Your hosts will be able to tell you what’s a rip-off and what’s a must-see. If they’re not busy, more often than not they’ll take you there themselves. If you’re the type of person who likes to avoid tourist traps and get to know what “real” Italians/South Africans/Chileans/etc. do, then staying with a local host is pretty much the best way to do so.

8. YOU WON’T BREAK THE BANK

It’s free. The only thing you need to provide is good company and an open mind (though offering to cook dinner or share bottle of wine is usually welcome as well). But really, it’s no charge for a roof over your head in houses and apartments that are often way cozier and more interesting than a room at a hotel or hostel. What more can I say?

JB

The beautiful kitchen of our hosts in Montreal

9. IT’S INCREDIBLY SAFE

 For some reason, this is the one that people have the hardest time believing. Really—it is safe. Hosts fill out a profile with photos of themselves, introductions of who they are and what they do, lists of their interests, and descriptions of their homes and where surfers will be sleeping. But couldn’t these people just be con artists, or worse—killers? How do you know they are who they say they are? you ask. The answer: when people surf at someone’s place, they write their host a review afterward (and vice-versa). It’s essentially a Yelp review for a person. Many hosts have pages and pages of these references, all from different surfers who have their own profiles with references. It would be a pretty elaborate scheme for someone to create hundreds of fake profiles and then write hundreds of fake references. People who are on the website for shady reasons are pretty easily identifiable, as they almost always those who have zero references, no friends, and an incomplete profile. Another safety feature of the site is something called “vouching”. A more experienced host or surfer can vouch for other hosts and surfers on the network who they found to be really great and trustworthy.

I’ve tried to explain to those who are skeptical about the safety of Couchsurfing that when you arrive at a hostel you don’t know who will be in the room with you, and you have no way of finding out before you arrive. With Couchsurfing, you do know who you are staying with. You talk to them beforehand, and read all about them from their former surfers. Another reason that I believe that Couchsurfing is an incredibly safe way to travel is that you have someone from the place you’re traveling to who is looking out for you. Someone who will tell you which areas are dangerous at certain hours and where to look out for pickpockets. Someone who will help you out if you get lost or into trouble. If you’re a smart person who is able to use basic common sense and judgment, I think it would be extremely rare to have an unsafe Couchsurfing experience.

For more about safety, check out the links section at the bottom of this post.

10. YOU SELECT WHO YOU WANT TO STAY WITH BASED ON SHARED INTERESTS, OR CRITERIA LIKE AGE AND GENDER

 When you look for hosts in a certain city, you can modify the search so that it only shows hosts between a certain age, or only female or male hosts. You can choose to stay only with hosts who don’t smoke or have pets, or those who speak certain languages (nearly everyone on the site speaks at least conversational English), or those who offer to host families with kids. The person you request to stay with is not random—you search the site and find a couple of people who seem like they would be the best fit for you, and then you send your request straight to them.

11. THE COMMUNITY IS OPEN TO EVERYONE

While looking for Couchsurfing hosts in Norway, I came across multiple grandmothers. There are also a lot of families who host, most often couples with a very small child or two. There are big houses full of roommates, as well as people who live by themselves. Because open-mindedness and enthusiasm about diversity are defining characteristics of the Couchsurfing network, it would be difficult to find a host who doesn’t welcome people of all races and sexual orientations. No matter your age or who you are, you will be welcomed by someone on the CS site, as long as you fill out your profile to best portray you who are and what interests you.

12.  IT’S GREAT FOR THE SOLO TRAVELER

While I was traveling alone through the Netherlands and Poland, CS saved my life. I’m someone who needs company to stay energized, but always building travel plans around friends’ schedules can be limiting. Couchsurfing liberated me from my fears of traveling alone and getting lonely, because I knew that no matter where I went, I would be guaranteed to meet new people. Recently, I found out that I couldn’t fly to Amsterdam on the same flight as my boyfriend (whom I met while on a solo Couchsurfing trip, by the way). I was really bummed at first, but then I decided to book a flight with Icelandair, which offers free layovers in Reykjavik to people flying from the US to Europe. Before I’d discovered Couchsurfing, I never would have decided to plan a four-day trip to a Nordic island all by myself. Couchsurfing is perfect those who love company, but also like making their own plans.

Plane

Overlooking Oslo

13.  IT WILL HELP EASE THE TENSION BETWEEN YOU AND YOUR TRAVEL MATE(S)

 Many of us know that when you travel with a friend/family member for an extended period of time, you often start to get on each others’ last nerves. Spending all day and night with the same person or group of people (or even your lover) for days on end can sometimes get irritating, but when you Couchsurf, you have the opportunity to bring new people into the mix, which eases the tension and redefines the dynamic. Plus, after you’ve been traveling with the same person for awhile, you run out of stories to tell and things to discuss, so you will welcome the chance to hear new stories and have new discussions.

14.  YOU CAN TAKE A BREAK FROM PLANNING

Close your guidebook. Don’t make a detailed list of all the places you need to go and things you need to see. Even if your host is busy working and can’t show you around during the day, she’ll give you advice of great places to go. Your schedule will (and should!) change based on her recommendations and pieces of local wisdom. If you know everything you’re going to do and see before you arrive in the city, where’s the fun and adventure in that? More likely than not, your host will want to include you in her plans, especially in the evening and on weekends. You might be invited to a small party where you’ll be the only American. Or you might end up at the concert of a band you’ve never heard of. Or your host might take you to her favorite dive bar, which is way better than the trendy club where all the tourists go. Vacation should be about going with the flow, and letting your whims and sense of adventure lead you. Often, your host will take pleasure in deciding where to take you, and for making the plans for the evening, allowing you to relax and just follow along. Also, it’s important to mention that most hosts don’t like to answer requests more than two weeks ahead of the date you’ll arrive. For the last-minute adventurer, this is an ideal situation.

 TIPS AND REMINDERS:

  1. Surfing does not obligate you to host. Hosting does not obligate you to surf. There are plenty of people in the Couchsurfing network who only surf, or only host.
  2. Fill out your whole profile! You are carefully choosing the people you’d most like to stay with, but they are also carefully choosing those who they will host. Hosts want to see who you are as much as you want to know about them. Upload at least 5 pictures, and try to be detailed about the kind of person you are and your interests.
  3. Carefully read the profiles of all the people you request. Nothing makes a potential host more annoyed than being able to tell that you did not read their profile. When you send them a request to stay at their place, be specific about why you found them interesting, and why you think you would get along.
  4. Send requests out to multiple hosts. In other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You may not get accepted by your favorite host. Have a few back ups ready, and don’t feel bad asking a couple people at once in order to better your chances of being accepted by someone. However, if you are accepted by multiple hosts, be sure and respond to all of them, even if it’s just to say thank them for their offer, and let them know that you already found somewhere else to stay.
  5. You are an ambassador for your country. Remember that Couchsurfing is a reciprocal experience; your host is offering up his home because he wants to meet new people and learn more about other cultures. Treating your host’s house with the same (or more!) respect than you would your own is an expectation. Offer to do dishes, cook some dinner, fold up the bedding, etc.
  6. Gifts are never required, but it is kind to show up with some token of thanks, such as a bottle of wine, an interesting souvenir from your home county, some cookies, etc.
  7. One of the rudest things you can do is to be accepted as a surfer and then never show up. If you find out that you are no longer able to stay with someone who offered you a place, let them know sooner rather than later.

 COUCHSURFING MIGHT NOT BE FOR YOU IF YOU:

  1. Have a high-stress personality and don’t like improvising.
  2. Are a germaphobe.
  3. Are obsessive about things like pillow or mattress firmness or softness.
  4. Have difficulty with social situations and meeting new people.
  5. Need a lot of privacy.
  6. Aren’t easily accepting of different lifestyles or belief systems.
  7. Feel you need constant access to the place you’re staying. (Many Couchsurfing hosts don’t give surfers keys. Understandable, I think, but maybe a problem for some people.)
  8. Desire more of a solo getaway or privacy with friends/significant others traveling with you. Alternative lodging ideas can be found at this link.

 LINKS

How to be a great Couchsurfer:

https://www.couchsurfing.org/n/resources/rules

 Safety tips and information:

https://www.couchsurfing.org/n/safety

https://www.couchsurfing.org/n/safety_tips

 Proof that if a fussy, cynical old writer for The New Yorker can enjoy Couchsurfing, so can you:

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/04/16/120416fa_fact_marx

4 thoughts on “14 REASONS WHY COUCHSURFING IS THE BEST (ONLY) WAY TO TRAVEL”

  1. This is a wonderful post, Lexie!

    We love every single reason you mention and even more so the tips section and your advice on figuring out if Couchsurfing is for you or not.

    Thanks for including links to our Safety and Resource Center – it’s much appreciated. Happy Surfing!

    1. Just read this to Lexie and she says thanks so much and she can’t wait to Couchsurf in Reykjavik in a few weeks!

  2. I have been an avid couchsurfer, and I don’t believe you could have written a better article and argument for the benefits of the system. Well said! Thank you so much!

    1. Tathata, We are camping Lake Tahoe with the writer, Lexie, this weekend and her article convinced us also so we’ll be looking to Couchsurf San Francisco on our way back down the coast from WA in a few weeks. Thanks so much for the great feedback and we’re passing this along to Lexie! 🙂

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