“I don’t know whether to admire you or just think you’re insane.”
A colleague recently said this to me when I explained to him the concept of couchsurfing – as a lot of you may know, we’ve spent the last few months of “downtime” hosting people through it. By which I mean, travellers have been coming to stay with us for free.
“So let me get this straight,” he said. “You willingly allow strangers to stay in your house?? You must have a lot of trust in people.”
“But,” I replied, “they also must have a lot of trust in me.”
And it’s true – sure, literally anyone could turn up on our doorstep (I mean, there’s only so much you can get from a few messages back and forth), but equally, they’re stepping inside the house of someone they’ve never met and I could do anything while they’re asleep. So there’s trust both ways, and that’s why it works so well.
CouchSurfing, most importantly, prides itself on being a community. This means it’s not just a way to save money on your travels – it’s a way to connect with other people and cultures, and share your lives in a meaningful way.
And it’s honestly a fantastic way to not only meet people (although I also talk to tourists all day at work and then come home to talk to them more, and my side job is also talking to tourists, so I’m starting to think if my colleague isn’t right about me being insane now, he will be soon), but also learn about different cultures, compare travel stories, learn about people’s lives and sometimes even to make new friends.
So far, we’ve hosted people from France, Germany, Czech Republic, Brazil, Canada, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, and even the UK (yay domestic travel!) and we’ve hosted teenagers right through to people in their ’60s.
I’ve also couchsurfed myself in New Zealand and the UK, but plan to do it more in the future.
And guess what? We’ve had nothing but great experiences. But my colleague has a point. And it’s certainly not for everyone.
So here are some of my top tips for being both a surfer and a host, to make sure you both get the best experiences out of it.
Being a surfer
Before you surf
Fill in your whole profile. If you’re going to be staying in someone’s house, they’ll want to know who you are. You have the chance to write about everything – what you do, what you want to do, the music, movies and books that you like, and the places you’ve been. Try to be fun and informative, and make the real you shine through. It’s also very important to upload a photo so people get an idea of who you are.
Get some references. I know. It’s like applying for entry-level jobs that expect you to have ten years of experience. While it’s not actually necessary to have references, it can go a long way. If you’re not getting anywhere with potential hosts, try connecting with friends who are already on Couchsurfing and ask them to leave you a personal reference. While these aren’t verified (because they’re not linked to an arranged stay), they really help other people to see that you’re a good person to be around.
Get verified. Similar to references, being verified is another way for hosts to know that you’re a real person. You don’t have to pay to be verified – you can verify ID, phone numbers and addresses for free.
Be personal in your requests. I don’t often turn people down (unless we already have guests). But when I do, it’s because quite frankly they haven’t put any effort in to reading my profile and send me a cut & paste message about how they have no money and need somewhere to stay. I know the feels – but if you can’t even be bothered to find out who you’re staying with, I’m not sure if I feel like “saving you money”. The people I get most excited about hosting are the ones who say “I love Studio Ghibli too!” or “we’re into a lot of the same music” or “we’ve been to a lot of the same countries and I’d love to share stories”. Something simple goes a long way, even just a “you sound really cool and I think we could get on really well!”. I don’t live in a busy travel area, but if you’re sending requests to people in cities, remember that they are probably getting several messages a day. So again, it can be a little like applying for a job – just much, much more personable.
Here’s an example of a great one I received a couple of days ago:
Check the location of potential hosts. Particularly in big cities, you could end up spending a fortune (not to mention valuable time) getting to and from the host’s house. This happened to us twice in New Zealand, although the hosts’ generosity more than made up for it both times. We were even offered a bed on Waiheke in Auckland, which sounded amazing but would have cost $36 just to get there! This is one of the few drawbacks of couchsurfing, but it’s one of those things about “living like a local”. It’s also very important to make sure your host’s home is in a safe area.
Use your initiative. Carrying on from making sure the location is safe, make sure you act on any gut feelings about whether your host is safe. I was absolutely blown away at first by the number of requests I get from solo female travellers – before realising that most of the active hosts in my area are male, so it absolutely makes sense that they are requesting with me. If you start getting messages that feel slightly off, cancel your stay. Luckily these instances are few and far between, and I haven’t had any issues whatsoever.
While you surf
Be respectful. I mean, this should be obvious. Don’t stay up late being loud, clean up after yourself, and talk to your host rather than sitting on their wifi the whole time you’re there. We’ve had no issues with any of this, but always be aware of how you’re treating your host and their home.
Give something back. Couchsurfing is a no-money service (it’s actually against their rules to ask for money) but it’s common courtesy to give something in return for a welcoming home. This could be anything from a gift (see the photo below for some of the ones I’ve received!) to cooking a meal for everyone, to going out for a drink and buying them a pint. One host we stayed with in New Zealand only asked that we send her a postcard from our home town when we get home, although we did cook her a meal, too.
Know your boundaries. We have been super flexible with our surfers because we live in a quiet and very safe area. We also work stupid hours, which means one of us is almost always at home, but equally we can be working any time between 7.30am and midnight. However, most hosts will be working a job and won’t really be happy about you being in the house while they’re not. So you might need to be a bit flexible in your plans, arrival times, etc etc. It’s not like a hotel where you can just rock up any time to check in. Also don’t expect food, and always check before you use things. I’m happy for you to use our milk, tea and coffee; anything else, there’s a supermarket down the road.
Be independent. Back when we started hosting, it was winter season here and public transport was quite frankly shit. So I made sure to help our guests to see as much as possible and loved playing tour guide while I had time. Since then, most of our surfers have been fab – they know what they want to see and might just need a bit of advice on getting around if I can’t take them. But a couple of people have literally turned up with no idea about what Orkney has to offer, and I’ve felt like they almost expect me to drive them around because they haven’t done any research. As above, don’t take advantage of your hosts.
Leave a reference. Couchsurfing is a community based on references, so it’s important to let people know that your host was a good one (or definitely if they were a bad one!).
Being a host
Before you host
Fill in your profile. Much like hosts wanting to know some information about their surfer, surfers also need to know who they’re staying with. After all, you could be anyone, too. You can let them know what you’re into, why you’re on couchsurfing, where you’ve been and anything else you might think is interesting. I don’t tend to request to stay with people who literally have nothing in common with me.
Add some info about your sleeping arrangements. Guests will find it super useful if you provide info about where they’ll be sleeping, and there’s a page on your profile dedicated to this. We put people up in their own room, but I’ve slept on mattresses in people’s living rooms, futons and couches. You can also outline how many guests you’re willing to host, which genders you prefer to host, policies on smoking, whether you accept pets and children, and much more. Importantly, there’s a section for your closest public transport, which surfers will find especially useful.
Get references. You are much more likely to get requests once you have a few references. Additionally, after you’ve hosted someone and they’ve left you a positive reference, you get 3 months of rolling verified membership, which means once you’ve hosted a second person, another 3 months is added to it. If you haven’t hosted anyone yet, I’d recommend getting verified (you can do this for free) so potential guests know they can trust your details.
While you host
Be welcoming. This comes with the territory, but if you’re letting someone into your home, you want them to feel welcome, right? You have no obligations to be flexible or overly accommodating, but if you’re the sort of person who’s willing to host strangers, you’re probably a nice person. ;)
Set boundaries. Equally, you need to make sure your house rules are known. This is particularly important when you have people staying from totally different cultures. Do you want shoes off at the door? Let them know when they come in. Don’t want people using your milk? Tell them where they can buy some. A girl staying with us at the moment even asked us if we’re OK with the toilet being flushed in the middle of the night because previous hosts have said she can’t! And if you’re out the following day, let your guests know what time they have to be out.
Keep clean. Although you’re not charging people to stay, it’s nice to keep the area they’ll be sleeping in clean. You don’t have to be spotless but try to make it a little bit homely for them!
Learn some knowledge about your area. Half the reason it’s fun hosting people is that it’s nice to be able to show them around. If you don’t have time, make sure you can point out some cool secret spots for your guests to find. This is half the reason they’ll love staying with you, too!
Leave a reference. References really help the community to stay secure, and although I haven’t received a reference from all my hosts (some of the ones in New Zealand hosted several people every night! It was almost like a hostel in one of the houses!) it definitely boosts your surfer’s chances of getting hosted by someone else.
Some extra tips for using the Couchsurfing website:
- when browsing potential hosts’ profiles, make sure to check when they were last active – if it’s been months and months, it may be best to contact someone else.
- if you’re struggling to find somewhere, or need a last minute couch, you can post an open request in that city, and hosts can contact you. This is how we found our host in Wellington, who was the loveliest lady ever! There are also groups for lots of cities that you can join and post in.
- hosts have a section on their profile about what they provide. This includes how many surfers they’re willing to host as well as how you’ll be sleeping – many hosts will even give you a private room with a bed! It also has info on smoking and pet policies, location and more.
- couchsurfing isn’t all about staying with people. There are loads of regular meet-ups and events to just meet people in the area, both local and travelling. These are mostly in cities, but can be really popular and means you can meet people with no commitments whatsoever.
- download the CouchSurfing app! Seriously, since using it actively I find it so much easier to just open the app on my phone, plus I get notifications every time I get a new message so I can read them pretty much immediately. Download it here: Apple | Android
CouchSurfing has endless opportunities. There are 14 million members in the community, spanning every single country in the world – including ANTARCTICA, apparently! (Now that would be an interesting one, although I can’t decide if any of their profiles are real.)
Would you ever stay in a stranger’s home, or let a stranger stay in your home?
Or is my colleague right?!
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