In my new life as a digital nomad, I tried out Couchsurfing for the first time last month, and then wondered, “How am I this late to the game?! Where has this been all our lives??” I had always thought of it as a somewhat sketchy service, a last resort for people who could not afford even hostels or AirBnB’s when they traveled. I raised my eyebrows at the fact that it was free lodging and free for anyone to become a member. But that could not be further from the truth.
First off, “Couchsurfing” is a misnomer since some hosts have beds and even full-on guest bedrooms. Some provide full on amenities, breakfast, and pick-up and drop-off services. It’s far from a “schlepp on a stranger’s couch.” It’s actually a mini-version of a home stay cultural exchange, what people seek when they study abroad. The point is to meet locals and learn from one another. They offer you their home and you offer them your stories, experiences, and companionship.
Though it’s completely free and nothing is expected, the etiquette is to try to give your host a small token or gift, preferably something from your hometown or representing your country. For those who for whatever the reason cannot leave their homes to travel, they can bring the travel and exposure to cultural diversity to them.
It’s also a cycle of giving that reminds and affirms that the world is small and that we are all connected. Only certain types of people use this system, the types who are warm, kind, and open-hearted enough to meet and trust strangers. Being part of this community and opening your home to someone means that the good karma will cycle back so that you’ll have a place to stay and good company when you travel.
And it’s not just for people on a budget; some choose to learn about the intricacies and hidden gems of a place by hanging out firsthand with a local, which is a priceless opportunity. You can also use the site to just meet up with locals or other travelers in the area, if you don’t want to use it for lodging. It’s an easy and fun way to grow your worldwide network.
Couchsurfing prides itself on its slogan, “connecting friends who haven’t met yet.” It can feel a bit like an online dating system, as everyone is expected to write detailed profiles to increase the chances of a good match-up, and both people would have to agree in order to proceed as it is completely voluntary. Though it is strictly for friendships and expecting anything further is frowned upon.
Thus many people have reported feeling safe, no matter who their host is, but you can filter hosts by many preferences if you so desire. To further support safety, there is an intricate system of reviews and verification, such as those used by taxi-services like Uber.
Of course, despite all these safety nets, there can be bad experiences or awkward match-ups, so it doesn’t hurt to have people know the host’s information, where you are, whom you’re with, to have a backup place to stay, and to feel free to leave if anything at all feels “off.” You are also not obligated to hang out with the host; it’s something that can be discussed on a case-by-case basis. Reading the reviews usually gives you a good sense of what to expect.
I wasn’t quite adventurous enough to take the plunge internationally. I admit I decided to try it out within the US first, while I still had a reliable phone plan in case anything went amiss. My host in San Diego was a middle-aged man who had hosted an average of 500 couchsurfers a year over the past 5 years. He said they were a good mix of both couchsurfing nomads and couchsurfing traditional travelers.
He liked to host several people at the same time, and once even had one surfer from every continent in his home simultaneously! Extremely generous and welcoming, he had even put together an entire binder full of activities and restaurant recommendations. He routinely took his guests snorkeling or surfing, and had a closet chock-full of equipment including wetsuits, fins, masks, and mouthpieces!
We went snorkeling with sea lions, and it was absolutely amazing. He also picked us up and dropped us off and had his own guest bedroom with a well-stocked cabinet of anything we may have needed or forgotten to bring. I think he went above and beyond what most hosts would do, although I do not yet have another experience for comparison. I plan to try it out again internationally, and will keep you posted!