I don’t usually take risks like this.
Sleep on a stranger’s couch? In a foreign country? Forget about it.
I’m usually the one warning friends not to meet people online. There are weirdos out there, you know. And never would I ever go home with a stranger.
Yet there I was, scrolling through profiles online. Name after name in country after country of people willing to lend their couch to me. Ghent, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels. You name the city. You’ll find a couch there with your name on it.
I mean, travel beckoned. And I was broke. Can you blame me?
Here’s how it happened.
Wanderlust: Won’t Take “Nein” for an Answer
Where: Tübingen, Germany.
When: Winter break, 2008.
Who: Nathan and Mandy Wallace, American study abroad students with an itch to travel.
Sure, I could have stayed cooped up in my dorm room. Germany was beautiful enough. Swirling snow, but not so much to be annoying. Hunting for mushrooms on the edge of the Black Forrest. Castles. Baroque churches and medieval architecture. Glittering Christmas markets and mulled wine.
But the world was too close not to explore it.
So this suspicious-of-strangers, no-risk-is-worth-putting-your-life-in-peril, small-town Bakersfield girl was ready to put her life into a stranger’s hands.
Several strangers, as it turned out.
It’s called couchsurfing. And there’s an app for that.
What is Couchsurfing?
Couchsurfing is a web service connecting seven million travelers in 120,000 cities across the globe.
With couchsurfing, you can find a couch to sleep on in any city in the world. Just send a request through the website. Or be a host and list your couch for travelers.
The account is free. The accommodations are free. The experience is priceless.
[Video: Watch the hilarious Malia AuParis’s introduction to Couchsurfing]
What to Expect When Couchsurfing
Couchsurfing isn’t about free accommodations. Let’s face it, it’s easier to get a hotel. No, couchsurfing is about community. It’s about seeing a new place from the local perspective. It’s about the inside scoop on a foreign place. It’s about people.
Confused yet? Here’s a quick rundown of what to expect.
Couchsurfing’s seven million members can’t all be crazy, right? Right.
They’re not all hippies either.
Yes, you’ll see their bohemian roots in the couchsurfing core values. Who doesn’t love generosity, human connection, tolerance, celebration of curiosity, and global custodianship? But they’ve grown up a lot too.
The couchsurfing demographic has shifted. What was once just a travel solution for the college-age and early-twenties backpacking crowd has now swept up a wide range of ages and backgrounds. All held together by those couchsurfing core values.
Most couchsurfers just want to meet like-minded people. Like the study abroad experience, couchsurfing is about getting to know another culture on a more personal and more tolerant level. It’s getting to know the human element in what is usually just a clash of cultures.
The Accommodations: Food and Sleep Surfaces
The digs are usually comfortable. The hosts usually overwhelmingly kind and accommodating.
Don’t be surprised if your host serves you good wine and a multi-course dinner. But don’t expect it either.
I feed my travelers because talking over food is a comfortable way for me to get to know people. But there are many hosts who won’t. And many travelers like to treat their hosts to dinner too. Again, everyone is different. Hammer this out with your host in advance if it worries you.
The “couch” part of couchsurfing is just a suggestion. Some surfers consider it a matter of pride to collect crazy sleeping spaces. I prefer a bed. But I wasn’t always that picky.
You’ll find anything from a well-appointed suite to a piece of well-scrubbed floor, minus the scrubbing. It’s up to you what you accept. So be sure to check the host’s profile for this info and ask questions.
It’s better to leave nothing to chance while traveling a foreign country. A lot of the things you take for granted may not exist where you’re going.
For example, many Europeans wouldn’t be caught traveling without a sleep sack while most Americans have no idea what that is. You wouldn’t be the first person to show up at a host’s house to find no blanket can be provided.
If you ignore all my advice, be sure to at least ask your host if towels and blankets are provided. You can wing pretty much anything else.
Have an Emergency Fund
First and foremost, always have an emergency fund. It’s just common sense while traveling. That way, if someone makes you uncomfortable (or farts a lot), you can call a taxi and find a hotel.
Stack the odds in your favor ahead of time so you won’t need your emergency fund. You can do that by checking references.
The site offers reference options and address verifications. Check your host’s carefully.
Remember that a lack of references can be a red flag too. That’s because different cultures handle conflict differently. And a surfer with a negative experience sometimes prefers to leave no reference at all.
You’ve probably guessed that people looking at your profile will think the same of you if you don’t have references. That makes it tough for newbies. Just ask friends to provide references, even if they’ve never surfed a couch.
Getting verified can also help. And tell your first prospects that you’re new to couchsurfing. Some of the more adventurous may host you anyway.
When I first started out, I asked other students from my study abroad program to provide character references and never had trouble finding a couch.
Women Traveling Alone
I know a number of women who couchsurf alone. Some are even comfortable with male-only hosts. But that isn’t a choice I would make. I don’t know anyone who’s felt endangered while couchsurfing. But I’m sure it happens.
If you’re a woman traveling alone, use the search filter options to find female-only hosts.
[Video: Check out Traveleska’s tips for a safe couchsurfing experience.]
Couchsurfing, Even for Introverts?
Couchsurfing is a fresh and adventurous way to approach travel. Nowhere else can you experience the gritty, in-the-thick-of-things experience that couchsurfing offers.
I’m a proud introvert who needs time alone, so my travels mixed private hotels, hostels with the slightly more anonymous common room, and the more intimate couchsurfing experience. Each has its pros and cons. And I found a mixture worked for me.
Even though I’m an introvert who loves her time alone, couchsurfing has been an enriching experience, both as a host and as a surfer.
I’m grateful to have discovered it, and I want to share it with you.
So C is for couchsurfing.
[This is an article from the 2014 Writers of Kern “A” to “Z” Blog Challenge Series. See the rest of the series.]
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