The reminders on my phone are going off right now. We’ve got a total of six people staying with us over the next week or so. I make a careful mental inventory of sheets and towels, bars of soap, and muse again with mild frustration about the lack of room in our less than spacious Mexican fridge.
No, we don’t run a hostel. We don’t rent out our rooms on Airbnb.
We invite strangers into our home, offer them a bedroom, clean sheets and towels, and private bathrooms. No money changes hands but experiences are exchanged freely.
And sometimes there’s amazing food and booze.
This is Couchsurfing.
What is Couchsurfing?
Most of my friends and acquaintances in the travel community are intimately familiar with Couchsurfing, from both sides of the coin. Travelers from all over the world connect via the Couchsurfing website and either offer a space to crash or search for a host in the area they’re visiting. It’s really quite simple.
According to Couchsurfing’s website, their core mission is as follows, “We envision a world made better by travel and travel made richer by a connection. Couchsurfers share their lives with the people they encounter, fostering cultural exchange and mutual respect.”
We’ve met a number of people through Couchsurfing, many of whom we remain connected with today. It’s been incredible to follow along with the people we’ve become friends with and see them go on to do incredible things. We met Lainie Liberti through Couchsurfing, and she and her son Miro now run Project World School, which offers learning retreats for teens and young adults around the world. Then there’s Buba and Dixie, who we met in Peru. They now own a language school, LIOTA, in Merida, Mexico and give back to their community in some pretty amazing ways. Then there was the lovely and brilliant photographer from Paraguay who stayed with us in Panama. She and I drank wine and talked late into the night, and I knew then that we’d be friends for life.
We would never have crossed paths with these people had it not been for Couchsurfing.
Will and I host couchsurfers regularly and have done so for years. Also, as we tend to live in some pretty attractive places amongst travelers and backpackers we get a very high number of requests. Currently, I receive at least two messages per day. Of course, we can’t host everybody, nor do we want to, but there are a few reasons why I might choose one request over another, or reject someone automatically.
As an experienced and popular Couchsurfing host, here are some of my best tips for surfers to land the best possible Couchsurfing stay during your travels.
- Attend Couchsurfing meetups in your area. If you’re new to Couchsurfing I highly recommend attending a local meetup. These events happen all over the world and are a great way to meet other surfers and learn more about the process.
- Fill out your profile completely. This is your introduction to your potential hosts and they want to know as much about you as possible. Couchsurfing offers a very detailed profile template so be thorough and creative. I’ll immediately delete requests from people who don’t have a complete profile.
- Verify your profile. In addition to your personal information, Couchsurfing offers ways to verify your profile. You can do this by entering your phone number, address, and, if you choose, make a one-time payment. I tend to choose people who have at least partially verified their account, but since we’ve never made the payment I don’t rule out guests who haven’t done so either.
- Have references. References are something akin to the lifeblood of Couchsurfing and they help to create a safer experience for all parties. Even if you’re new to Couchsurfing you have the option to add personal references, and I strongly recommend doing so. After you’ve hosted or surfed or both, all parties involved will write their own references and thoughts about the stay. If a surfer has no references of any type I generally won’t accept the request.
- Send a proper email when making your request. When I receive requests I just love when guests have taken the time to write a proper email. If a request is simply a date and a few words indicating they’d like to stay with us I’m less likely to accept the request. Those that send an email introducing themselves and explaining why they’d like to stay with us have a much better chance of landing a few nights at our house.
- Read the host’s profile thoroughly. Taking the time to read the host’s profile is imperative. Not only does this give you the chance to certain you’re a good fit for the surfing situation but you’ll get a better idea of who your hosts are. Will you be sleeping on the floor? What’s the bathroom situation like? Are your hosts strict vegans? It’s best to go into this with as much information as possible. I can usually tell when a guest has read our profile by their email request, and I always give preference to people who indicate that. Something like, “Oh, you lived in the United Arab Emirates? I went to Dubai last year!” in an email will always win out over another request that makes no reference to our profile.
- Stay in touch. We all know that travel is by nature unpredictable, but if you’ve made an agreement to arrive on Thursday but something has come up to delay that, by all means send a message. It’s frustrating when we as hosts have planned for a specific arrival time and date, only to have someone not show up or bother to send a message.
Of course, once you’ve secured your stay and arrive to meet your host, politeness and common courtesy go a long way. Ask about the house rules, ask if you’ll have a key, and ask if you can help out with chores. While no money is supposed to change hands (some unscrupulous hosts do ask for a fee) it’s always nice to offer to cook a meal for your host or bring a bottle of wine. I especially love it when our guests offer to cook a meal that’s popular in their native country.
Travel can be expensive and no one knows that better than we do. By hosting couchsurfers we know that we’re not only going to meet incredible people, but we’re also helping fellow travelers save a bit of money on lodging, which in turn helps them get a little further down the road.
Have you used Couchsurfing? What has your experience been like? Let us know in the comments!