Couchsurfing has become increasingly popular in recent years as an easy way to meet local people and lodge for free in a new city. I began couchsurfing last year as a way to travel every weekend without completely breaking the bank. I was ready to take advantage of my year abroad but of course, travelling that regularly can get a little costly- especially for those on a student budget like yours truly.
By embracing Couchsurfing, I was able to explore a new place every weekend whilst only having to pay for my travel there and back and food, though some hosts also feed you, meaning you have next to nothing to fork out!
Although I was excited by the prospect of free lodging, I was initially apprehensive of couchsurfing for all the usual reasons… how did I know my host wouldn’t be a psycho-serial-axe-murderer? What if they put me in uncomfortable situations? What if they don’t let me explore the city for myself and ruin the whole stay with an overbearing presence?
I wanted to meet new people and practice my French but I was also not keen on the idea of someone controlling my time and activities. I’m a very independent traveller and don’t like tour-guides or prescribed to-do lists.
However, after a few experiences I realised that as long as you take the right precautions there’s absolutely nothing to worry about. To me, couchsurfing is no longer just a way to stay somewhere for free but an amazing opportunity to see and do things you’d never even think of without a local host. Here’s my guide on how to get going with couchsurfing safely as possible.
The Ultimate Couchsurfing Guide:
Setting up your Profile
Although the profile isn’t as important for surfers as it is for hosts, many hosts won’t accept surfers with a less than complete profile so it’s in your interests to make sure your profile is up to date and looking good. Make sure:
You have a profile picture with a clear up-to-date photo of yourself.
You have a few more pictures of you, preferably showing you engaging in some of your hobbies. For example, I have a couple of photos of me hiking and in nature with friends to show that I like the outdoors. Having more than one photo reassures people online that you are actually a real person (or a really good catfish).
You have filled in basic information about where in the world you are from and what kind of lifestyle you have.
You list a couple of interests and hobbies. This is helpful for potential hosts to see if you have any common ground. A host that is interested in nature, hiking and adventure will be more likely to host you if you also show an interest in these things.
Say if there’s anything you can offer your host in return, for example language skills or an incredible hand at cooking. A lot of hosts appreciate you being open to cultural exchange and giving something back.
It’s important when trying to find hosts that you are selective about who you send requests to. If you send requests to everyone and anyone without having a good look at their profile you’re firstly, not likely to be accepted and secondly, putting yourself at risk. It’s important to:
See when the host was last online. If it’s over a month ago I don’t bother sending a request as they’re not likely to come online to see your message or be interested in hosting at that time.
READ the full profile. There’s multiple reasons why this is important-
Sometimes a host will have a phrase or word that they want you to include in your request to prove that you’ve read their whole profile. If you don’t read the profile and don’t include this phrase, they’ll likely ignore your message or decline your request.
It can help you gather an idea of what the host is like. Sometimes what people say in their profile can turn you off completely. It’s sometimes a good way of also gauging if a host is only on couchsurfing as a dating website or way to try for sex. I once came across a profile of a guy who, as a naturalist, preferred everyone staying in his house to be naked. He obviously preferred to only host females as well. Creep.
You’ll learn a little about where and how you’ll be staying. On the ‘home’ tab, you can find out how many surfers they allow, their preferred gender and how you’ll be sleeping. If you prefer to stay in a private room, check here to see if this is what is listed. They’ll also usually provide some information about their home, whether it’s very small and intimate with not much privacy or if there are any rules. This is my main area of interest as I’m not interested in staying with someone if I’m sharing a bed with them (that’s just weird to me) or I have to be up, dressed and out of the house at 6am everyday (that’s just inhuman).
Read the references. I only like to stay with people who have at least ten positive references as this reassures me that others have had positive experiences staying with said host. If no one has left a reference, you really have no one else vouching for that person and then who knows what they’re like. If the host is male, I prefer to see that they have references from both genders to show that they are interested in couchsurfing for…good reasons and don’t have a second agenda.
Sending Requests / Communication
It’s important to take some time and care in forming your requests to hosts. If you send two brief sentences asking for a free bed, they’re not likely to respond. A host isn’t going to want to invite an aloof, rude person into their home. I generally have a template created for each place, which I edit to suit each host individually. My request generally includes:
The name of the host at the start. This is just polite and shows that at the very least, you’ve taken the time to learn their name.
A brief introduction about me, where I’m from and my interests.
A summary of why I’m visiting their city/town, and what I’m interested in seeing and doing while I’m there. This is a good idea so that even if a host declines you, they can send you local advice and recommendations.
A personal touch that shows I’ve read their profile. For example, I’ll say something along the lines of ‘I’m interested in hearing more about your trip to India last year’ or ‘I see that your interested in photography, I’d like to see some of your work.’
Details about my stay, how long I’m staying and with whom. The website makes you include these logistics when you send a request anyway, but its a nice idea to reiterate it. It’s also nice to provide a few details about your travel companions, if you have any –so say whether they’re also students, like you, or your boyfriend etc- and offer to send their couchsurfing profiles so that they don’t feel they are inviting a group of strangers into their home. As I often travel with two friends, making a group of three, whilst most hosts prefer a maximum of two surfers, I also use this area to explain that whilst we are a group of three, we’ll happily stay in a small space and share one bed, if necessary.
Sign off and say something about how you look forward to hearing from them/ potentially staying with them.
If they accept your request, communicate with them to see what they’re like, ask any questions you have and let them know what time you’re arriving and where in case they offer to meet you at the station. I also prefer to know their address before I get there.
When you first arrive, it’s a good idea to spend some time getting to know your host so that the rest of your stay isn’t awkward or uncomfortable. Some people prefer to meet their host in a public place beforehand and have a conversation so that they can easily make their excuses and find somewhere else to stay if they get any bad vibes.
If I couchsurfed alone, I’d probably take extra precautions like this but as I’m usually in a group of friends or with my boyfriend, I’m not as worried about my safety, though I do stay alert by making sure my phone is on and working.
Embrace your host’s suggestions for the best experience. As a local, they’re likely to know the spots that aren’t on any of the travel guides. In Clermont-Ferrand, my host offered to take us to an abandoned abattoir for an urbex adventure. Although this isn’t something we’d think to do ourselves, we had such an exhilarating time exploring the abandoned slaughterhouse with our host and his friends and it’s sure to be a memory that I’ll cherish forever.
However, if you want to explore a city alone without your host, as long as you are polite and put aside some time to get to know them at some point during your stay, its your decision what you do with the rest of your time. Some of us have a bucket list item that is just waiting to be ticked off so don’t let anyone put you off living your dream trip if that’s what you came for. Courteously explain what your plan is for your stay and let your host know what time you’ll return each day to spend time with them.
You don’t owe anything in return for the lodging other than an open-mind, your respect and your kindness so don’t feel like you have to live under their command or give up any favours that you’re uncomfortable with. It’s unfortunately true that despite taking all the precautions beforehand, people have been unlucky enough to find themselves staying with an intrusive or aggressive person. Be firm about what you’re comfortable with and don’t let anyone make you feel like you owe them something for staying with them for free.
Bring a sleeping bag. Even if you’re provided with a bed, most hosts don’t want to spend time and money washing their bed-sheets weekly or even daily, so you can’t be sure how clean they are. I’ve used my sleeping bag at every place I’ve stayed at whilst couchsurfing, and been extremely glad that I had it.
Bring a small gift to say thank you to your host, preferably from your home country to add a personal touch. Although this isn’t expected it’s a nice way to break the ice and most hosts really appreciate it.
Leave their house if you’re not comfortable! It’s a good idea to have backup hosts or hostels lined up in case something bad happens, just so you’re not left in a dangerous situation.
So, there’s my big bumper Couchsurfing Guide. I have a massive queue of Couchsurfing stories from across the globe a-waiting in my drafts so stay tuned the next couple of weeks!
If you have any questions or worries about couchsurfing hit me up with a message on facebook or instagram, always love to hear from you. Let me know in the comments: have you ever couchsurfed? I wanna hear your experiences!