I love to travel, but I’m not rich. While hostels are cheap places to meet lots of friendly co-travelers, one of my most rewarding traveling experiences has been something known as "couch-surfing"—sleeping on the couches of friends in foreign cities. Websites like CouchSurfing and Hospitality Club are online networks for travelers, and they provide both free accommodations and advice. Some people offer their couches to young and frugal travelers, whereas others simply offer to show travelers around a new city.
When I couch-surfed for the first time throughout Europe, I strategically told my parents that I would be doing a “home-stay.” Staying at the homes of strangers you’ve only spoken to online is obviously a scary prospect, but these sites employ a Facebook-meets-eBay approach: All surfers and hosts have profiles with their names, hobbies, and interests, but they also have reviews and ratings. Some users have been “vouched” for by prominent members of the couch-surfing community, which is a high mark of legitimacy. You can read past reviews in order to verify a person’s trustworthiness, and you should only stay with people you’ve handpicked.
I couch-surfed by myself in Munich, Paris, and Dublin, and in Granada and London with a friend. My hosts were generous, and all of my experiences were positive. After returning to the United States, my roommates and I paid it forward by hosting surfers in New York.
The following tips about safety and social graces are important to note before putting yourself in the hands of strangers.
Even if you make plans with one host, it’s a good idea to have the names and phone numbers of a few others, just in case. You should also make a list of hostels in your destination city; be prepared to call them one by one if you’re in a bind.
You Can Always Leave
Did you show up at the door of a host who gives you the heebie-jeebies? Make up an excuse and get out. You NEVER have to stay anywhere you’re uncomfortable. There are always other options. See Tip #1.
All hosts have different styles. Some provide nothing but a place to stay, while others do not want to be a mere hotel. Some hosts will ask you to leave the house in the morning when they leave for work, whereas others will set aside time to show you around town. People often describe their hosting styles in their profiles, so if you have a particular preference, your best bet is to target those sorts of hosts.
With presents, that is. People are allowing you to stay at their houses for free, so bring something small like chocolates, a bottle of wine, or a souvenir from the last city you visited. When my roommates and I hosted a boy from Finland, he brought us spicy Scandinavian candies. We thought they were gross … but we were grateful for the cultural experience!
The obvious question is, “Why would these people want to host me? What do they get out of it?” I asked that to my hosts, and the almost unanimous answer was that they want to meet people and learn about the world. One of my Parisian hosts was considering a backpacking trip of her own, and she finally found the courage to do it after hearing all of the amazing experiences of her guests. She even surprised me by making crepes for me—all she asked in return was that I regale her with my travel exploits.
Couch-surfing enabled me to stay in real neighborhoods rather than in tourist centers, and it provided me with friendly guides who lived there. Although I saved a great deal of money, I gained a wealth of unforgettable experiences.