While there are many similar websites on the internet, CouchSurfing.org is one of the largest, connecting over 2.5 million registered members in hundreds of countries. Members can sign up to host travellers at their home or meet them for coffee. The first thing I did was fill out the rather extensive profile. I tried to show as much of my personality as possible so that I had a better chance of meeting people with whom I'd actually get along. Take a look at some other profiles to get the hang of it. The more extensive the profile, the more likely someone will feel comfortable contacting you.
You can offer your guest room or literally your couch, but you don't need to offer a place to sleep at all in order to participate in the community. Currently, I'm registered as being able to "meet for coffee" in my hometown. After setting your couch availability, travellers will start to contact you. The site encourages a lot of correspondence before meeting, which is obviously a good idea. Get to know your potential guest to see if you want to meet them at all. If that's a yes, get to know what they're in to so you can show them the best of your town.
Sometimes travellers can't meet with you and just ask for advice, like dinner recommendations, so I threw together a restaurant list for every type of place I could think of that I liked in town: my picks for fancy-pants dining, pub grub, pizza, Thai, etc. It was a lot of fun and I'll use that list again in the future, I'm sure. It makes you appreciate your town all the more.
The first person to contact me to meet up was Clara, a French girl doing an internship in my town for the summer. She lived in the suburbs with a roommate coworker. After talking to her about her interests, I knew I had to show her around downtown and take her out to be with people her own age for the first time since she arrived in the country. She was relieved to see that there was more to my town than the 'burbs. We met a few more times before she went back to Europe and have stayed in touch since then. In fact…
My first experience as a surfer was when Clara returned the favour (and then some!) and let my boyfriend and me crash on her futon for a week. By then she was a student living with three roommates in Bologna, Italy. They were all wonderfully accommodating of the foreigners who couldn't speak any Italian. We had a great time getting to know all of them, and seeing what the Bolognese do for fun.
The best part about CouchSurfing isn't that even that it's free. The best part is that instead of exploring a new city/country/culture alone as tourists, you're invited to join your host, their friends, their family in their everyday life. When Graeme and I stayed with Clara in Bologna, we met her classmates who were from all around the world, too. In one trip we met and made friends with people from Italy, Portugal, France, and Belgium. All the language barriers were simultaneously hilarious and educational. We each showed each other crazy Youtube videos in our native tongues. We learned what every culture loves to get drunk off. We recommended music and films to each other. It was cultural immersion at its best.
Not only were we saving money by not staying a hotel, but we also shared food with Clara and her roommates and cooked in her kitchen. She knew which restaurants were good and which were overpriced tourist traps. She knew how to get the cheap tickets for the trains so we could spend days in Verona and Venice without going broke. She could speak Italian when we wanted to buy things and help us learn a little, too. But the best thing was when she showed us Bologna's "secrets" — like pot leaf frescos; whispering walls; and an arrow lodged in a ceiling from a misfire caused by nudity.
I believe that one of the reasons we had such a good experience is that the profile questionnaire for CouchSurfing is quite involved. Clara was so careful to plan activities according to what she thought we'd love to do, and she was always correct. She even took as to a beautiful park we'd have surely overlooked because she thought we'd "miss the Canadian wilderness."
If you're looking to surf at someone's place, profiles are required to describe your sleeping quarters (own room, shared living room, the entire flat) and provide pictures. You'll know what other amenities your "couch" will have: kitchen, shower, maybe even a pool.
The website offers tips on how to search for couches, read and write profiles, give references, host, and more. They even have articles about solo travellers and those traveling with children.
One of the most important things to the CouchSurfing community is just that — its sense of community. Often people write in their profile that the reason they host is so that they can meet new people from around the world, and that they look forward to actively showing you around their home, sharing meals with you, or going out to local bars. If your traveling style is fiercely independent, make sure that your host is okay with that — many of them don't want to be just a free hotel room. Of course, some hosts have no problem giving you a key and letting you come and go as you please.
It's important to read profiles and communicate with your prospective hosts a lot well in advance of your travels so that you can be sure to find a simpatico arrangement between traveller and host. And even if you're staying at a hotel, be sure to consider arranging to meet someone for coffee — there's nothing like a local showing you around their 'hood.
As far as safety is concerned, CouchSurfing states that they are very concerned with the safety of their travellers. In order to prevent malicious use, the site is run on a reference basis. Every interaction you have with another member can be recorded by that member in a reference, and you cannot edit them. Therefore if you find someone who you think you'll get along with, and he or she has lots of good references, you can feel confident about meeting in real life. The site recommends you meet first in a public area and to trust your instincts.
CouchSurfing has become indispensable in my travel planning. My first step to finding accommodation is looking for someone to host me or at least meet up with when I'm traveling. Sure it saves money — but the best part is definitely meeting new, like-minded people who become friends. Remember, too: it's great for meeting new people in your own city.
I'd love to hear about what networks you use to couch surf or meet other travellers while on the road!