Turn your home into a hostel — or stay for free abroad — with CouchSurfing.org

January 11 | diezyn
The view from our host's apartment in Bologna.
My boyfriend and I have been traveling together for about five years now. We've done hotels, hostels, and even AirBnB — but our favourite way to spend time in a city where we don't know anyone is also the cheapest way: CouchSurfing.org. It's a free network for travellers and hosts for free accommodation, meet-ups, or advice, and it's been around since 2004. Imagine not only sleeping in Bologna for free, but staying with people your own age, with similar interests, who show you around town to the best spots you might otherwise miss. This is CouchSurfing.org.

Hosting

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.

A night on the town with our host Clara's friends.

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.

Clara took us to Verona for the day. Check out that VIEW!

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…

Surfing

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.

She introduced us to her classmates from all over the world.

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.

Ace Ventura is way funnier in Italian with Clara's roommates!

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.

Cannabis fresco!

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."

Reconnecting with the 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.

Safety

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!

  1. Yay for couchsurfing! We are registered for a year now and have hosted a few people. It is a great opportunity to meet people from all over the world.
    Now we have to take it to the next level and couchsurf ourselves :).

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  2. Now that I'm living in a house instead of a tiny apartment, I've considered being a couchsurfing host. I'd love to surf too, because I want to travel but can't afford it, but it seems like surfers are all pretty young, so I wonder if I'm too old (I'm 37 and my boyfriend is 50). Are there older surfers, and if so, how are they perceived?

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  3. Thanks for such a terrific and informative article! I've been wanting to get set up on Couchsurfing and this is my motivation to finally do it.

    I also want to drop in a plug for WWOOFing as another great way to travel the world, meet awesome people, and really get immersed in the local culture. WWOOFing involves farmstays/work exchanges, so it's definitely not the same as Couchsurfing. I've had great WWOOFing experiences, though, and am planing my next trip.

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    • Hey Colleen! Thanks for reading! I'm glad to hear you've had good experiences with with WWOOFing — I've been looking into it myself.

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  4. I love Couchsurf, even though I'm not on it anymore.

    If you don't feel like hosting or even if you can't afford to travel right now, there are also great local meetup groups, and you can meet new friends who also love travel and hosting. I went to quite a few parties/ meet ups this way and met some great locals.

    (As always with online communities, use common sense and street smarts when allowing folks into your home; this is covered on the website as well.)

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  5. I love the idea of couchsurfing, but I have personally had mixed experiences with it in the US. I tried it a few times in New York and San Francisco, thinking the large cities would provide options to meet up with people and get to see the area in a new light, but few people responded to my messages. I met up with one guy in New York who was clearly just trying to get in my pants (thank God I was just meeting him to hang out and wasn't actually staying at his place). I did manage to stay with one very nice fella in Queens, where I also met some great Danish girls who later came and stayed with me in the DC area – but honestly, my bad experiences have rather soured me on couchsurfing and I haven't tried it since. Additionally, I tend to travel alone and a lot of my friends and family already feel massively uncomfortable with me doing that and staying in a hostel, much less sleeping on a stranger's couch.
    I do tend to believe that it's a great community and that I've just had some of the uncommon bad experiences that can happen on the site. I think it might work better in other countries where that sort of thing is slightly more common (I haven't had the money to leave the US in a few years).

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  6. This sounds like an awesome way to have a staycation. Take a week or so off while you have a couchsurfer at your place and enjoy seeing your city through their eyes. Sounds like fun!

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  7. We've been CouchSurfing members for years and have had nothing but great experiences. If any of you want to visit Austin look us up.

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  8. still sounds risky to me. i get the reference being a big help, but let's say the person kills you & you can't leave a reference to warn the next person? seems like a hole in the plan there.

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    • Yes. But the risk of someone actually killing you is pretty small.
      And no, because when someone murders you, you'd go missing right? And using your street smart, of course you HAVE told people where you were staying. So, with you being dead, your family or friends would alert the police and first thing they'd go looking at this person you were staying with. Couchsurfing is pretty clear that they help the police (and give this person's address) and strongly encourages surfers to file with the police if anything nasty happens. The offender is subsequently banned from the CS website.
      Personally, I would only stay with ladies or couples AND they need to have great references. Again, using internet street smart.
      My character is rather suspicious of other people and it is my husband who encouraged me to sign up. And slowly I'm discovering that the world is not such a scary place as I thought and that the majority of the people is actually nice :). But it's not for every one and that's fine. Some people like camping, some like hotels, some like surfing. :)

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  9. I've heard of this before but never used it. I was mostly worried about safety. I'm glad you included that section- I feel a lot better about that now! (It'll also make my post-summer program in Paris a lot easier when I have to leave my host family and want to slum around Paris and Berlin for a bit!)

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    • Hi Melissa! Thanks for reading. I'm glad you found it useful! If you're in Paris with your host family you can always use CouchSurfing to get to know hosts before actually staying with them by meeting up for coffee, etc. Then when it comes time to look for a place to crash you'll feel like you're staying with friends you've known for a while, like I did.

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  10. I did CS in Spain! It seemed to be really hard to find people in the big cities (probably because they`re always getting hit up), and the person I did stay with in the small city wasn`t actually in the small city. I loved the idea, and overall my experience was really great, but if neighbourhood really matters to you (or heck, being sure of the right city), don`t be afraid to ask.

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  11. I've been surfing and hosting for years, love it! We're actually hosting a band tonight, going to their show for free and letting them crash with us after. Not a bad deal!

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  12. I have had really wonderful experiences hosting and surfing through couchsurfing. I always make a point of talking it up to people I know.

    If you like to travel or like to meet new people- serious check this out!

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  13. I love your ideas! My fiance and I want to travel, and we love getting to know other cultures, so this would be amazing for us, especially once we have our own place!!

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    • Thanks for reading Kristi! Hope your CouchSurfing dreams come true :D

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  14. Great post topic! I just returned from a two-months Eurotrip which was mainly made possible by Couchsurfing :)

    I've never hosted so far (but will soon return the favor) but as a solo married female traveller, I've had 98% positive surfing experiences. I've surfed with girls only, couples and guys only. My one mixed experience was when I surfed with someone who was weird by my standards – but hey, maybe they thought I was weird too! I never felt threatened, I was rather amazed by the level of trust of my host, what with letting me stay alone in their flat or giving me the keys! Trust is the key. If when reading a profile, you feel you can't trust the person, then go to a hostel or find another host. I also avoided surfing with guys who only welcome girls (you can see this feature on profiles) in order to avoid awkward situations. Oh, and someone who wanted to introduce me to nudism :)

    A note for fellow introverts though: when you're travelling for a long time, couchsurfing can take up a lot of energy if you're not the talkative, outgoing type. I'm friendly and curious but talking to someone I don't know well really is tiring to me after two days. So I kept my surfing to 2 days of courchsurfing, followed by 2 days in hostel to rest my social skills, followed by 2 days of courchsurfing, etc. This way, I got the best of both worlds and enjoyed both couchsurfing and hostel-type interactions :)

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