I’ve been a member of Couchsurfing.org since 2010. I was living in Fort St. John, British-Columbia at the time and I started by hosting a few travellers on their way up the Alaska Highway. Most of them would arrive by car and stay overnight.
The idea behind couchsurfing is to facilitate encounters between locals and travel oriented people. It’s a free service, but the main idea should not be to be looking for a free night, but some kind of exchange instead. Trading stories, exploring cultural differences, having hands-on travel advice, making new friends along the way is what this is about.
The idea behind couchsurfing has always existed. When I was first travelling in Europe, I met a Swiss family in one of the hostels I was staying at. I had just entered Switzerland, and didn’t really have plans. While talking to them they said: You can’t come to Switzerland and not be in the mountains. They were away from their house for a couple of days, but they told me to take the train a few days later, and they would come pick me up at the station and bring me home, for a true Swiss experience.
It was the first time I had an experience like that, and being the young me, I didn’t know what to expect but decided to go anyway. It was at a time when Facebook did not exist, and most people did not use the Internet. A few days later, I took the train, not knowing if somebody was even going to be there for me. But when I arrived in Sion, the husband was there to pick me up. He drove us up the mountain, introduced me to all the kids, and showed me around the village. At night, they cooked a traditional Swiss fondue. It was a total immersion in the real life of a local family. The next day they took me around for some sightseeing, proudly sharing their history and favourite places with me. To this day, I still cherish that memory, as one of my best times while travelling. To me, a true insight into a local’s life makes a big difference while travelling. It helps understand the cultural differences and you do end up creating a special bond when you share a few days in close proximity with people.
Being a great guest
It is quite simple to be a great guest. It starts before you even send a request. Fill in your profile. This is what your host will use to decide if they want to have you over. Also make sure to read their profile as well. Some hosts will include a sentence somewhere in their profile that should be included in your request. If a host is saying it is a party flat and you are looking for a quiet evening in, or vice versa, it might not be the best match! In bigger cities, potential hosts receive so many requests everyday, if you want to stand a chance, you have to be distinctive.
Being interested in your host is the basic. When you do know how and when you will get to their place, let them know. If you are flying in, give them the flight number, that way if you are late, they will be able to find out. If taking public transport or hitchhiking, let them know what time you expect to arrive.
When you arrive, introduce yourself. You may be shy, but now is not the time! Treat their house like it’s your own. If you use the kitchen, clean after yourself. Try to keep your stuff in one place, and not spread all over the flat, as the host might get the feeling you are trying to take over. They are offering a place for you to sleep, they are not a hotel, a restaurant or an all-inclusive resort!
Sharing a meal is often the most pleasant part of the stay, as you get to cook together, and spend quality time getting to know each other. You do not have to bring anything, but it would definitely be appreciated by your host. Simple things like tea or coffee, product from your country, or even sharing a recipe. It doesn’t need to be big, even a small note that says thank you will be appreciated.
Keep in mind that the person hosting you is very likely to be working or have other plans, so you will probably have to leave at the same time in the morning or get in later at night. Some hosts will give you a key, but it should never be assumed.
Being a great host
When hosting, make sure to provide a clean and safe environment. Also, clear indications on how to get to your place are a must! To you, it is second nature, but to somebody new to the city, it can be quite confusing. Making guests feel welcome while explaining your expectations will make everything go much smoother. This may sound obvious but it is not always the first thing on people’s mind. If you want your guests to leave at the same time as you, say so. Tell them what they can use. And show interest in your guest’s culture, country etc.
If you know of any must-see, must-do or places to avoid in your area, share the information with your guests! They will be forever grateful!
Of course, like any other on-line site, you have to be careful. People that have hosted or surfed will have reviews from other members. Make sure to read the profile to know what to expect.
In order to have a great experience on both sides, I find that sharing as much information on the expectations, being flexible and not take anything for granted will make the stay more enjoyable for both parties.
Choosing a host, or a guest is a question of trust. If for some reason you do not feel comfortable, you can talk about it. Do keep in mind that you are never obligated to go through with it, it sucks to have to tell somebody that you are not comfortable or to leave in the middle of the night, but it is much better than risking anything. If you have a bad experience, leave a review explaining why so that other couchsurfers will know about it. When you do, include details, but try to remember to explain the situation in a clear, concise and non-judgmental way.
Don’t assume that because somebody doesn’t have any reviews that they will be bad news, everybody has to start somewhere to get the first review!
Getting your first review
Getting the first review can be difficult as obviously people don’t know you. You can start by meeting with people for coffee, of a walk in the city. Some cities even have groups that meet once a week, or once a month. Go there! Introduce yourself, meet other members and eventually you’ll get reviews. If you do meet somebody for coffee, don’t be shy asking for them to leave a review. And remember to leave reviews for people you meet too!
There is, of course, more than this to couchsurfing, but if you follow these easy guidelines, if you are respectful and interested there is no reason you shouldn’t have a great experience.