As evidenced from the variety of beds I find myself waking up in around the world, I am a fan of waking up on other people's couches (floors, pool tables, and/or (spare) beds).
But how do I come to be on these couches in the first place? Surely I'm not simply breaking into random apartments in a drunken stupor and passing out on furniture (at least not all the time, right?). No, that would be far too easy.
The medium facilitating my crashing of couches is known as Couchsurfing, and it's home to and used by a magical community of travelers from all around the world.
So what is Couchsurfing? I'll tell you.
Person A, the host, has an extra room, bed, couch, or floor space; Person B, the surfer, is a traveler looking for a place to stay. Couchsurfing facilitates the meeting of surfer and host and now the surfer has a place to stay in his or her next destination.
So, wait. You stay with complete strangers? Yes, you stay with complete strangers, and it's incredible.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Here's a simple breakdown of how a traveler, a surfer, finds someone to stay with, a host.
STEP 1: Surfer creates a profile on the Couchsurfing website.
STEP 2: Surfer sends personalized and well-thought-out messages (this part is important) to hosts living in their destination via the Couchsurfing website.
STEP 3: Surfer receives yes, no, maybe, or the dreaded (but unfortunately common) non-response from hosts.
STEP 4: Surfer selects a lucky host who replied “yes” to stay with.
STEP 5: Surfer receives instructions for getting to the hosts place of residence (along with any other details).
STEP 6: Surfer shows up, is warmly greeted by host, and they have a wonderful time together.
Surfers can also post public travel plans that can be seen by hosts in a particular area. These hosts can then message surfers if they can help them out (or are just lonely and looking for companionship).
The Couchsurfing platform is home to many communities and forums for travelers (such as those interested in hitchhiking, scuba diving, or hiking) – many of which host events for local hosts and visiting surfers.
It's a community of travelers, for travelers, built by travelers, and you can narrow down your potential hosts in a given city or region by using everything from languages spoken to the date of their last log in to the Couchsurfing site (usually 1+ year ago isn't the safest bet).
WAIT, SO IT'S FREE?
Yes, it's free.
This seems to be one of the things that a lot of people have trouble coming to grips with, but it is in fact the backbone of the Couchsurfing community: mutual respect, understanding, and benefit. There is zero expectation of monetary exchange between surfers and hosts.
However, what Couchsurfing is NOT simply a way to score free accommodation while traveling.
But wait. I thought you said it was free?
I did. Shut up and listen.
According to their website, “Couchsurfing is a service that connects members to a global community of travelers.” Couchsurfing is not a way for you to find someone's apartment to crash in and then treat like a hotel. As a surfer you should have zero expectations as far as amenities or services. It doesn't matter if you get taken out to dinner or are given a towel to dry yourself after bathing – you had better be grateful (you little shit).
Obviously you can expect your host to be a friendly and welcoming person, but don't mistake this for meaning they are your personal concierge and/or tour guide (although many hosts are happy to play tour guide for travelers).
Another thing: when sending out messages to hosts, use thorough, be personable, and be honest.
Sending out messages that say, “Hi. I will be in London this weekend. Can you host me?” will not get you many responses. Some hosts go as far as to place secret words in their profiles for surfers to include in their messages as a way for them to know that surfers are actually reading profiles and not simply spamming everyone in a city with copy-paste messages.
Basically, if you're traveling with your partner, are short on cash, and are simply looking for a place to crash and get naked for the night, Couchsurfing is not for you.
The community is at the core of Couchsurfing, and surfers and hosts are expected to interact with one another. Plenty of other websites allow you to stay in other people's homes without the pretense that you interact with the owner of said accommodation (and you'll usually pay for this privilege).
BUT ISN'T IT DANGEROUS?
The trite and skeptical “it's dangerous” objection to doing things has, to me, become a mark of someone who doesn't know what they're talking about.
Ask anyone who hasn't hitchhiked, been to Rio de Janeiro, or hiked the Pacific Crest Trail whether they think it's dangerous – I'll wager that the majority of these people will answer an unfazed “yes”. However, ask someone who has actually experienced one of these things firsthand and the attitude will change dramatically (again, this is just my opinion, but it's also the truth).
Couchsurfing has a reputation system built in where surfers, hosts, and travelers can leave feedback for one another. The more (positive) feedback, the more reputable that person becomes in the community.
A single negative review can be devastating to the reputation of a Couchsurfer.
However, you should always make sure to read negative reviews because all not are necessarily left deservingly (ignorance of cultural differences can play a major role here).
Reading feedback people have left (and the feedback that someone has left for others) can give you a good idea of what to expect of someone from the Couchsurfing community.
Want to find out more? Want to surf? Want to host? Just need a new social network to creep on profiles?
Check out Couchsurfing.org and get involved. It's awesome, I promise.
And for anyone interested (and if you've made it this far), you can find my very own Couchsurfing profile here.