Those that have an active imagination are probably picturing delinquent children riding their parent’s expensive sofa on the tidal bore of the local river. Some others on the other hand may think ‘couchsurfing’ is a trendy new term for those of us that spend far too long on computers.
Couchsurfing however for those not acquainted with the term is a global online community of people who offer a bed, sofa or free space on their floor for travellers to sleep on. This is not supposed to entail any charge, so is suitable for travellers on a tight budget, but it’s recommended to provide some sort of small service as a thank you. Running a few errands, making dinner or offering to do a few household chores will all earn you a few ‘brownie’ points, and a reference which may help get another place to sleep in future.
It is also hoped that once the traveller returns home, and able to do so they will reciprocate by offering a sleeping place for others who are on the ‘road’.
Finding a safe bed
The way it works is that a person posts their sleeping spot on the community website and travellers looking for a place to sleep when searching their proposed destination find a number of suitable ‘hosts’. A message is left asking if it would be possible to stay on the proposed date, and if a positive response is received arrangements made, which suit both parties.
So now the mechanics of the system are clear maybe it is worth considering as a way of keeping travelling costs down or just meeting people whilst on your trip. Maybe you are already aware of couchsurfing and been considering giving it a try but as yet unable to make up your mind? Okay, well let’s go through the pros and cons, and try to resolve any issues, enabling informed decisions, removing any further procrastination.
There is an inherent risk to couchsurfing, and it has received some bad publicity in the last year due to some people apparently abusing the system. Contacting and staying with somebody that you have never met obviously involves some degree of risk, the moderators of the site do what they are able to reduce this, but limited in what measures they can take.
The main tactic employed is ‘verification’ whereby the site member pays a small fee by credit card, a code is then sent to the home address which is then entered on the site. In truth though this only proves the person’s name and that they actually live at a certain address. It does not verify that the person is actually decent and that their motives are sound.
Travellers should read the profile of their potential host carefully as there maybe clues about their character. Women should avoid men that advertise ‘females only’ as it is likely their motives are suspect.
Pay particular attention to the reference section in each person’s profile. This is where ‘couchsurfers’ that have been in contact with each other can leave a short message about their experience. It works in both directions with travellers being able to vouch for the host as well as vice versa. Where possible always look for people with plenty of good reports, the more the better obviously. The opinions of a number of people, in a variety of situations. This will obviously discount those that are new to the community, and they will need to get references from somebody, achieving this initially through meet-ups.
The important information is how trustworthy they appear, not really how entertaining or how good a host they may have been. It may seem that this advice is only really applicable to women, but this is not necessarily the case. It is unfortunate however that due to the state of the world today, women are most at risk; they need to take particular care. I would go as far as to suggest that female travellers should not even consider contacting a male for accommodation without a number of good references, preferably from a few other female travellers.
The safest way to couchsurf is probably to do it with a friend, and apply to those that have available sleeping space for more than one. Once the application for accommodation has been initially accepted exchange telephone numbers and speak to the provider before the date of your stay.
Couchsurfing is social
Try to arrange to meet them in a public place, a coffee shop, bar or somewhere similar, it is then possible to get a ‘feel’ for the host. It is then reasonable to have a change of mind if there are any feelings of discomfort around them. This will be easier to explain now than after arrival at their home, and it is important to remember that even one night can really drag if not entirely at ease. Therefore act on any misgivings that maybe felt and make your excuses. It is may even be possible to prearrange to have a text message sent by a friend around half an hour after meeting saying alternative accommodation has been found if you need it.
There are often several ‘couchsurfers’ in major cities and towns, it might be useful to invite another to the meeting place to provide a little extra security. This can always be under the pretext of acquiring some additional local advice. This is an important consideration, couchsurfers are a good source of local information about places to go, and things to see, and do. They are often great company, and many enduring friendships start this way. It is not always necessary to contact somebody for the sole purpose of finding a place to sleep.
Do not get too caught up in all these suggestions for personal security, they are only precautions which anybody meeting a stranger for the first time should take. There are nearly two and a half million couchsurfers and very few ‘bad apples’ but unfortunately one or two of these have brought the community some less than favourable publicity in recent years.
In common with all communities some members are more active than others, contacting a potential host that has not logged in for over a year is unlikely to receive an instant reply. Look for those that are active and have been on the site recently, this can even be stipulated during the search. Be ready for some refusals, circumstances change, and a host that posted a bed available three months ago may not be able to offer accommodation now.
How long in advance should a request for accommodation be made? In most cases as much notice as possible is probably appreciated, but this is not always possible. Try and provide as much notice as you are able however, everybody likes a little time to clear up their ‘mess!’ Seeking confirmation that it is still available is recommended about a week before the intended arrival date. Certainly just before travelling to the destination; circumstances can change at the last-minute!
There are however, a few hosts that cannot confirm availability until a day or so before the planned date, so alternative back-up plans are advised. I once applied to a guy who managed a chalet in Chamonix who allowed travellers to stay in vacant rooms, but it was always last-minute availability when the chalet was not full.
Good couchsurfing habits
Most hosts will have also posted the length of time, which they’re prepared to accommodate anybody for. Over staying your welcome will almost certainly result in a poor reference for the traveller and quite possibly the unpleasantness of being asked to leave.
I have had several great experiences with couchsurfing, both staying with hosts and meeting other like-minded people. My stays with an eccentric Baron in his Chateau at Corte on Corsica were especially enjoyable and memorable, almost legendary to me.
Couchsurfing can be a very rewarding experience; providing opportunities for cheap travel, a good source of information, and maybe long-term friendships. With just a little careful planning, it can be incorporated into many successful trips, and sensible travellers shouldn’t be put off by the apparent risks involved.
Remember it is also about giving as well as receiving so if after returning if there is a spare bed or some floor space is available offer it up for others. Do not forget to also leave a reference enabling others to find a good and safe place to sleep. Hosts should remember this too and reciprocate by providing the traveller with a reference which will help them find another ‘bed’ when they need it, it is all part of being a part of the community.
I have included the details of some other useful communities/organisations that offer similar services:
GlobalFreeloaders – similar to Couchsurfing but travellers are obligated to host others
Airbnb – provides a means for people to rent out spare space in their homes for people travelling.
Women Welcome Women WorldWide – similar to Couchsurfers but specifically allowing women to stay with other women.
Happy and safe couchsurfing!
Do you have experience of couchsurfing what advice can you pass on to others maybe considering it for the first time? Comments are appreciated.