Bunking up on a stranger’s couch in a foreign city is trickier than staying with familiar folk. In addition to basic etiquette, here are six habits to master before you send out that first request through www.couchsurfing.org.
Since opening my home to couchsurfers more than two years ago, I’ve welcomed 200+ strangers from around the globe to my Amsterdam apartment. My guests have included singles, couples, friends traveling together, mother-child duos and even a baby—adorable five-month-old Layla, who arrived wide-eyed from Paris with her Argentinean parents. While most have been 20-something students and 30-ish professionals, I’ve also hosted retirees and empty-nesters in their 50s and 60s, many searching for renewal in the second half of life.
A Cultural Education
From virtually every experience, I’ve learned something about the customs of a foreign land. With tales of his family, a Pakistani army captain shed light on arranged marriages. An Austrian girl showed me post-war guilt up close and personal. A lesbian couple from China illuminated Asian intolerance for gays. Americans from numerous states have helped me see my own culture from afar. I could go on, but I’ll just say this: I would never have known all these things had I not learned them from those who’ve lived them.
In addition to helping me better understand foreign cultures, my guests have left me a legacy of trinkets, drawings, recipes and other tangible and intangible gifts. From them, I’ve learned what it takes to be a successful couchsurfer, as well as a good host. Being real, flexible and willing to go with the flow are parts of both equations. So is good communication, reliability, open-mindedness and an understanding that couchsurfing is about more than free digs. As Condé Nast Traveler’s William Sertl puts it, it’s an alternative travel resource that “brings hippie wanderlust into the modern age in a smart and open-to-all-ages Internet way.”
What To Know Before You Go
If you’ve ever crashed at a friend’s place, you already know the basics of connecting with people and making global friendships. But bunking up on a stranger’s couch in a foreign city is trickier than staying with familiar folk. In addition to basic etiquette, here are six habits to master before you send out that first request through www.couchsurfing.org:
1. Authenticity: Be real! Whether you’re a host or a guest, a profile that reflects who you are, how you live and what kind of traveler you are is essential. If you want positive responses, create one with recent photos of you (not the scenery you’ve visited), CS friends and references. Don’t have references? Get verified through CouchSurfing.org for $25 and you’ll automatically improve your CS image. Whatever you do, don’t misrepresent yourself. If you’re a party animal who likes to hit the clubs until dawn, approaching potential hosts as a tee-totalling culture vulture will backfire. Trust me.
Alas, you can’t control everything in your profile. Both hosts and guests can leave references that help other surfers know what they’re all about. Surfers who want to avoid creepy or amorous hosts will check out references if they don’t want to risk a similar experience. By limiting requests to hosts who’ve been verified, e.g., had their address and identity checked through CouchSurfing.org, you can boost the safety factor.
2. Engagement: This starts with a personal, not copied and pasted, request to potential hosts. Make it specific, with details about length of desired stay, how and when you’ll arrive, what you want to see and why you chose that person. Showing interest in both your host AND your destination demonstrates you’re not just trying to travel for free, which is not in the true spirit of couchsurfing. For hosts, knowing something about guests’ interests, lifestyle and sightseeing agenda will foster connection. If it’s clear their eating, drinking, smoking, sleeping and partying habits clash with yours, don’t ask for trouble by inviting people into your home who don’t appear to be kindred spirits.
3. Adaptability: If you’re looking for five-star accommodations, book a luxury hotel. Alternatively, turn to Airbnb, which connects travelers with locals interested in renting space. While some CS hosts offer comfy digs and perks like WiFi, keys and sightseeing guidance, the lower your expectations, the better your chances for a happy stay. Going with the flow, even if that means sleeping on the floor or in cramped quarters, goes with the territory. Adapting to that reality will help you avoid disappointment.
4. Communication: Effective surfers understand their hosts are real people, not hotel clerks. While trains and planes can be late and people can get lost in foreign cities, it’s rude to arrive hours after your expected arrival, or not at all, without informing your host. Whether you use a mobile phone, Internet cafe or airport WiFi, be sure to let your host know if your plans change.
Over your stay, give him or her a chance to show you around, introduce you to favorite sights and share a meal or drink. If you have an agenda that includes no time for your host, there’s really no point in couchsurfing. As a host, it’s also your responsibility to provide guests with the contact info and directions they need to arrive safely at your pad. Once there, discuss their plans and itinerary so you’re all on the same page.
5. Resilience: Being turned down is part of couchsurfing. Being able to shrug off rejection and view finding a couch as a worthwhile challenge will help you enjoy the pursuit. To improve your chances, create a complete profile that gives potential hosts a sense of who you are. Avoid generic, prefabricated messages. Throw in some of your hobbies and interests. And don’t forget to include reasons why you’re interested in staying with each potential host.
The more personal your request, the more likely you are to get a positive response if your host is available. Sorting potential hosts by “newest member first” could boost your chances, since new hosts may be most enthusiastic about inviting travelers into their home. Also look at the response rate of hosts, which can reveal how interested they really are in having guests. Hosts may be more receptive if you tell them you’re willing to sleep on the floor (if you really are), since that may relieve stress for them.
6. Reciprocity: Savvy couchsurfers understand give and take. In exchange for your host’s hospitality, it’s nice to show gratitude with a trinket, bottle of wine or favorite food from home. Other forms of giving back include preparing a meal, taking your host out, helping with clean-up, watering plants, or contributing food or toiletries to help support the cost of your stay. By making your host’s life less stressful, you’ll improve your chances of getting a good reference, which in turn improves your chance to finding future couches. Being cheap and rude will give you a bad reputation in a community based on trust and references.
Reciprocity also entails feedback; if your host disappointed you, a message explaining the problem might smooth things out. If that doesn’t work, it’s your right to leave a negative reference to let other surfers know what they might experience with this host.