When I first started thinking about the shape my travels would take, I envisioned renting an apartment in a city and creating a “home”-like atmosphere. The apartment would be a comfortable home base from which I could write and to which I could retire after a long day exploring. Not only would this put me on a different track than the typical traveler passing through, but it would ultimately save me a little money. In many cities you can rent fully furnished apartments by the month, and it often winds up being cheaper than staying in a hostel for 30 straight nights.
I really like the apartment idea, but the fact is that it could be highly isolating especially for someone who’s not naturally a social butterfly. Perhaps this wasn’t the best idea for my first trip, especially given my lack of success meeting people in more social atmospheres on previous travels (see ill-fated trip to Europe in 2003).
I started combing the web for other options and getting ideas from readers in the comments here. Homestays, roof swaps, and Couchsurfing repeatedly came up. I’d heard about this Couchsurfing thing before, but my initial reaction was: “no way, I’m not the type of person who’d do well with that.” I think I was mainly turned off by the perception of randomness associated with not knowing your host.
The number of positive recommendations for Couchsurfing demanded that I look into the system, and I spent a good couple of hours on the Couchsurfing site reading their mission statement and browsing couchsurfer profiles. I was incredibly impressed by their mission and vision. If you aren’t familiar with Couchsurfing, here’s how their website describes how it works:
CouchSurfing members share hospitality with one another. These exchanges are a uniquely rich form of cultural interaction. Hosts have the opportunity to meet people from all over the world without leaving home. “Surfers,” or travelers, are able to participate in the local life of the places they visit. We also give more people the chance to become travelers, because “surfing” lowers the financial cost of exploration.
Sounds pretty great, doesn’t it? I got very excited very quickly. Here was an established community of person-to-person foreign exchange driven not by money but by the desire to learn about one another. I don’t want to get too high on the system before I try it, but the power of the internet is so apparent in its ability to facilitate communities like Couchsurfing. Some of the things I like about Couchsurfing upon first blush:
- It seems very unlikely to find people who would be poor hosts. If you aren’t interested in Couchsurfing or hosting people, I can’t imagine you’d even have a Couchsurfing profile or indicate that you have a bed available. Couchsurfing also has several features in place to ensure good, safe matches, such as verification of identity and location, a vouching system, references, testimonials, and friends. You’re encouraged to fill out a detailed profile as it helps hosts and travelers determine if someone is a good fit. While safety can never be assured (as is the case in hostels, hotels, and B&Bs), these features put many of my concerns to bed.
- Fast track to the local experience. While hosts aren’t obligated to hang out with the people they host, part of the allure of Couchsurfing is getting to know someone from a different background. I’ve read many absolutely glowing stories from travelers about their hosts and how they’ve made friends for life. The experiences you could have courtesy of your host would be priceless and not easily created on your own with travel guides. For people who are shy and/or not good conversation starters, coordinating a stay through Couchsurfing could be a good way to meet someone who lives in your destination and is amenable, even eager, to get to know you.
- It doesn’t hurt that it’s free. The money I’ve saved is meant to cover my travels for a couple of years. If I can drastically reduce the expense of accommodations, I’ll be able to travel to more places for longer periods of time. Feels like one of those everyone wins scenarios.
Not everything is roses with Couchsurfing, however, but my complaints and concerns are relatively minor. The website is not pretty and somewhat difficult to navigate. I know they’re hiring, so hopefully they’ll break off some change for a web designer. While there are safety features in place, Couchsurfing is just like a big bulletin board that everyone in the world can see, unaffected by business strictures, codes, and penalties. If you happen to get skeeved out by your host you can always just say thanks but no thanks and book a night in a hostel while you look for a new host.
I foresee Couchsurfing and other similar types of arrangements playing a huge role in my travels later this year and beyond. I couldn’t be happier about the way our missions dovetail. I would really appreciate hearing your Couchsurfing stories in the comments – what went right? What went wrong? Would you do it again? Is it all you’ll ever do again?
Thanks to Ethan Gelber who provided some links to excellent posts on the topic. For more background information and discussion about Couchsurfing, check out these links:
Original photo courtesy of divemasterking2000 via Flickr under Creative Commons