Diving into Local Culture the Couchsurfing Way

by Keith Savage · 26 comments

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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

AndiNo Gravatar April 19, 2010 at 3:41 PM

Hope you tried it??? It’s changed my life! I’ve written a ton of articles on it, if you’re interested in links let me know. 🙂
.-= Andi´s last blog ..India: Day 1 =-.

KeithNo Gravatar April 19, 2010 at 3:50 PM

I have not tried it yet, but it’s an integral piece of my future plans. I would love to read your articles on the subject – pass them along!! Thanks Andi!

Nomadic ChickNo Gravatar April 5, 2010 at 11:38 AM

Look, I’m finally visiting!! 🙂 I love Candis’ account of hosting, nice to hear the other end of the spectrum. I did something similar in Turkey a few years ago, but used a friend of a friend, not CS. The location was an hour and a half from Istanbul, but the hospitality made up for it. I caught a glimpse of a typical Turkish family on top of taking in the sights. I’m not so worried about CS, it seems like a welcome relief to hostel partiers.
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog ..Anger =-.

KeithNo Gravatar April 5, 2010 at 5:06 PM

Hey stranger, couldn’t agree with you more. I could go the hostel route, but I just don’t think that’s my scene anymore.

CandisNo Gravatar April 4, 2010 at 2:38 AM

I can’t hype CS enough, especially if you’re really looking for local insight into the city you’re visiting. I started two years ago when I was stuck home for three months, hosting different travelers three or four times a week. I was going stir crazy, and it was the height of travel season in my hometown, so the steady stream of travelers was fantastic. If you’re stuck home, it’s a great way to feel like you’re traveling.
As for surfing, you just have to be open to whatever experiences that get thrown at you. Most hosts are just so excited to have you, they want to show you everything in their city they can, in the time that you’re there.
When you’re hosting or surfing, generally the stay lasts 1-3 days, unless you get that amazing experience where things click just right, and travel plans are altered so you spend more time together- I met my best friend over a year ago when I hosted him & his cousin, and we’ve been traveling together ever since.
As for traveling as a couple, or with a two friends, I’ve never had a problem. Most hosts are extremely understanding of how travel plans get bounced around, and for the most part, everyone is willing to accommodate each other. You can read your hosts/surfers pretty well through the profiles and email correspondences, and I’ve never had a negative experience.
.-= Candis´s last blog ..Lately, my temper keeps getting in the way of walking. =-.

KeithNo Gravatar April 4, 2010 at 8:59 PM

Candis, thank you for this valuable CS information. I suppose if I’m planning to CS for a month I’ll need to line up many different hosts. Hope to see you around here again!

cna trainingNo Gravatar March 31, 2010 at 11:57 AM

My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!

KeithNo Gravatar April 1, 2010 at 1:52 PM


Sharon Hurley HallNo Gravatar March 30, 2010 at 3:31 PM

Couchsurfing is something I haven’t tried yet, but I’m intrigued by the idea, especially the idea of getting into the local experience quickly. I’ve had lots of friends visit and done the same for them, so why shouldn’t it work the other way round?
.-= Sharon Hurley Hall´s last blog ..All-Inclusives – Yay or Nay? =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 31, 2010 at 10:47 AM

Exactly – it should work both ways. Genuine interest in learning about another person’s culture creates a positive atmosphere and memorable times.

PoiNo Gravatar March 30, 2010 at 2:21 PM

I have the same concerns with couchsurfing but as you’ve said there are so many positive reviews I am going to force myself into what at first seems like an awkward situation because I’m sure the benefits will be endless.

It will be like anything, the more you do it the more comfortable it will become.

KeithNo Gravatar March 31, 2010 at 10:45 AM

Well said. Doing it the first time is the hardest part. I’m excited.

Sofia - As We TravelNo Gravatar March 30, 2010 at 11:50 AM

Can’t wait to read about your experiences further on then! For single travelers it really is a great idea.

KeithNo Gravatar March 31, 2010 at 10:45 AM

How about for couples? I know the Indie Travel Podcast folks were couchsurfing around Chile in a sizable group (4 or 5 people).

Ethan GelberNo Gravatar March 29, 2010 at 10:33 PM

Hi Keith, we just recently had a very interesting exchange about CS. Your thoughts cover it a bit, but others have chimed in with many more. It started when we found some very negative reactions to the concept, but finished with a general sense that it is part of the wave of the future, especially as it applies to getting local, something you will see I am very partial to. Follow what happened by starting at the end (so you get all the back links) at http://www.whl.travel/blog/2010/03/23/opinion-keep-the-doors-open-to-open-door-home-accommodation-networks/.
.-= Ethan Gelber´s last blog ..Lifting the Lid on Salvador: Exploring Brazil’s Culinary Delights =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 30, 2010 at 9:18 AM

Thanks for the excellent links, Ethan. I found the posts insightful and illuminating.

SallyNo Gravatar March 29, 2010 at 8:37 PM

I was also really wary about the whole couchsurfing idea as I feel like I’m imposing while sleeping on my friend’s couches! Plus, I was also skeeved out by the whole sleeping on some random person’s sofa. But I have a friend in Japan who is a couchsurfing host & she really loves the energy that she gets from travelers who come & stay with her. I’m now signed up & planning to use it at some point… if not for a couch at least to meet people within the area I’m visiting.

KeithNo Gravatar March 29, 2010 at 10:10 PM

Right, CS can be a great way to simply meet people wherever you’ve visiting. After browsing profiles on CS, it seems like most hosts have a bed if not a room and the “couch” in their name is more representative of the idea. I think it’s a great idea to pursue, and I’m looking forward to hearing your stories about it.

Cornelius AesopNo Gravatar March 29, 2010 at 3:17 PM

I first learned about and set up my Couch Surfing profile while in Brazil but haven’t updated in since then. Seeing as I’m currently stuck in the middle of no-where Midwest I doubt I would gather travelers to my neck of the woods but should at least update it slightly to make sure I don’t get booted off.

KeithNo Gravatar March 29, 2010 at 4:22 PM

You might be surprised. I know I was when I saw the number of couchsurfers in the Madison, WI area.

NeepsNo Gravatar March 29, 2010 at 6:26 AM

The idea of hosting a couchsurfer is interesting. It could be a way of gaining some of the benefits of travel (getting to know people of other cultures) at times when you must remain at home. I don’t know if it would work out for me, though, since I don’t live in the city where there is public transportation, etc.

KeithNo Gravatar March 29, 2010 at 4:31 PM

I don’t know how common it is for overseas visitors to rent cars in America, but I don’t think it’s rare.

JoelNo Gravatar March 28, 2010 at 4:01 PM

I’m definitely looking forward to giving couchsurfing a try, at least for stops in between longer stays in the regions I’ll be visiting. Based on what I’ve seen, there are a lot of people who don’t mind opening up to stays of a week or more. I’d be hesitant to take advantage of their hospitality for that long, but it’s nice to know those kinds of people are out there and anxious to meet travelers.
.-= Joel´s last blog ..Confessions of A Cultural Idiot Pt. 3 – Participate =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 28, 2010 at 4:26 PM

That’s a good observation – I haven’t figured out for how long people usually couchsurf at a single host’s. What’s the norm? Is there one?

MattNo Gravatar March 28, 2010 at 3:08 PM

I think most people – even traveled travelers – are initially taken back by the concept of couchsurfing. Yet once you think about the setup, and consider the security measures they put in place, it’as an absolutely brilliant idea.

I’ve managed to meet some unbelievable people in my travels through the CS project. Like your title implies, one of the biggest advantages to Couchsurfing in my mind, is the opportunity to stay with and meet people who are part of the city. You gain a local’s perspective to the area you’re traveling, and to me, that’s worth more than the free accommodation.
.-= Matt´s last blog ..Interview with Backpackingmatt at Sosauce =-.

KeithNo Gravatar March 28, 2010 at 7:14 PM

Hey Matt – it really is brilliant, almost the kind of organization that seems too good and altruistic for humans to have created. Thanks for the story of your experiences – chalk up another one for CS.

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