If you’re traveling on a budget, Couchsurfing is an amazing way to save money. I’m at the point in my travels where every dollar I spend – or don’t spend – is dictating how long I get to be gone. That being said, hostels are becoming a luxury and Couchsurfing more of a priority. The good thing is, I love Couchsurfing! Staying with a local is a truly unique experience and can have much more charm than a hostel.
Couchsurfing isn’t always as ideal as it sounds and there certainly is a learning curve. The “booking” process is a lot more time consuming than other options, but with a bit of experience, it might just be your new favorite way to travel.
Step One: Find a Host.
First off, make a plan of where you want to go to, but keep in mind that flexibility is key. You might find a host in a nearby town – just be sure to check all transportation costs. I haven’t noticed a magic formula when it comes to how far in advance to request a hosts, considering everyone is different.
Seek people you’re going to vibe with. This is the most important advice I have, to be honest. This makes or breaks the experience, so take it seriously. This person is the lens in which you’ll experience the city, especially if they have a lot of time to spend with you. If you want to like the city, you best like your host too! At the end of the day, if I can’t find a host that looks cool, I’d rather stay in a hostel.
Read completely through their profile, make sure their living and work situation is going to work for you and have realistic expectations. Read references (especially negative ones) to get specific information the host might not have mentioned. Also, take note of how many hosts are available in the destination. I always filter out people with no references. This will give you a sense of how many options you have and how picky you can be. Something to look out for is whether your host has WiFi? Do you need WiFi to book your next Couchsurfing experience? For me, this is crucial.
When it comes to writing requests, the key is to make them personal. Make your host feel like they already know you – tell them who you are, why you are traveling, your flexible with dates, and something you have in common. When I’m excited when choosing hosts and writing requests, I always seem to have better results, so have fun with it! Let yourself be curious about these people who are opening their door to travelers!
For me, it takes about five requests to get one host. You can copy and paste a request to multiple people, but make sure to tweak each one to be personal.
If you find a host you’re excited about, request at least two nights. You don’t want to spend too much time on public transit getting from one place to another. Do note that hosts will often mention that you can stay longer if they like you… or at least don’t mind you!
The more you Couchsurf and gain experience, the more you’ll know what to look for. Personally, I’ve found that hosts with similar interests to me is really important. Private rooms are also nice if that opportunity comes up.
TIP: Bring an eye mask, earplugs and/or your music device with headphones. Sleep is precious and being prepared is key. Also bring a pet hair remover. Just trust me.
Do note how much time your host wants to spend with you. I’ve had frustrating experiences in which my host wanted to spend the whole day with me, and I wanted to do my own thing. This can be tricky considering you are dependent on them for free accommodation, but know you’re not entitled to spend the whole day with them and you can be assertive. If you want to be independent, find a host that says they’re busy. Clingy hosts can compromise the experience. Not too worry too much though. This isn’t too common as most hosts will give you your space.
If the situation is not enjoyable, find a way out of it. Your travels are for you, and you deserve to enjoy every minute. Don’t sacrifice your travels for anyone!
I usually search for female hosts first, and if nothing pans out, I search for male hosts. If you’re a girl traveling alone, you should take precautions when staying with guys. Only request guys who have at least five references. What do other ladies say about them in their reference? Privately message them and ask if there was anything weird about the situation. They’ll almost always respond within a day or two – I’ve found people really like talking about their experiences. People will say things in a private message they won’t say publicly because they don’t want to hurt the hosts’ feelings.
Some people briefly mention you’ll be sharing a bed… be aware, don’t get yourself in a situation you don’t want!
The better you plan, the better host you can find. Beggars can’t be choosers, but if you plan far enough in advance and send out many thoughtful requests, you’ll have multiple hosts to choose from… and this is a pretty awesome feeling.
Wherever I end up getting a host, I like to trust that that’s where I’m meant to go to next. I get excited about where I’m going, AKA where I’ve found a couch. I research the location and pursue the things I’m curious about. In the end, wherever I go is a cool new place to explore.
Step Two: So You Have a Host…But, the Work Isn’t Done!
Not so fast, it’s not over yet. You need to figure out how to get to your destination and when you can arrive. If your host isn’t home until late, where can you store your bags? Almost all hosts will offer to pick you up or meet you at the public transit station. If not, they’ll give you directions to their place, which is crucial, especially if the local public transit system is in a different language.
If you’re meeting your host somewhere or navigating to their house, be as specific as possible. It’s so easy for miscommunication to create problems. You’re in a foreign country, you may or may not speak the language, and if you can’t find your host, this is not fun. Once when I was meeting my host, we couldn’t find each other and her phone was dying. It was evening, and our attempts at finding each other kept failing. I had a horrible feeling that I would have nowhere to sleep, as it was evening on a weekend and many hostels were full.
Have a backup plan. Maybe you won’t find your host or maybe they will cancel last minute. Peace of mind is knowing that even in the worst case scenario, you’ll have somewhere to sleep. Unless you want to sleep on the street! Hey, it’s free…
Step Three: Happy Host, Happy Guest.
When it comes to living in someone else’s home, always leave things as clean as you found them, if not cleaner. When you leave, make time to clean your space, fold blankets, etc. Never forget you are a guest. Take “make yourself at home” with a grain of salt, at least until you gauge boundaries. A lot of hosts will tell you you can eat anything you want. If you feel comfortable with this, go for it. Just remember: the moment you stop being grateful is the moment you are a bad guest. Be not entitled! Your host might cook for you or even take you out to dinner, but my suggestion is to buy your food as often as possible.
Before you leave your hosts’ house for the day, make note of where to return. Write down the address and burn the memory into your mind, even if you feel like you know the location. Many hosts will give you a spare key if and when they feel comfortable with you. This is ideal, because it gives you a lot more freedom. Just remember to give the key back when you leave!
Find ways to show your appreciation. This doesn’t have to cost money. Play them a song on the guitar. Take their dog on a walk. Show them how to give their Wifi a clever name because let’s be real, NETGEAR is no fun. Some of my favorites include: Daenerys4Queen, Platform 9 ¾ and FBU SurveillanceVan. You can also bring your host a token of appreciation. Perhaps a memento from your country or send them something after you’ve left. If you and your host really vibed, you’ll probably be inspired to give them something as a thank you.
Sometimes you aren’t going to find a host. Use this as a learning experience and tweak your tactics. People often leave a message when they decline you – why did they say no? For me, it’s usually been oh, sorry, I already have guests!
All in all, Couchsurfing is a truly unique way to travel, and I can’t think of a better way to really get to know the culture. After Couchsurfing, hosteling and/or hoteling can feel so… uninteresting to me. In general, the type of person who opens their door to travelers will be open minded, friendly, generous, and you’ll have some unforgettable experiences. I have to say, my experiences Couchsurfing have been truly heart warming. I can’t believe how kind all my hosts have been, and I can’t wait to meet someone new!