CouchSurfing: A Smart Alternative for Thrifty Travelers & Experience Seekers
I have to admit that I was a little skeptical of CouchSurfing at first glance. Staying at a complete stranger’s home for free, while traveling, and relying on a trust and referral based system for safety. Sounds a little too _________ (fill in the blank: idealistic, risky, dangerous, weird, awkward, cheap, insane).
My first experience CouchSurfing, this past weekend, was anything but the above adjectives. I’ll save the details of my first ‘couch surf’ for an upcoming post. Since I hadn’t even heard of this recent phenomenon until two months ago, I’m guessing many others haven’t as well, so I’d like to first cover some CouchSurfing basics.
What is CouchSurfing?
‘Couch surfing’ is a phrase for crashing at someone’s home, usually on their couch. The phrase was picked up by the 501(c)(3) non-profit – ‘CouchSurfing Project’ – back in 1999 (the beta version of the site launched as couchsurfing.org in 2003). There may be other ‘couch surfing’ social networks out there, however, CouchSurfing.com has become the largest social network for travel hosting, with over 2 million users in 237 countries. As a result, you’ll see me refer to the noun ‘couch surfing’ as the non-profit entity ‘CouchSurfing’ throughout this post. It’s kind of like blowing your nose with a ‘Kleenex’ instead of a ‘facial tissue’.
At its simplest, CouchSurfing is a hospitality exchange in the form of a social network that allows you to search for and ask other couch surfers if you can stay with them while traveling. In turn, you can optionally offer up your dwelling as a place for other members to stay when they travel.
How Much Does CouchSurfing Cost?
Nothing. There is no monetary exchange in CouchSurfing for being hosted. If a host charges you for staying with them, they risk being kicked out of the network, and you should report them. It is accepted, however, for a surfer to offer reimbursement for food or other goods consumed. And it’s encouraged for surfers to offer a gift of choice to their host, whether it be a material gift, or an act of kindness such as cleaning their house, helping them in the garden, cooking a dinner, etc.
You can optionally get ‘verified’ (more on that in a bit) by providing a donation to CouchSurfing. These donations provide the income stream for CouchSurfing to maintain their site and hire developers and other employees. I gladly donated the recommended $25.
More About Networking & Experience than Cost Savings
I want to stress something that I feel is important before I get too far into this. Yes, this is a personal finance blog. And, yes, CouchSurfing is free and a way to save a lot of money while traveling. However, if you look at CouchSurfing only as a way to save money when traveling, or get a ‘free ride’, you are doing your host and yourself a huge disservice. CouchSurfing is a social network that gives you the unique opportunity to meet really great people from all over the world in their element (when you surf) or in your element (when you host). The interaction is a key element that you should enjoy.
Why stress out about every last detail about where you’re going to eat, what sites you will see, when you need to jump on that train, or all those other tiny details that suck the fun out of traveling, when you could have someone who has lived in the area gladly share their experiences? Why not build your social network nationally, or internationally, if you have the chance? Why sleep in your car when there are zero hotels within hundreds of miles of you when there is someone who will gladly offer up a place for you to stay for a night?
Do you Have to Host in Order to Surf?
No. If you are not yet comfortable in hosting, or simply don’t have the space, you are not required to host in order to be a member or to CouchSurf. When choosing your hosting availability status, you have the following options:
- Coffee or a drink
- Traveling at the time
Based on what a surfer is looking for, they can look to your status as an indicator of whether or not you’re willing to host them.
Is CouchSurfing Safe?
I’m sure that this question has crossed the minds of everyone who has ever considered surfing or hosting. CouchSurfing does a great job of providing security measures to promote safety:
- Your Choice: You pick and choose who you surf with and who surfs with you. If you’re a woman traveling alone, for example, it would make a lot of sense for you to surf only with women hosts. Be picky about who you stay with.
- Surf or Host or Both: You are not obligated to accept someone into your home if you don’t want to. If you surf, you are not required to host.
- Electronic Record: All communication is through the site (vs. private email or phone), until you take it off-site. In other words, there’s an electronic record of your interactions, in the event that something happens.
- Verification: You can donate to CouchSurfing via credit card, and verify your name and address in the process. This is optional, and it gives you the ‘verified’ stamp on your profile. Once you make the donation, a postcard with a verification code is mailed to your credit card billing address. Take the code, enter it in your account, and you are verified. I’d recommend only staying with members who are verified.
- Vouchers: Once you have hosted or surfed, you can ‘vouch’ for someone that you trust. You can only ‘vouch’ for someone if you have three vouchers, so it’s kind of like building a reputation of trust.
- Recommendations: You can give a ‘positive’, ‘neutral’, or ‘negative’ review of someone that you’ve interacted with, along with comments. This helps to ensure that members are considerate of who they are staying with and are behaving properly. Surf with hosters who have a great record of recommendations.
With all that being said, you are still in a vulnerable position when hosting or being hosted, particularly if you’re a solo female. Use common sense, be cautious, and don’t put yourself in dangerous situations. Check out the CouchSurfing safety page for more tips.
Local Networking Opportunities
Beyond hosting and surfing, CouchSurfing members will often arrange and invite other couch surfers to local network events. Here, you can interact, share stories, and build your network. Couchsurfing tends to attract a certain personality, so it is an opportunity to meet others locally whose company you may enjoy.
You May Just Get Hooked to CouchSurfing
As promised, in an upcoming follow-up to this post, I will highlight the details of my first CouchSurfing experience and how it worked. Be careful, if you give CouchSurfing a shot, it might just change the way you think about traveling. If you’re still anxious, check out my list of couchsurfing tips for first-timers.