It’s no secret I’m a fan of couchsurfing. Finding hosts online to put you up in their living rooms sounds sketchy, but I’ve never had a real negative experience. The value isn’t just in a free place to crash. The biggest plus is meeting incredible people, real people who can show you a side of their city that you normally wouldn’t see as a tourist.
Here’s how to crash with strangers around the world, without landing yourself in a shady situation du jour:
When I was traveling alone in Europe in my early 20s, I set specific guidelines: I limited my search to women in their 20s and 30s with good English and favorable reviews from former guests. Luckily, I was traveling in populated areas with lots of options for hosts, and I used that to my advantage. You can actually filter your results by certain criteria like language skills, something I thought was important as someone traveling alone, so there were no misunderstandings.
Have A Backup Plan
You never want to be beholden. If you get a bad vibe, be prepared to leave. The best bet is a list of hostels or hotels in the area. It’s great to save on accommodations, but if you feel weird about a certain place, suck it up and pay. The closest I got to a bad situation was when I showed up at a host’s house and she told me I could stay in her roommate’s room, and use her roommate’s laptop. I gladly obliged … until her roommate came home and they started a screaming match. I was prepared to up and leave. Luckily, the roommate said it wasn’t my fault and I slept in the living room. Needless to say, I cut my tenure short by leaving first thing in the morning.Come Armed
When you show up to your host’s place, always come with a gift. It can be small, but you’re not paying, so be courteous. In my experience, the best gifts are less about money value and more about history or a back-story. Generally, as I backpacked from place to place, I brought my new host something from the place I was leaving. I brought a decorative plate from Madrid for my first host in Paris. She had never been to Spain and told me it was like a small piece of the travels themselves.
Follow Their Lead
Some hosts would rather act like your personal hotel: “Stay with me for a night, but I don’t have a lot of time, so leave with me in the morning when I go to work and be home by X time.” Others really want to bond and hang out. As a couchsurfer, it’s on you to figure out what your host is expecting, and to be adaptable. Hosts occasionally gave me keys, but not usually. That often means coming and going on their schedules. There were times my host and I would cook dinner together, share a bottle of wine – I spent a whole day walking around with one host, who took me to the hippodrome, the park and a museum. Others just don’t have the time.
Everywhere I stayed, I asked my hosts why they chose to let people stay with them for nothing in return. I got a smattering of answers, but for the most part they fell into two camps: for some, they wanted to pay the kindness forward either because they had stayed with hosts in different countries, themselves, or because they’d like to in the future. For others, the only price they asked was for me to tell them stories of my experiences. My first Parisian host was also my best; she hosted couchsurfers all the time and wanted to embark on solo travel of her own someday, but had never worked up the courage. In the meantime, she traveled vicariously through us.
We stayed in touch, and less than a year after I stayed with her, she proudly told me that she had finally gone traveling, inspired by the incredible stories she heard from her guests.
[Image credit: Flickr user Wonderlane]