Couchsurfing 101: Sleeping on Couches Can Be Safe and Free

Posted on August 21, 2011

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What is “couch surfing” and how do I do it?

For many, “couch surfing” is something of great interest, but also shrouded in mystery. When it comes down to it, couch surfing is an incredible opportunity to travel and have a truly local experience with local people. This article will give an overview of using the free travel website couchsurfing.org, including information on how to sign up for a profile, how to find a couch to surf, and how to make the most out of the experience. Eileen Rush, who has surfed, met up with travelers, and hosted for more than four years, outlines some basic “CS” principles that could be applied to other types of free-hosting scenarios.

By Eileen Rush

It’s possible to travel somewhere and stay for free. However, this form of travel requires letting your guard down, trusting strangers, and being open to completely unpredictable new experiences. With some tips for how to get started and safety, Couchsurfing can be an unforgettable experience for any traveler. This tool can be a valuable resource, but it’s important to remember to be wise when meeting people on the road anywhere – whether it’s in a hostel, at a bar, or through a website. However, the website’s numbers don’t lie: more than three million users have had five million positive couch surfing experiences reported, with 246 countries represented and thousands more testimonials shared.

What is Couchsurfing?

Couchsurfing.org is a free website and travel resource that was founded on a belief in the ultimate form of hospitality and cultural exchange. Here’s how it works: people with couches, and people seeking a free place to crash, create profiles on the website and find one another. There is no minimum or maximum stay, and sometimes road-weary travelers will get a free meal or a local tour of the city from their host. This is a great resource for any traveler to be familiar with, whether they want to “surf,” “host” or simply meet up with like-minded travelers on their journey.

One common myth about couch surfing is that you need to host people first in order to have a free place to stay. This is not the case. Couchsurfing is a free exchange with no strings attached. The basic idea is that a “host” will allow travelers to stay for free and often will offer to show them around their city from a local perspective. For someone who wants to get off the tourist trail, this can be a great way to see the world.

Safety

Safety is the number one concern for people using www.couchsurfing.org or other travel websites – as it should be. Couchsurfing has two safety systems in place so that people can verify that the person they are staying with or hosting isn’t an axe murderer. These are:

  • Verification. To verify the identities of its users, couchsurfing.org checks that a person’s name matches up with a bank account via a one-time $25 donation to the site. Then, they send a postcard to the address of a person who wants to be verified, and that person enters the postcard code onto the website. It isn’t a foolproof system by any means, but people who have the “green arrow” approved symbol on their profile have been verified, and are dedicated to the mission of the website.
  • Recommendations. People who know each other, surf with each other, host, or simply meet up on the road can leave you a recommendation. You can scroll through the recommendations on each profile, and see whether other travelers had a positive or negative experience with this person. Look for detailed recommendations from people who also have plenty of recommendations. This will give you an idea of whether a host or guest are a good match for one another.
  • Vouching. The “vouching” system on couchsurfing is a more reliable indicator of who is trustworthy. As a user, you can only vouch for someone if you have been vouched for three times. The goal is to build credibility for members of the community, so the more “vouches” a person has, the more likely they are to be the kind of people you want to stay with.

Getting Started

Creating a profile only takes a few moments, but as with every social media network, building a reputation and a community will take time. On the site, you can create a profile in a few minutes by clicking “sign up,” and filling out information.

The Profile

When you start using CS, it’s a good idea to fill out as much information on your profile as you can, and to add photos. There have been a lot of people turned down for hosting because they join the site and don’t bother to provide information about themselves. The “personal philosophy” boxes can be left blank, but it’s a good idea to try and give other couchsurfers an idea of who you are, what your interests might be, where you are traveling and why you are using couchsurfing.

It’s also a good idea to get involved with your couchsurfing “community” and join groups for your city, or for the cities you will be traveling to. This will allow you to gather advice on who is active with the site, and can also give you an idea of what activities, festivities, or restaurants the locals enjoy frequenting.

Here are a few more ideas:

  • Get your friends who also use Couchsurfing to write you a recommendation.
  • Link your couchsurfing profile to other social media networks, you’re your travel blog, Facebook or Twitter.
  • Attend a meet-and-greet before you go on your trip, so you can see for yourself that Couchsurfers aren’t sketchy people and also to get recommendations before you start traveling, so people abroad can see that you are a good person to host.

Tips for Using the “Couch Search”

The couch search allows you to search out available couches in your destinatin of interest. Here are some tips for using this function:

  • Check the couch availability. If their profile only says they can meet up for coffee or a drink, don’t bother asking for a spot to crash. It ain’t gonna happen.
  • Location, location, location. Don’t be afraid to ask where hosts are located, and try to map it out if you can. A free place to stay is great, but if it’s an hour from the city center or location where you want to be, then you might be better staying at the hostel in town.
  • Check their languages. If you are traveling to countries in Europe or elsewhere that aren’t English-speaking, look at the language profiles of people you want to stay with. A host might be a good opportunity for you to brush up on your French, but if you don’t sprachen deutsch, you might want to avoid any unnecessary language barriers.
  • Send a couch request WAY in advance. It’s never too early. You’ll have more likelihood for success if you give a host plenty of notice. As a host, I’ve turned down a lot of last-minute couchsurfing requests.
  • Figure out the “last minute” approach. If you find yourself stranded with no place to stay, join a group of the area you’re in – often there’s a sub group called “emergency requests” or “last minute.” These are people with flexible schedules and truly genuine hospitality. However, don’t rely heavily on this approach, for the sake of being courteous.

Finally, don’t forget that you don’t have to use Couchsurfing just to host or surf – you can also find and meet up with likeminded travelers, scout out great local spots, or get your “travel fix” when you return home by hosting other travelers.

Additional Resources

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