BY JONATHAN NICHOLAS
Couchsurfing.org is a social network for travellers who need a place to crash for free. You create a profile and can search through potential hosts, people who have designated that they would be willing to let a stranger sleep on their couch for a night or two (or in one case I heard of, two months). Once you’ve found someone you think you might mesh with, you shoot ‘em a “couch request” where you explain your situation and why they should let you stay with them. If they accept, you take a chance and head to their place for some free lodging and experiences. I’d entirely recommend it to anyone traveling without much money. Even if you can afford a hostel, the experience of arriving in a place and living with a local is unparalleled, as they are often willing to show you around, feed you, and tell you crazy stories.
Where exactly did you go? How long did you stay in each place?
I don’t exactly remember how I found out about couchsurfing, but last summer I sent out a few requests to hosts in Perugia, Italy. My friend and I both studied abroad last fall and decided to do some traveling in the weeks prior to school starting. We didn’t have much expendable income, so any savings were more than welcome. We spent two weeks in Italy and couchsurfed as many nights as possible, and ended up in strangers’ homes in Perugia and Milan for a few nights. I traveled solo for an extra week and vowed not to spend any money on lodging, a decision that resulted in one homeless night split between a middle school parking lot (it was the weekend) and a rural train station about forty-five minutes north of Amsterdam. The rest of the week, I couchsurfed in Brussels and around the Netherlands and later in the term I spent two nights in Norway—one in Oslo and another in a more rural town.
Do you have any interesting anecdotes to tell?
I have a few favorites. My aimless journey from Venice to Brussels landed me at a nudist’s apartment. He was one of the most generous, genuine people I’ve ever met. I think he had hosted something like two hundred and forty couchsurfers in the past two years. I also ended up spending four days or so on a houseboat in the Netherlands. The guy who lived there was fixing it up and had a deal that if you worked a few hours each day you could live there indefinitely. The girls I stayed with in Oslo were decked out with dreads and septum piercings. In general, the couchsurfing community is really quite accepting. If you approach it with an open mind some incredible people come out of the woodworks. For me, the mantra is that there is no “one right way” for people to live.
Why do you think people decide to host couchsurfers?
The sentiment I got from most of my hosts was that they loved traveling but couldn’t do so at the moment for one reason or another. I think this was mostly for financial reasons, as I never stayed with anyone particularly well off, but the guy in Brussels was afraid to stray too far because his mom was terminally ill. To quote one of my Italian hosts, “You guys are how I travel.” Basically it is expected that when you show up in one of these gracious stranger’s home you’ll share your knowledge and talents with them. Hosts have a chance to get as much of a cultural exchange out of it as you do. Occasionally you’ll get some lonely creeps, but you can filter them out by only emailing hosts whose profiles appeal to you.
Do you have advice for anyone who is considering couchsurfing in the future?
Fill out your profile with excruciating detail. People are more likely to host you if they can learn as much about you as possible. They don’t want to end up with someone who is going to take advantage of them or trash their place. It is also an unspoken rule that you’ll strongly consider hosting when you have a couch available or feel comfortable doing so. The community is based on trust and has a “vouching” system, so if you stayed with someone and got along with them, consider sending them a friend request and then vouching for them (basically saying that they’re a good person). Additionally, if you’re a girl you should consider traveling with someone else or being extremely selective about who you decide to stay with. I have a good female friend who couchsurfed alone with mostly positive things to report minus some inappropriate innuendos that could be chalked up to cultural differences. Just be smart about it and you’ll be fine.
Are you planning on staying involved with the couchsurfing community?
Definitely! My friends and I are planning on listing our couch next year when we have an off-campus house. I might be testing the waters here in the US at the end of the semester but that’s just a half-baked idea for now.