Occasionally I hear people talking about Couchsurfing and I always cringe. The thought of letting a random stranger stay at my house for a week is just about the last thing I want to do. But as with everything new like this, there are positives to be drawn from the experience. My good friend Lindsay Pratt is an avid user of the site and kindly agreed to give an account of her experiences.
CouchSurfing is a cheap way to travel but it’s also about meeting people and learning cultures from a different angle. There are currently more than 600,000 members [on the site] in over 230 different countries.
Members create profiles where they have the opportunity to write about themselves: their interest, hobbies, philosophies and their couch. After each stay, you can leave a reference, either negative or positive – these are crucial for upcoming CouchSurfing experiences.
‘How safe is CouchSurfing?’ I hear people ask. There is of course a risk involved, but that risk will be reflected whenever you travel. Precautions can easily be made and this is done via testimonials, friend link-strength indicators, vouching and the verification system. You see, not just anyone is a vouched member. Members can only be vouched for by an already CouchSurfing-vouched member. It’s an entire circle of trust, with the setup being very similar to eBay.
When you travel using Couchsurfing and don’t feel comfortable in somebody’s home, you’re under no obligation to stay, provided you let your host know you will be leaving. You should always have a back-up plan, even if it’s just a list of hostels in the area. And if you’re hosting somebody, don’t be afraid to ask them to leave, or ask them to leave their passports behind as an added security measure.
I currently have hosted 15 different ‘surfers mainly from America, Canada and Italy. They can stay from anywhere between one and five nights. We always have a laugh together in the evenings and often take turns cooking dinner and doing the dishes. Two Italian boys stayed for five days and cooked dinner every time. Although we ended up eating pasta every single night – we always had a good bottle of wine to go with it! One guy from Cyprus became very good friends with my housemate and she ended up flying to Cyprus to meet up with him and reverse the CouchSurfing experience.
I personally became good friends with an American girl, who I ended up inviting out to a work function – we had a blast and she got along well with all [of] my colleagues. This is something you couldn’t do by yourself, but is a great example of what CouchSurfing is all about. Saying this, not everyone who you host is friendly or talkative. One girl spent the whole day in the living room and never said a word. We only found out on the last day that she had constant streak of bad luck since arriving, first she was hit by a car, then her bag was stolen and the following night came home in a hospital gown after having her drink spiked!
Most guests entertain themselves during the day with plenty to explore in London and come home once we are home from work. Sometimes they don’t come home until 3am after going clubbing all night. We have no responsibility over them, so they are free to do as they please, as long as they respect few house rules (like locking doors, reduce water usage, etc).
I haven’t actually been CouchSurfing myself yet and reversed the roles, but I think it is a great way to meet new people and to have a closer encounter with other people’s cultures. I will be starting a three month adventure on the Trans-Siberian next week and I will be taking part in the CouchSurfing experience, mixed in with a few hostel stays. By combing the two, it will allow me to meet a greater range of people and to combine two different travelling experiences.
It definitely seems to be the case that since like-minded travellers use the system, and with the added protection of the site’s vouching, I am always meeting good people and getting a good experience by allowing them to stay. It might not sound like the safest idea, but in practice Couchsurfing turns out to be one of the best travel social network ideas out there.