How To Couch Surf Properly
Staying At a Stranger's Home
To couch surf is to sleep at a stranger's house. The stranger, knowing you are a traveler, puts you up for free, in exchange for a few hours of camaraderie and the knowledge they can stay with you when they travel to your hometown. Known by names such as sofa surfing, free loading, couch cruising, and sofa hopping, this form of travel accommodation is not one everyone is suited for. But, if it is something you can see as a part of your travel style, you can find yourself staying from one bedroom apartments (where you end up sleeping in the living room) to enjoying the guest room with private bath of a mini-mansion - for free!
The Upside of Sofa Surfing
There are real benefits to not paying for a hotel:
- You get the inside scoop on an area from a local.
- You get to make a new friend or two.
- You save a bundle of money. Between $1000-2000 is not uncommon a savings.
- You may end up getting a guided tour for a hour or two or even a whole day by your host.
- The general expectation from you is that you follow the rules of the host's home and that you offer a small token in return. The small token can be company/companionship, a traditional dinner from your homeland that you cook for the host, or a small gift such as a fancy jar of jam or a gift card to a local cafe.
How Do People Couch Surf?
Different sofa surfing websites offer different types of experiences for couch surfers. Some are non-profit and some are for profit. This changes the focus of the website a bit. Some are people and relationship-development oriented. Some are more focused on exchanges.
BeWelcome is a sofa surfing website that is still in the establishment phase. Listing several dozen countries, it is in the process of building up membership. Their goal is to remain open, transparent and fair.
Couchsurfing is similar to BeWelcome. They are for-profits that offer a place for you to stay, with the expectation that you will help fellow travelers who need a place to stay when they visit your town. But you pay to be on the site, as a verified member and hosts generally only host surfers that are verified, though there are exceptions. They try to keep it affordable to all members, with a beginning fee of $5 for vouched members. However, I have found there is less of a feeling of trust among members than on other websites. There have been unfortunate victims of crime through this website. However, that would be a hazard though any website and I have surfed through CS with positive results.
Hospitality Club is a non-profit party established by unhappy defectors from BeWelcome and Couchsurfing. At over 328,000 members, they are established in 207 countries.
AirBnb is a completely different website than the others. For about $25-100 a night, you can be the recipient of a rented space for the price of a movie for two! However, while you might score your own pad, sometimes you are renting a space such as a room, in someone else's home while the owner is still residing there. It's usually a significant savings over nearby hotels but sometimes, it'll cost you. Some places go for $400 a night. I'm going to Washington D.C. next year and exploring studios (that I'd get to myself) that average about $60-70 a night which is about half of what I'd spend at a lower-end hotel, so in the long run, it's a real savings.
What Kind Of People Will Host You?
Like usually attracts like. But communication is key. Usually hosts promote the important things they look for in a house guest and what's important to them. So, if you're a meat-eating, beer slinging, party guy who wants to hit the night scene until two and your host is a yoga-practicing vegan who likes to go early to to bed by classical music after discussing the merits of fine wine, then think twice! You and your host may be perfectly terrific people but have completely different approaches to life - which can result in a not-so-fun experience for both of you.
Another thing to consider is pets. Are you an animal person who adores all furry creatures or do you just politely tolerate beings that you think belong in a barn? Be sure your host and you have similar opinions about pets, or that you are flexible enough to deal with a super-friendly cat or dog.
Some hosts will clarify no kids and no pets for house guest. Other hosts welcome children and pets and say so. Some don't say and take it on a case-by-case basis. This is an area where you'll want to be on the same page.
Staying On A Stranger's Sofa
Once you decide to take the plunge, know what you are getting yourself into. This type of travel is generally safe but you do need some street smarts and common sense. You do need to understand the potential danger and you do need to understand how to make plans to protect yourself. I typically travel with my children and, yes, I do some sofa surfing with them. Doing so has been wonderful for us and we have made new friends but consider the inherent risks in such a manner of travel. Here's the least you need to know, in order to stay safe:
- Have the person you are staying with vouched for by a family member, friend or mutual association or membership that has a verification process on members. That means you know someone that knows them.
- Use common sense. For example, I am a single woman with three children. I always stay with other single women with no roommates (with or without children) and I always use a traveler's lock, a portable lock that is detachable (no installation needed and no permanent damage to anyone's home) but will keep anyone out of the bedroom once I install it. I always sleep in the same bedroom as my children. If I can't surf a private bedroom, I don't stay at a stranger's home. I don't accept sofa arrangements when surfing. I don't leave my kids alone in someone else's home, even though they are teenagers. If I wanted to leave them alone for the evening, I'd get a hotel room instead.
- Remember the culture you come from is not the same as the one you are visiting. In some countries, opposite sex friends are just friends - nothing intimate is implied or expected. In other countries, that's not necessarily true. If you are a single woman staying with a single man, in some countries, the implication assumed in those other countries is that you will have sex and in some countries outside the USA, men are much more assertive than North Americans are used to. What they consider normal, we might consider sexual assault! So, don't be naive about what you are doing. If you are okay with casual intimacy and consider it a part of the travel experience, perhaps this works out for you. But, if you don't, take precautions to avoid putting yourself in a bad situation. Often, in those countries that culturally differ on this matter, police will in no way be sympathetic to you because, in their country, that is the normal expectation of what would happen with two opposite sex people staying overnight in the same home.
- You should let someone you are not traveling with (someone back home) always know where and with whom you are staying, how long and where you plan to go next. Have established check in times with your safe contact. Your safe contact should know how to contact authorities if they don't hear from you by a previously established time. That means you are in trouble and need their help!
- There is some measure in traveling with others. Traveling with another friend or two can add to the experience and the built-in level of safety.
- Have a back up plan. If you ever have a bad vibe about staying somewhere, leave! Listen to your intuition. It can save your life! Always have emergency money for a hotel stay, just in case you really need it. Lie, if you need to, or sneak out, if you think you have to but leave if you feel endangered. No freebie is worth your life!
Couch Surfing Video
Have You Ever Sofa Surfed?
Do The Benefits Outweigh The Risks?
Knowing if couch surfing is right for you is a personal decision that only you can make for yourself. For me, it's no more dangerous than staying in a hotel or hostel. I've made lovely friends and have been surfing for over twenty years without any negative incidents in my experience. But, as always, being wise and smart are always great preparation for a good time.