Over a year ago I was sitting alone in Beijing, eating lunch by myself and wondering where I could find some drinking buddies in this city who spoke English. I’d done enough of the sites – seen The Forbidden Palace, Tiananmen Square, the Olympic Buildings and would climb The Great Wall as well soon. There didn’t appear to be too many backpackers around the district and I was sorely lacking in good company. All of a sudden a friendly chinese bloke (whose name now escapes me) approached my table, started up a conversation and next thing I knew we were enjoying a few beers while I tried to teach him how to play chess. His English was pretty good, he worked as an accountant in Beijing and liked to come hang around backpacker hostels / restaurants like the one I was in to meet foreigners, practice his English and also find westerners who would be interested in learning some Chinese from him.
He was a certainly a friendly chap and as I hung out with him he asked if I was on a website known as Couchsurfing (http://couchsurfing.com/). I’d heard of the website before, I knew a couple friends from Australia had used it to score free accommodation whilst travelling around the world but didn’t know much more about it apart from that. It sounded like an interesting concept so at some point over the next few months I signed up and created a profile. As it turns out, America isn’t really the best place to start couch-surfing and after several rounds of requesting accommodation in San Francisco, Chicago and New York to no success, I almost gave up on the site. Thankfully I didn’t however and over a year later I found myself sitting with three random British students on the roof of my house, drinking cheap red wine whilst looking at the night-time Boston skyline. They were staying with me through couch-surfing and I’d only just met them that week.
“Why would I let strangers stay with me for free?” is the obvious question most Americans ask when I try to explain couchsurfing to them. The answer for most people is just as obvious – “So in turn, you can stay with strangers for free!” Couchsurfing fundamentally is more than just about providing or scoring free accommodation, the real driving force behind the on-line community is to connect with like-minded individuals – in my case fellow travellers and open-minded adventurers from different countries. Since I began opening up my house to strangers and hosting I’ve had visitors from England, France, Mexico, Canada, Taiwan, Germany and Kazakhstan. That’s really why I got involved, I enjoy meeting people and experiencing other cultures while travelling. Couchsurfing allows you to do that from the comfort of your own home.
The concept is simple, you create an on-line profile (similar to facebook) with photos, details about yourself and as you meet and connect with people through the site, gain references and vouches to signal to others that you’re a trustworthy individual. If someone wants to stay with you who has no picture, no references and a half-baked profile created last week, its easy enough to turn them away. If however you get a request from a travelling European student who’s stayed with over 40 people, each writing them a glowing reference, its easy enough to deduce that they’re not going to run off with your TV at night. Just like buying goods off strangers on EBay or booking a random overseas hostel, you do have to place a certain amount of trust in the information shown on the site, but once you get over that initial hurdle, it starts becoming easy to filter out the good surfers from the bad.
Getting started on couch-surfing is admittedly hard when you have no profile, it certainly was for me, but once I got hosted a few times I generally found responses to my couch-requests to be more forthcoming. Like any search related activity such as looking for a job, apartment or the right pair of jeans finding a host on couch-surfing can take time and won’t always result in success, particularly in high-demand locations (e.g. Manhattan, New York) or smaller cities (e.g. Providence, Rhode Island). To be a good couch-surfer, here’s a few points to get your started:
* Respect – When you’re a guest be respectful, you shouldn’t treat where you’re staying like a hotel. When I’m a guest I always take the time to chat with my hosts and do my best to either contribute to cooking, cleaning or if we go out, shout dinner or a couple drinks. Its certainly appreciated when guests do the same, especially if they’re staying for an extended period (i.e. 3 or more nights).
* Hosting Availability – If your profile says available for hosting, be available for hosting and respond to requests! I’m sure I’ve sent dozens of requests to hosts that look ideal, only to have no absolutely no response. If you can’t host your status should say “Not Right Now”. If you do have the green light on for host respond to guests in a timely manner, even if its just a quick rejection along the lines of “Sorry, too busy this week, won’t be able to host you at the moment.”
* References – Leave accurate references in a timely fashion. Its pretty simple, hosts shouldn’t have to chase after guests for a simple reference several months after they’ve stayed. References are crucial to the success of couch-surfing and especially for new hosts or surfers, building up good references is important.
* The Dating Site for Homeless People – Don’t hit on your guests or hosts, just don’t do it. I’ve heard stories of this occurring and its just not on. Then again, this isn’t always a hard and fast rule . . .
At the end of the day, couch-surfing is a great concept, a great way to travel and a great way to meet locals. If you’re open to new experiences, I’d highly reccommend giving it a crack.