Unexpected benefits of couchsurfing (or, how to fall in love with your own country again)

My initiation into the couchsurfing movement was back in about 2008. Our flatmate – a longtime friend of T’s who’d couchsurfed around North America – brought home first a couple (she was from the US, he from Brazil, I think) and later a sole Oregonian girl.

I set up my own profile in December – and as it turns out, summer was the perfect time to do it. I thought it’d give us incentive to get out and do stuff around Auckland, and it definitely did – it’s easy to get lazy and lounge around at home, but showing visitors around was amazing.

Views from a couchsurfing host

couchsurfing benefits hosting nzmuse
Hosting couchsurfers gives you a new appreciation for your own country and invokes a bit of national pride. T is the opposite of me – so having people around to talk to was good for him. He’s the type of person that knows a little bit of everything, so as well as showing couchsurfers around and introducing them to local food, he was in his element sounding off about the culture, environment, places to go, history … heck, even explaining random facts about wildlife. And I love hearing about how other people live.

And of course, we wanted to get active on Couchsurfing before heading off overseas ourselves (where we’ll hopefully be doing a bit, or a lot, of couchsurfing along the way). From my point of view, while couchsurfing is about saving money, it’s also about getting an insider’s view – local recommendations and insights you otherwise wouldn’t know about – which is a really important point for us. We did our best to integrate our couchsurfers into our lives, taking them to places we’d normally go – though once we were both back at work, we weren’t able to be so involved with our guests.

I was amazed by how many requests we got straightaway. We’re not super central – 10 min drive from the city, about 20-30 min by public transport – yet the messages just kept coming! There were new messages every day – summer is peak tourist time, especially for northerners looking to escape winter – and New Year’s seemed a pretty popular time in particular. I had to turn down a lot, unfortunately – our calendar quickly filled up and I put a note on my profile to that effect. The requests (mostly) stopped coming, which saved me a lot of time in writing apologetic declines, though it hurt a little to not see new messages in my inbox each time I logged in. To start with, we basically hosted three lots of guests in a row for two weeks, then left ourselves a break (time at home with just us, to chill out in the buff, leave the toilet door open, spread our mess everywhere, etc) before hosting any others.

Note to Couchsurfing: a calendar function for profiles would be ace! Much like some hotels have booking calendars showing availability, this would enable users to clearly show on their profiles what dates they can host, what dates they cannot, and what dates they already have couchsurfers booked in for. Result: surfers saved from writing out personalised requests to hosts for dates that are not actually available, and hosts saved the trouble of replying in the negative over and over again.

I did tend to feel a bit bad when surfers would shuffle off to their next place if they were staying in the same city, but realistically we tend to need a break from houseguests ourselves. I state on my profile we can host people for up to four days, which is generally enough to see the best of Auckland and thus works pretty well for travellers with a time limit on their journey. That said, some travel VERY slowly; that first couple we had at our old flat stayed with us for quite a while and when I went to visit one of our friends at home shortly after they left our house, I was surprised to find them crashing at that friend’s apartment…

We’ve had visitors from the US, South America, and Europe – Kansas, Vermont, Brazil, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Sweden (and possibly others I’m missing off the top of my head). Our second guests were a couple from France – so lovely, so warm and so considerate. Not only did they make us some amazing French food (though my recreation of the fish recipe she gave me was a pale imitation) but they introduced us to slacklining (T is hooked; he wants to get his own and with any luck we can catch up with them when we visit France and show ‘em how much he’s improved!) and I was quite sad when they left, really.

Every couchsurfing experience is different. Where you take them and what you show them – and what you recommend they do elsewhere around NZ – varies accordingly. Hosts may cook for guests sometimes, or vice versa. (I’d say the reverse is more common, as visitors try to give back in exchange for their accommodation.) Some may take them under their wing, some don’t have the time. Some hosts may trust them to be at home alone or even give them a key. Some set pretty strict rules. Personally, I’ve been floored at the tales of some hosts and their generosity – if I had a nice fully furnished spare room, I’d be trying to make money off it, and ditto for a spare car.

Some hosts seem to take it all too seriously and act a bit like the couchsurfing police – if they think your profile isn’t comprehensive enough or your request grovelling enough, will take it upon themselves to tear you apart (based on stories I’ve heard from guests/messages I’ve seen in open groups on CS). I’m a bit torn on this – ultimately this is about free accommodation, but for most of us it’s also about meeting people that you’re interested in. Heck, we could have couchsurfers 24/7, all year round, if this is the normal level of demand, but that’s not how I want to play it. That said, old-time couchsurfers grumble a lot about how the original spirit has been lost and that it’s much more transactional/mercenary now (a quick Google search will turn up all sorts of posts on this).

How to find a couchsurfing host and increase your odds

A hint, though: it’s not all about you. I don’t want to hear your sob story. A single sentence that shows there’s actually a reason you’d like to meet ME in particular, something we have in common, will go a long way. (Those who copy and paste and forget to change the name at the top? Yeah, good luck with that. I’m talking to you, Girl From England Who Called Me ‘Reuben’.) I think of CS as paying it forward – you help out those who come across your path, and while direct reciprocation might not be possible, you’ll find others willing to help you when you travel.

As it turns out, giving has been HUGELY rewarding. So far, being a couchsurfing host has been an absolute blast. And this is coming from a die-hard non-people-person here at Introverts R’ Us. I’ve surprised myself at how much I’ve been willing to share. I’ve really enjoyed helping guests plan out their journeys and where they should go (and what’s not worth visiting). Without trying to be humblebraggy or anything, I think we’ve been good hosts – the kind we’d like to encounter ourselves. I initially imagined our couchsurfers would just breeze through our lives, stopping for a few nights on the couch, leaving first thing to sightsee and returning late … not really engaging too much with us. But to the contrary, they have been eager to give and so have we.

Or at least, some have – others are travelling on a shoestring and will go to any lengths to save a buck. Which is fine, as long as they’re otherwise not mooching and don’t take anything for granted, which I think some budget travellers tend to do a little bit despite the goodwill being shown. And to all those blasting out last minute requests – remember that there are always more hosts than travellers. Nobody owes you anything, and if you can’t find a place to crash, it’s probably time to suck it up and book a hostel bed. Relying on the goodwill and hospitality of hosts alone is not a travel plan.

Also, if you’re brand new, GET SOME REFERENCES! It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but people are less likely to take a risk on an unknown proposition (I’ve hosted a few Couchsurfing virgins, and that’s fun, but a lot of hosts won’t). If not through hosting, try meeting up with other couchsurfers on the road, who can vouch for you as a fellow traveller and give you your first reference. Read the CS guide for more newbie tips. And if you’re in Auckland anytime before May, let me know, our couch is available until we leave.

Seeing as my post on what life in NZ is like got such a good reception, here’s a list of some of the things we’ve been showing them:

West coast beaches - Piha, Karekare, etc
Views from the volcanoes – we can walk up Mt Albert in about 15 minutes from my front door, or Mt Eden and One Tree Hill are close and offer awesome views from the top
Bastion Point and Mission Bay
Cornwall Park
Western Springs - people seem to get a kick out of all the birds there, and feeding them as well
Markets – be they farmer’s markets or the more suburban, low-brow Avondale or Otara markets … or even the night markets out at Pakuranga or Glenfield

Of course, there’s the typical tourist sights around the CBD like the waterfront/Wynyard Quarter, the Auckland Art Gallery, the museum and the Domain, Albert Park, Sky Tower, etc, and even over to Waiheke Island, but those are pretty easy to get to as they’re central. Places outside of the city are harder to get to without a car, so that’s where we come in.

Our couchsurfing visitors have gotten a kick out of our media, too.

Here’s one of my favourite music videos ever by Kiwi band Goodshirt:

Trailers for a couple of Kiwi movies:

And a couple of classic ads:

We don’t normally have houseguests, so having couchsurfers has made us aware of some of our own quirks.

  • For example, we have no kettle (we don’t drink hot drinks – tea, coffee, etc – and don’t have much space in our kitchen, so we’ve made do without a hot water jug for YEARS).
  • If drinking water, we have a large water bottle around that we just scull from (which makes us sound quite uncouth, actually). If drinking something else (juice, Coke) we just use one of the random glasses or mugs we have. Having visitors spurred me to unpack the last four-pack of drinking glasses we bought a while ago but never opened, and the cups my mother gave me awhile ago that have been sitting in a box in the corner for months.
  • We have no set method for shoe storage. I keep most of mine on the floor of my closet. Otherwise, we kick shoes off just by the door, or sometimes in the living room or bedroom. Consequently, shoes are frequently littered all through the house.
  • I don’t own a hairdryer. Never have.
  • We don’t have a dining table – we either eat outside on the deck (we have deck furniture) when it’s nice, or off the coffee table in the living room (I originally wanted to get furniture that could be used either inside or out, but our outdoor set is definitely an outdoor set and quite large. But I fell in love with it and for $70 it was a steal.)

I suppose every household does things in their own way, though. What does yours do differently?

And if you’re a Couchsurfing member, what have your experiences been like?

19 thoughts on “Unexpected benefits of couchsurfing (or, how to fall in love with your own country again)

  1. Super interesting! I’ve never heard anything from a host’s perspective before. I love hearing people’s stories. I was thinking, ‘Hmmm…maybe I should sign up…’ but then I remembered that I’m horrified I’ll invite a psycho into my house. How do you go about vetting people if they’re CS virgins before you approve them?

    1. I go based on my gut feeling after reading their profile. You can always reply and ask for more info, photos, or organise a Skype. I know we’re conditioned to think it’s a big scary world, but the majority of people out there are good eggs. And nobody wants to wreck their chances on Couchsurfing, because it’s all about references – a bad one can be the kiss of death, particularly if you’re new.

  2. I’ve never been a host or a surfer but I’m really intrigued with the idea. Traveling on a budget would be so much easier if you didn’t have to pay for expensive lodging. Plus, I love meeting new people and learning new things. I’m not sure I’d want to surf or host as a single person, but since the bf is around I’d feel safer knowing if I somehow missed a psycho in the screening process, he’d protect me (or vice versa as the case would probably actually be ;-)).

  3. Bravo! As a grumbling old-time couchsurfer I really enjoyed reading about your experience! My thoughts on the “Note to Couchsurfing: a calendar function for profiles would be ace!” is that it makes it way more difficult to turn down a couchsurfer because they could assume that your couch is open. I wouldn’t want to get into a “I’m unable to host at this time” – “But your calendar says you can” messaging debacle. But then again I’ve never put this into practice and it very well could be a very positive addition to CS.

    I like that you were honest. “Orthodox” CSers like to think that it’s only about the cultural experience but so are hostels. It is a free place to stay but the cultural experiences and friendships obtained eventually becomes more than just icing on the cake; sometimes bigger and richer than the cake itself.

    I’ll be honest, I began hosting back in 2007 because I wanted to obtain references, not because I really wanted to host (I too am more of an introvert). But then I realized how much I loved it and I was hooked.

    Please let us know how your travels work out with Couchsurfing, and if you happen be Western Hemisphere side let me know and I’ll keep you in touch with some cool trustworthy CS peeps.

    1. Hmm, good point.

      It should probably be more along the lines of blocking out times when you DEFINITELY can’t host, I suppose. Everything else could be a ‘maybe’ rather than a definite ‘yes, I’m free’. I’m envisioning it as an initial screening step, though not the ONLY one …obviously you can’t host when you already have surfers booked in, but then there are plenty of other personal reasons why you can’t host and those are separate (other commitments, travel, whatever).

      (I wouldn’t see it as being any more of an advertisement that your couch is free than you choosing to make your couch status ‘open’ though.)

      Things seem to have quietened down as summer goes on so that helps!

  4. I hardly ever eat at a dining room table either. In fact, if it’s been a long day, I’ll take my dinner to bed and eat in front of the television. I’ve never done the couch surfing thing but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. The closest I got was in Merida, Mexico and this lovely guy with excellent references told me I could stay as long as I liked (between a day and two weeks) and he would pick me up from the bus station if I needed. Alas, my plans took me elsewhere but I always wondered…

  5. That is really cool. It’s be an interesting thing to undertake if only BF was open to the idea (he’s not). I’m less picky about that sort of thing and I like meeting new people…

  6. A calendar would really be great. Some update in their profile but they are rare. What I like now is the friend of friend search option so you can stay with those and have someone in common. I was on the top 10 of Barcelona when I lived there and getting 20+ requests a day, most impersonal and boring, so you are right about the nice and personal approach. Having tried the US two summers ago and Europe last summer, I hope you can make your requests in advance, especially since there are two of you, we got a lot declined because on the motorcycle we didn’t know exact dates until a couple of days before.

  7. When travelling the US (before I moved here and got married… another story for another day), I met a guy in Atlanta wearing an All Black’s shirt (relevance, Kylee? No? okay.. carry on)… anyway – he was couchsurfing and had fabulous experience doing it.

    I never did it (single girl, traveling alone – in the USA – no thanks), but I bet it would be AWESOME to host.

    Shame no one wants to come to Phoenix, though!

    1. I actually would visit Phoenix as a couple of bloggers I know live in the area! However, I don’t think we’ll have time on our trip – we’ll be stopping at the Canyon and blazing on through to Vegas and SF.

      1. Which ones? I bet I know them too…. it’s a small “town”

        Just kidding. Although once, someone found out I was from Auckland, and asked if I knew a particular person, and I did. Random.

  8. I think that couch surfing is a great way to cut costs on vacationing, plus I like how you said that you can get a local’s opinion about what to do and eat ect… My wife and I are a bit introverts so we’d probably never do it, but a few of our friends have done it and love hosting new people.

  9. I have always heard of couchsurfing and planned to do so, unfortunately I procrastinated on my backpacking journey. With a family I doubt I will be doing much couch surfing in the near future but it’s great to know it’s an option if I’m ever traveling alone.

  10. I really enjoyed Couchsurfing while I was in Europe and it’s really great to read it from the other side! From a host! (I wrote a post about it, but it was more from the surfer’s perspective: http://www.chimerikal.com/2012/04/couchsurfing-around-world.html )

    I still haven’t technically hosted anyone yet (not really in the position to yet/desirable area), but it’s actually on my “list” to do it. Because I think it would be SO much fun and make me feel like I’m traveling even if I have to stay here. Maybe I’ll do it next academic year with my boyfriend. Could be fun. I also guess I could even just MEET UP with people, too, which would be fun!

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