I have some very fond memories from abroad fuelled by Couchsurfing. The late night stroll through Paris via so many landmarks, even if was less a tour and more of a jumble; playing with Oreo, our Toronto hosts’ adorable little dog who considered our sofabed strictly her ptach; hopping on the back of a scooter with a stranger for a jaunt around some local spots in Hue.
Here, though, are the three Couchsurfing experiences that most stand out one way or another.
Our first surfing experience
Our first experience as surfers (not hosts) was with a European expat in Bangkok. Getting there was a total headache; I put our taxi driver on the phone with her (I think he thought she was a hotelier) but that didn’t seem to help.
She kept telling me I had to convince him to stop at a 7/11 or similar, as everyone in the area knew her apartment complex, but outsiders don’t. (If you haven’t been to Bangkok, 7/11s are literally everywhere.) I honestly don’t know how we made it, because our driver was not keen on that idea, but eventually we stumbled upon the right place thanks largely to dumb luck.
Then he refused to accept my 1000 baht note, so he drove me back to a 7/11 so I could buy something to break the note and pay him. Later, I realised I no longer had my change and concluded I must have dropped it in the backseat. Talk about throwing money away.
The other problem was the fact that our host was sick. She’d just come down with a cold and thus had turned her air conditioning off. In Bangkok, that isn’t just uncomfortable – it’s unbearable. We were drenched in sweat within minutes and the second night T opted to sleep outside on the balcony.
Lot of cities with an active Couchsurfing community have a regular weekly meetup. Local members host, usually at a bar, and visitors turn up.
Hanoi is one of these cities, and it turned out that the regular meetup was on during first night in town. We turned up expecting to meet a ton of other backpackers; instead we walked into a den of eager Vietnamese youth all clamouring to practise English with foreigners. It was a blast, just not quite what we were prepared for!
The next day I went exploring in Hanoi with some of our new buddies and one French couchsurfer (one of the few non-locals who turned up later that evening). They took us on a walking tour around the sights and are my Facebook friends today.
That time our host’s son gave up his room for us
Iceland is famously expensive (worse than Switzerland, IMO, which wasn’t actually quite as bad as I’d anticipated). And because we knew so little about the country, I was extra keen to find a host for our stay in Reykjavik.
It almost didn’t happen. Our host stopped answering my messages, so I booked a lodge room in town. Then suddenly he replied, confirming we were all on, and I cancelled that reservation. We turned up that evening and found a surprisingly youthful middle-aged couple who were kind of like kindred spirits (Iceland reminded us a LOT of New Zealand), and their young son, who brought to mind the kid in Meet the Robinsons.He solemnly shook our hands, then retreated to his computer. He’d been waiting excitedly for us to turn up – even gelled up his hair for the occasion, his mother told me slyly, mouth upturned in amusement.
We shared a Bailey’s, watched Sons of Anarchy, chatted about all sorts of things and then went to bed. The next day, I got a peek into the computer room and realised that wasn’t a bedroom – there was no bed in there. Our bedroom wasn’t a spare; it was their son’s room. I’m still stunned by that – I would never have done that willingly when I was young.
Of all the things I might have expected from my first non-hosting Couchsurfing experience, this wasn’t it.
Out of the blue, I received a message from a young woman called Tam in Ho Chi Minh. She introduced herself as a couchsurfer eager to practise her English, and offered herself up as a free tour guide. Who was I to look a gift horse in the mouth, particularly since we seemed to have trouble ‘clicking’ with the city and could do with some insider tips? It didn’t really help that I’d gotten sick the very first night and consequently spent two days more or less locked up in our room.
We met outside Notre Dame cathedral, trotted over to a nearby park, and parked our butts down on the paved paths to get acquainted. (One mystery solved: she informed us that you need permits to sit on the grass, apparently.) Over the next couple of hours, we did the rounds of a local student market and visited Turtle Lake, where we caught the tail end of a flashmob for International Children’s Day. To round it all off, she emailed through a list of recommendations of things to see, eat, and do later that night.
I think it’s super neat that there are couchsurfers like Tam around, willing to put themselves out there, make new connections, and further themselves. (Personally, I’m a horrendously lazy member. I’m more than happy to host when I can, and we did so many times over the summer, but go out of my way and trek into town just to meet up for a drink? TOO MUCH WORK, DUDE. Come to us!)
With that meetup behind us, we’re keen to try surfing for the time. If any Londoners have spare space between June 20-24, we can offer good cooking and conversation – my profile is here
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
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:
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?