The Torah, the Quran and the Bible all include many passages specifically instructing God’s people to provide food and shelter to those travelling, be they strangers or not. In ancient Greece, Zeus was considered the God of hospitality (amongst other things) and taking care of travelers was considered a sacred obligation (see “Xenia”).
Throughout the Western world today, however, hospitality has become less of a sacred obligation and more of an industry. Hotels line highways with ample parking and big neon lights, but all cost money. It’s rare for anyone to allow strangers into their home, and in fact that very thought is considered counter-cultural at best and dangerous at worst. It would seem that hospitality in the Western world is dead, and finding a place to sleep is near impossible. Enter Couchsurfing.
This website looks to bring travel back to its generous roots by connecting those who need a place to sleep with those who have a couch to spare. Sign up for this service and you’ll meet people from all over the world, not to mention saving a ton of money on your next trip while making good friends everywhere you go. It’s travelling in the traditional sense, and it’s extremely rewarding. Best of all: it’s a worldwide network, so you can travel pretty much anywhere and find Couchsurfers to stay with.
Getting Started Finding a Place to Sleep
Like most web communities, Couchsurfing can seem a little intimidating at first. It doesn’t have to be. To get started all you need to do is create a profile. There’s a lot of information to fill in, but if you expect people to invite you into their house, or stay in your home, you need to give them a lot of information. Be honest, express who you are and what you’re looking for. If you’re sincere, people will be kind.
You’ll also fill in where you live, how many people you can host and what sort of accommodation you have to offer. This will give people an idea of whether or not you’d be an ideal host for them.
To me, hosting is the best part of CouchSurfing. Once your profile is up you’re expressing your availability to host others. When people visiting your town or city need a place to stay, they’ll eventually find your profile and ask if you’d be willing to host. If you can’t, you don’t have to of course: nothing is obligatory. But hosting is a great way to make friends so I’d highly recommend it. Additionally, people are less likely to host you if you’ve never hosted before yourself.
In the past year I’ve hosted people from Atlanta, Georgia; Tazmania, Australia; and London, England. It’s been a great way to meet people from all around the world without significantly changing our day-to-day lives.
What you provide for your travelers is really up to you. You’re not obligated to provide food, though most guests really appreciate it. What the average couch surfer is looking for though, is knowledge. They want to know about your town, what it’s like living there, what’s fun to do in and around where you live. Share those things with them and you’ll have happy couch surfers.
Planning your journey with Couchsurfing is easy. Before you start your trip, just look for lodging in all the towns you want to visit via Couchsurfing (much the same way you currently use a hotel’s website). You’ll typically find hundreds of people in any big city and a least a few in the smaller towns. Be sure to check out their profiles to find people you’d get along with well (not to mention people whose philosophy of life or career fascinates you).
When you request to surf someone’s couch you’ll send them a message. This will say when you’d like to stay with them, and when you will be arriving.
But don’t leave it at that. Explain why you’d like to stay with that given person, expressing your interest in their job or lifestyle. Say what you’d like to learn and what you’d like to teach. Spread knowledge. This was the essence of travelling before travelling was an industry, so take advantage and you’ll have life-changing experiences.
Obviously there are a few security concerns with letting strangers into your house on a regular basis. It’s an unfortunate fact that this is never completely avoidable, but Couchsurfing is pretty safe overall for a number of reasons.
The main reason Couchsurfing is safe is the number of references surfers leave each other. You can tell a person is going to be an agreeable host or guest if other surfers leave positive notes about them. If you’re concerned about safety I’d say these references are the most important tool you have: read them all before hosting or staying with anyone. Yes, people could leave fake references, but those are typically easy to spot. Use your web savvy and you’ll be okay.
The second security measure is verification. A number of users have green checkmarks beside their pictures, like so:
This means that these users have verified who they are by not only receiving physical mail at their address but also donating money to CouchSurfing HQ, via credit care, to confirm they have a bank account in that same name (not to mention donating to CouchSurfing to keep it running). If someone you want to host is verified, or someone who referenced them is, they’re very likely trustworthy.
Read more about Couchsurfing safety at the Couchsurfing website.
Other Relevant Tools
Of course, Couchsurfing isn’t the only travel tool you’ll need to plan a trip. You can find out a lot from travel guides, so I highly recommend your read Tina’s article about the best free online international travel guides. And what trip couldn’t benefit from some Google Maps magic? Plan ahead and your trip will be much more rewarding.
Couch Surfing is a web service I sincerely love. I love the spirit it embodies: bringing travel back to its sacred roots of connecting to other people, and sharing what you have. I also love that it is the Internet that’s making this possible.
For all the (mostly accurate) talk out there of technology isolating people, Couchsurfing is an example of the Internet undoing some of the isolation modern lifestyles created. I’d highly recommend you try it out: you’ll make new friends and learn about the world.
What do you guys think? Do you have any Couchsurfing experiences you’d like to share? Or do you perhaps suspect this isn’t such a great idea? Let me know in the comments below!
Image Credit: GreenWhiteOrange