CouchSurfing: Fun, Free Cultural Experiences
Surf the couches of the world while saving money and making friends.
By Maria Myers
The most common excuse you’ll get from wanderlust people who are standing still is, “- but I don’t have enough money.”
While you’ll still need a few bucks for food and transportation, CouchSurfing can make any one’s travel dream a reality. Connect online with individuals from thousands of cities in dozens of countries, all through the website aptly named CouchSurfing.com. You just have to sleep on the couch!
You can have an experience anywhere from sleeping on a blow-up mattress on the floor below your host's permanent bed in a tiny bachelor pad to your own private room in an artists’ spacious studio apartment (and in Paris no less).
The website was officially founded in 2011 by a computer programmer hailing from Iceland named Casey Fenton who, according to The New Yorker, decided to spam 1,500 college students in his country with a place to stay.
His main goal; connect with people on an international level and create an avenue to swap and share cultural and educational experiences.
The company has stayed true to that vision today. There is a page on its website solely dedicated to values and beliefs. These are what every host and surfer try to embody, and what inspired Fenton to create the website in the first place;
- Share your life; couch surfers aim to bring people and cultures together that otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to cross paths. Becoming familiar with others' experiences shapes a more open and well-formed world view.
- Offer kindness; in this stormy world we live in today, it brings hope and inspiration to see there are still people who want to reach out and share what they have, whether that be their couch, a good meal, a laugh, or all three. Couchsurfing fosters these interactions.
- Stay curious; learning new things is a part of growing, something that doesn’t have to stop after you age out of school. The world is your new classroom.
Above and Beyond
There are members of the website who go far beyond what it means to be a great host. These individuals are known as Ambassadors.
They exemplify the core values of couch surfing through their dedication over the years, paired with an emphasis on local activities. One of these “golden boys” is Ambassador Enrique.
Enrique has shared his experiences of creating a community on Couchsurfing.com, “When I was living in Istanbul, I created a group to help people improve their Spanish and offered them a better idea about what Latin culture is all about.
The Mesa de Español (Spanish table) weekly meeting started with just one guy in the center of Istanbul, but now there are more than 2,500 members!” Like I said, above and beyond.
When your host is this good there are multiple little ways you can give back; keep the house clean, make dinner once or twice, maybe even give them a little shift. Just don’t give money, except for the initial membership fee money has been removed from the surfing equation.
Couch-surfing is all about providing a fun, safe experience for its’ hosts and travelers alike. There are many different kinds of people out there, looking for unique experiences within and without their comfort zone. That being said, here are a few tips to keep surfers healthy and happy;
- Review profiles and references carefully; these are the main “feelers” potential surfers can use to identify if they’re going to enjoy a homestay or not. Like learning from others mistakes, so you don’t have to make the same one they did.
- Trust your instincts; if you’re more comfortable with a solo host, go for it. But if you’d prefer to stay with a family, that’s ok too. Don’t worry about hurt feelings, you shouldn’t have to compromise your comfort.
- Have a back-up plan; if it does turn out you and your host don’t see eye to eye, know of other hosts and/or other types of lodging in the area. And it never hurts to know your host's general neighborhood.
- New cultures; be informed on the culture you’ll be heading into. Learning about others’ lives and experiences can be eye-opening and life-changing, but every culture has its’ differences and deserves your respect.
- Communicate; with your hosts and with the online community. Always connect through the websites IM page, never give out your email or phone number. And make sure you leave honest comments on your stay for the next surfer.
- Take responsibility for you; whatever you enjoy during your stay, remember you are in charge of your decisions and actions. This includes any parties you might go to, or how late you might stay out. Be aware and courteous towards your host family, especially those with kids.
Indonesian journalist, copywriter and travel writer Famega Syavira Putri know these tips and many others that have kept her protected on her travels.
Sexual Harassment Abroad
In an article on The Jakarta Post Famega speaks about the sexual harassment she has encountered abroad, this time specifically in Iran. “Most male travelers who have visited Iran described their experience as being near perfect, while almost all women who have gone there have become victims of some kind of sexual harassment.”
Sadly, this is the case for many female travelers in numerous countries, though Famega has not let it slow her down. There are trusted resources out there, one of them is Couch Surfing. Famega has always been able to find a secure and reliable traveling partner through the website.
Members Making Meaningful Memories
Really, once you have the safety aspects down you’re good to go. No one embodies this better than the well-traveled couple Anna and Bogdan. This couple is fluent in English, Russian, Ukranian.
The duo has hitchhiked through Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. These people have been to more countries (70) than I can name off the top of my head. Their lifestyle is freeing and minimalistic.
As Anna recorded on CouchSurfing, “From the beginning of our trip we had money only for visas. Our purpose was not to save but to be closer to ordinary people, nature, culture and local traditions. When you have no money, people try to help.
You become a guest and are like friends or relatives! Every day of the trip is an adventure. We like to visit the sights, but our first aim is to understand the lifestyle, traditions, and cultures of the people who live there.”
I was able to catch up with a surfing member in person (on a couch actually). World traveler Chris Dyson.
He has never had a bad experience traveling this way. In fact, the whole set up has made his travels superior to what they otherwise would have been.
When Chris used Couch Surfing to visit Paris, he was able to accompany his host to a Persian pub and enjoy the semi-finals for the world cup.
Afterward, he explored the neighborhood with his new-found-friend, learning everything from her favorite area to sit and rest, to the spot where free Frenchmen were shot by the Nazi’s in WWII.
“As a tourist,” Chris explained, “whenever I’ve gone to any of these other big cities, if you go and you don’t know anything about it and you just go to where other tourists go - and it sucks, it’s horrible.
My host showing me around allowed me to see the city – and that’s what I’ve experienced in any city I’ve couch surfed in.”
Make Like a bunny...
Join the website and start planning your next economical trip today.
With over 150,000 cities to choose from, and around 180 different languages spoken your only limitations are what you decide.
Get off the couch and join the 14 million that have hopped on to someone else’s. As Vahista Mistry from India so beautifully puts it, “It’s because of Couchsurfing that I found other people like me – people who want to go out and explore the world, see what’s hiding underneath each rock and discover what village lies behind the next curve in the road.”
Make use of their mobile app to find verified local with open homes to travelers even faster.
Maria Myers is an up and coming travel writer. When she’s not perusing the internet for her next writing opportunity or planning another trip you can find her on one of the many trails of the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts.