Couch Surfing: an excellent way to connect with locals when travelling

by Travel Paulie on May 5, 2010


Word count: ~1500.  Approx. reading time: 10 minutes.

I’ve been in Bali for just over a month already and in that time I’ve met only a handful of local Indonesians, and none of which any sort of lasting relationship has developed – much to my frustration.  So just over a week ago, I resolved to change that and shortly thereafter I remembered about an organisation/service that I’d heard of a few times but never looked into very closely – Couch Surfing.

I understood the principle as basically, sign-up if you have a couch and let people who contact you crash there as they travel through – the converse being that you will be hosted by equally generous people in other parts of the world.  I’ve never really been in a position to host people so I never gave it much thought, but a week or so ago I decided to give a closer look and while much of what I thought was true, it does say that you don’t need to have a couch, but a willingness to host others when you can.  Further, the definition of ‘host’ is slightly different to what I thought also.  You don’t have to actually host people in your place, but can act as a point of contact, or guide, and meet with travellers as they pass through, and potentially in the future when you’re in a position to host, do so.

Sign me up!

What is Couch Surfing (CS)?

It is described very succinctly in Wikipedia as a “hospitality exchange network”, but it’s probably best to take it straight from the Couch Surfing . org website.  CS is…

… is an international non-profit network that connects travelers with locals in over 230 countries and territories around the world. Since 2004, members have been using our system to come together for cultural exchange, friendship, and learning experiences. Today, over a million people who might otherwise never meet are able to share hospitality and cultural understanding.

And that’s it.  Plain and simple.  Granted, I’ve had only 10 days worth of exposure to the system, but so far I’m very impressed by it.  Already it has afforded me an opportunity to befriend a significant number of Indonesians and travellers alike – more in the last week than in the whole of the last month.

It’s facilitates the exchange and connection of international travellers and local individuals and at it’s core, offers a hugely  viable alternative to the backpacker-hostel approach to travel.

How does it work exactly and is it safe?

As a member of the network you provide your profile details as you wish, some of which you may optionally have officially confirmed through their verification system – such as your name & address.  You can then immediately start searching for, and making contacting with, people (locals or otherwise) living in the area to which you are planning on travelling.  The individuals (or couples etc.) can then, based on their own judgement, decide whether or not to host you in their home.  And that’s it in a nutshell.

As a member of CS you can set your ‘hosting’ status to one of several different levels, the main ones being that you have a couch, you’re travelling at the moment (so you don’t have a couch to offer), or that you don’t want to or cannot host but rather you’re prepared to meet people for a coffee in a ‘guide’ capacity or just as a friendly face on the road.  When you search for a couch in a given region, you can specify several criteria to narrow down the particular people you’d like to meet.  For example: male or female, age, couch or coffee, previous surfing experience, and whether they’re officially verified etc.  It’s got all the bases covered.  You then contact individuals that have satisfied these conditions based on the content of their profile and how much of a fit you see them as being to what you desire.

Regarding safety, when you contact people through the site you use the internal messaging system provided by CS.  You do not contact members directly on their email/phone since that information is private and not provided, unless you personally do so on a case-by-case basis.  The same goes for address details and location – no members on the site have access to these specifics unless you provide it for them.

Another safety mechanism is ‘vouching’.  When you have met another member, you can vouch for that person and basically publicly give them a thumbs-up.  You’re saying that after your experience, you believe them to be very trustworthy and would recommend them to others.  You may use the vouches that they have received (or lack of) to come to a decision as to whether they’re appropriate for you.

Then there is verification.  This is where you provide CS itself proof of your name & address through a credit-card based donation to the organisation.  A donation is a good idea and the minimum amount is ~US$26 – not a lot considering what you get in return.  After donation, they will send a postcard to your specified home address, upon which is written a verification code that you then input into the site, thereby confirming your place of residence.  (I actually haven’t got my postcard yet, so I can’t comment on this particular procedure just yet)

What couch surfing is not

It is not a dating site.  They stress this in the sign-up page and you will probably see it mentioned here and there.  Sure, I’ll bet there are people who have hooked up after meeting through CS, but that is not what the service is there for.  You’ll have better luck on the thousands of online dating websites I’m sure.

My thoughts on couch surfing

Do it.  If you’re travelling and would prefer to engage and connect with locals in the places within which you’re exploring, would prefer to not go the back-packer-hostel route (only), this is perfect.  Not only does it facilitate your making of local connections, but you remove one of the most costly components of any trip – accommodation.

All that said however, I quickly became aware from profiles on the site and the few conversations I’ve had with other couch surfers that there are members who are derided for simply just looking for a free place to sleep.  I didn’t understand this at first, until I thought it through and gained an understanding of the CS community as a whole.  The members of this community are looking to foster friendships and connections throughout the world in the places they travel to, and with the people who travel to them.  They are not looking purely to offer you a place to sleep.  Sounds obvious?  No.  I don’t think so, since a great selling point of the system is free accommodation.  Call me a heathen and a pilfering good-for-nothing, but that’s a huge draw to highly budget-conscious travellers.  However, it seems to many hosts that that approach is missing the point entirely – which is networking, and relationship building.

For me, it’s each to their own.  If you’re prepared to simply host a traveller for a day or so and you don’t mind if he/she is there for the free place to crash and not looking to build a lasting relationship with you, then no problem.  If you would prefer people who lean more towards the networking and less focused on the financial payoff, then you’ll need to be much more discerning.  And they are.  Many people will embed a phrase, or a password, into their profile requesting that when you request them for couch availability you put this phrase in the subject header – this shows the host that you’ve at least taken the time to read about them and you’re choosing them versus carpet bombing with CS requests in the city you’re looking to stay.  Again, it makes sense.

To me, there’s no harm in either approach, but of course as with anything there’s derision reserved for those who aren’t like you.

For me, I fall in middle of the road depending on what day of the week you ask me.  I’ve already stated my travel plans and the volunteering aspect of the journey.  I’m not earning money and the more cash I can save along the way, the better, so couch surfing is a real bonus.  However, the main thrust of my travels isn’t to lie on the beach and fill-in my farmer-tan, but instead to meet and connect with locals in the regions I travel… and again CS slots in perfectly with that aspiration.

I intend to make CS an integral part of my journey, especially for places to which I’ve never travelled before.  I will update of course on this site any significant events or experiences regarding CS.  Have you ever tried Couch Surfing, or other similarly run programs?  Please feel free to take a moment and share that in the comments section below – I’d be keen to hear about your experiences.

Even if you haven’t had any CS experience, but you have comments or further suggestions to add to this? Please feel free to contribute them below.  Of course, if you found this amusing, interesting, or informative, and you’d like to share it, please do so also using the “Share this Post” button.  Thank you for visiting!

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