| More than just the couch |
I’ve been using Couchsurfing (CS) since 2012 – that’s even before I was old enough to show my real age and that was the time when I put my age as 116 (which is the oldest you can be, according to CS). The first time I couchsurfed as a guest was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, after I got bitten by a strayed dog in Myanmar (a trip my parents still aren’t aware of). I was on the edge of dying (literally) and was definitely not in the mood to meet someone new. But I’m not gonna lie, I ran out of money since I spent everything on Rabies vaccines so I didn’t cancel my CS request.
But that was pretty much where my bad luck ended – I instantly forgot about the dog bite as I buzzed my way through the crazy (SE Asian-level) traffic in Phnom Penh on my host’s bike. I would’ve never even dreamt about cycling on the streets in Cambodia with my wounds and terrible biking skills at that time. I fell in love immediately with CS and Cambodia…and my host (well that’s another story).
I love CS because I’ve got the chance to see different countries from a local’s perspective. There were so many incredible things that I wouldn’t have been able to experience on my own but were made possible with CS. I’ve made life-long friendships with people that I met through CS, and this platform makes me realize that there’re no strangers in this world – only friends I haven’t met. I even couchsurfed during a family trip and told my parents I had to meet some ‘local friends’ so I could explore places the way I want to (you know how traveling with the fam is like) and meet the locals.
So as an experienced CSer, I just thought maybe I can share a few things about CS that you should know, whether you’re completely new to the concept and curious about how it works, or already a CS expert as I’ve couchsurfed in countries and regions that you would’ve never thought CS exists and despite my love for CS I’ve got into situations where I felt like there are certainly places where travellers are better off staying at a backpackers/hostel/hotel (will explain further below).
1. It’s not all about YOU.
Yes, I briefly talked about how I gained so much from meeting the locals and living with them but if you think CS is all about you, the traveler – you’re wrong. CS is about mutual respect and your host is not obliged to make sure you have a good time during your stay, so be thankful if they do make an effort to show you around. Don’t take their kindness for granted because while you have all the time to explore a foreign country, chances are your hosts have their own routines and if they make time out of their daily schedule for you, you should make sure whatever you do would not impose on them (e.g. try not to stay out too late, keep the bathroom clean, etc.).
2. It’s not about free accommodation.
Show your appreciation. Most of the time people host because they don’t have the chance to travel themselves so they host through CS to meet travellers from all around the world. Share your travel stories and your home culture; bring some gifts from your own country. A little thoughtfulness can go a long way and you’ll be surprised how these little souvenirs can make your hosts so happy. I usually bring Chinese tea for my hosts and recently I brought Korean facial masks for my host in Tehran. It’s not compulsory and I don’t think people really expect these things but I personally would encourage this because it does make a difference. Sometimes I write a thank you note if I really enjoy spending time with them.
3. Don’t trust the CS reference system 100%
First thing first – do your homework before choosing a host. CS has a reference system where ‘surfers’ leave references on their hosts’ page, and it could be a positive or negative one. Hosts also respond to the references and briefly talk about their CS experience with the ‘surfers’. I would say 98% of the time the reference system is quite trust-worthy, especially when the profile that you’re looking at has many positive references. As for the other 2% – 1% is bad luck and the other 1% is wrong judgement. I should probably dedicate another post to bad CS experiences (which are only 2 so far) but basically try not to couchsurf in countryside/remote areas of a country, even when it’s available. My first ‘negative’ CS experience was in Taitung, Taiwan (2013) and my second one was in Lalibela, Ethiopia (2015). It so happened that in both scenarios there was only one host available who had a few positive references and I chose to stay with them because the comments their previous ‘surfers’ left seemed OK (nothing negative at least). To be honest the first one was partly my own issue as my friend and I were offered a room (no windows) where we found two huge cockroaches inside and we just couldn’t bear the thought of sleeping with cockroaches crawling over us. But the one in Ethiopia was worth a whole separate post and that experience got me a bit scared for my life and made me question why traveling solo as a female is so difficult sometimes. The solution? Couchsurf mainly in capitals or major cities (I don’t know about Europe as I’m more referring to the Middle East and Africa)
4. Lower your expectation
As I mentioned in my previous point, sometimes the living condition you’re offered might require you to get out of your comfort zone. These days many hosts post photos of their place/where the ‘surfer’ will be sleeping so it’s advisable to check that carefully if you have concerns over hygiene/privacy issues. I’m not saying you should pick someone’s house according to how nice it looks, but as I said CS is a mutual experience, so you should also make sure you can adapt to a host’s living environment as that could differ in different cultures too.
5. Keep an open mind (and heart)
Bare in mind that your host might be the first local you meet after you enter a country. That means their mannerism, opinions and lifestyle might be completely different from where you come from – and that’s OK. It makes understanding of a local culture much faster and easier because what you see is what you get – no overly-advertised tourism board or endless recommendations from Lonely Planet – only authentic local advice and hospitality.