Last updated: 07:00 PM ET, Tue December 01 2015

The Newbie's Guide to CouchSurfing

Features & Advice | Will Hatton | December 01, 2015

The Newbie's Guide to CouchSurfing

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

“Welcome to my cave,” he stated excitedly, as he gestured to a large rock, complete with an entrance and stairs. “We must collect some firewood.” After several hours of scrambling around rock formations, the fire was started, and it was time to sit back and appreciate my current situation. Here I was, in a modestly furnished cave in Jordan, admiring the collection of random trinkets from around the world that other CouchSurfers had left for my host. As he cooked up some skewers of meat on the open flame, I couldn’t help but be amazed: if it weren’t for CouchSurfing, I would never have found myself in such a strangely delightful situation.

What is CouchSurfing?

CouchSurfing is a website designed to connect people from around the world. The goal of the site is to be a platform in which people can share their culture and customs. It provides a way to travel without simply being a tourist — full cultural immersion can be achieved.

Everyone told me I was crazy when I revealed my intentions to go backpacking in Venezuela. I was told repeatedly that I faced certain death in this notorious land. What they didn’t know was that I possessed a secret weapon: CouchSurfing.

After chatting online with my future host for some time, I arrived at the Venezuelan border to be met by stares from the soldiers surrounding me. Esthela, my host, quickly weaved through the crowd and rescued me. I gave her the powdered milk and toilet paper rolls I had purchased in Colombia, knowing that these items were a need that was impossible to obtain in Venezuela, and we cruised off.

Over the next few days Esthela and her family welcomed me in as one of their own, excited that I was visiting their country, but not oblivious to the tumultuous state of affairs. I was put in contact with family members in other parts of the country, and advised of essential do’s and don’ts in Venezuela. Without Esthela the warnings of my demise may well have come to fruition.

While CouchSurfing is free for everyone to use, and hosts will provide a free place for their surfers to sleep — whether it be a bed, couch or cave — the site is not geared at just finding a free place to crash. The aim is to build connections around the world, and to allow us to understand each other on a deeper level.

How does it work?

This worldwide platform is incredibly easy to use. Simply sign up and fill out your profile (the more information you provide, the better), and you’re ready to give it a go! You can use the search bar to find hosts, events, discussions or local groups. Even if you’re not traveling at the moment, this site is a great place to meet likeminded people in your area.

When searching for hosts, you have a few customizable options. If you’re heading somewhere where you don’t speak the language, you might want to search for hosts who speak English. You can also select to search only for CouchSurfers who have references, which is an extremely handy tool. If you’re not looking for a host, and just want to hang out with someone, be sure to check the option “Wants to Meet Up” so that people who don’t have a couch available at the moment will still pop up in your search results.

Have a question for the community in a certain city? Search for the location within the groups, and welcome in the wealth of information from locals!

The Pros

Prices for so-called “budget” accommodations in some countries can be steep. With the cost frequently reaching $30 a night for a dorm room in countries like Australia, it’s often impossible to stick to a small budget. Instead of breaking the bank, CouchSurfing gives you an opportunity to interact with locals and experience the true side of their culture.

The magic of this platform doesn’t end at finding a place to stay, though. There are thousands of CouchSurfing groups, many of which are location specific, to help you with every aspect of your adventure. You can find rideshares, events, and advice on everything you can possibly think of within the groups. Everyone wants to help each other out in whatever way they can, and CouchSurfing has oftentimes been the most important tool in planning my adventures. Throwing questions out to the group can be the difference between seeing a place through the eyes of a tourist, and finding hidden gems that only a local would know of.

The Cons

As with any social platform, there will always be those trying to get something. In recent years, many people have started trying to use CouchSurfing as a dating website, which is far from its intended use. In some countries you will come across many hosts who work for tour companies, and will attempt to sell their packages to CouchSurfers.

Fortunately, CouchSurfing has tools to help you stay safe and meet the right people. The reference system is a godsend, and if you use it properly it will assure that you’re staying with the amazing people the site was intended for. Never stay with a CouchSurfer with any negative references, and try to contact people with at least ten positive references. Most importantly, if you ever find yourself feeling uncomfortable, just leave.

CouchSurfing is an amazing global platform that allows new connections to be born around the world. On many occasions I have formed lifelong friendships through this site, and been rescued in numerous dangerous countries with the help of kind CouchSurfing hosts. By using the reference system and the many groups out there, your CouchSurfing experience is sure to be unforgettable.


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