Couchsurfing: Experience New Cultures Like a Local

We are happy to welcome a guest post from Dave from The Quest for Awesome.

Petra Cave

When you’re traveling in an unfamiliar place, one of the best ways to experience it is with a local. In my 12 month RTW trip to 23 countries, 157 nights were spent couchsurfing. As I reflect back on the trip as a whole, some of my favorite experiences and adventures happened because I decided to couchsurf. If you’re on the fence or nervous to try it, this guide will give you that push to get out of your comfort zone.

What’s The Point?

Getting off the beaten path

If you couchsurf for any reason, it should be this one: get off the beaten path. As the name suggests, the beaten path is pretty beaten, so getting yourself off it can lend to unique experiences. These are the novel experiences you want to have–the ones you can’t look up in a Lonely Planet guidebook or reserve with a travel company.

One of my favorite things to do is to trade meals with my host. One night we’ll cook a favorite meal of mine, and the next, we’ll cook a favorite meal of theirs. After we’re done cooking, we’ll sit down together and pick each other’s brains about our curiosities. It’s amazing what you can learn about a new culture this way–somehow living and sharing a meal together makes it easy to get comfortable with each other.

It’s an efficient way to travel

When you’re moving from place to place on a regular basis, planning travel and lodging can transition from exciting to tedious. The nights I didn’t couchsurf, I would spend my first few days in a new area gathering information on things to do and how to get there as cheaply as possible.

Your host will turn these days of research into minutes of conversation with the knowledge they already possess about their city. If they’re available, they will most likely join you, too. Now you don’t have to worry about getting lost, speaking the local language or getting charged “tourist” prices.

Cheap Accommodation

Depending on where you are in the world, accommodation can take a good portion of your daily budget. Couchsurfing is a great way to stretch your dollar since the lodging is free.

How Do I Do It?

www.couchsurfing.org

I only used this website 3 times during my trip because it can be time consuming, however, it’s helpful if you’re heading to a country where you don’t know anyone. Here are some tips to streamline the process:

  • Fill out your profile completely, the more detail the better. Have at least 5 pictures, some solo, some with groups of people. It helps people get to know you without having to send too many e-mails back and forth.
  • Look for hosts with a completely filled out profile and then proceed to read it all before sending them a message. Some people hide messages like “make sure the title of your message is ‘peace’ so I know you read my profile.” Other people put useful information like: I live with 20 cats so don’t bother sending a message if this is a problem.
  • Send a somewhat personal message to each possible host. I would send out these messages at least 3 weeks before the dates I was looking to couchsurf. My format was as follows:

Hello [Host's name],

I’ll be in your city from [dates]. I saw your couchsurfing profile and I love that you [some activity you learned from reading their profile]. Some of my favorite things to do when I travel are [list them] and I think it would be awesome to meet you if you’re available while I’m there. It would be great if you could host me for at least 2 nights, but if we get along and it works with your schedule I wouldn’t mind staying longer. Let me know what you think and I hope to hear from you soon!

Thank you so much,

[Your name]

  • If it’s possible, meet your host for coffee before showing up at their house. This allows you to assess their demeanor in a public place. If you’re getting weird vibes, make sure you have an out like, “I met some people on my flight and I’m meeting up with them in an hour, so I’ll get in touch with you afterwards.”

Meet People

Open your mouth and start talking to people. You will be astounded at what happens afterwards if you’re flexible.

While I was in Cairns, Australia I met a guy from Hong Kong in my hostel. Our conversation ended with him introducing me to his good friend over Facebook. Four months later I met up with the Facebook friend when I arrived in Hong Kong. He toured me around and let me stay with him and his family for the week I was there.

As I was traveling through Melbourne, Australia I met a girl from a small town in Germany. We stayed in touch and six months later when I was visiting Germany I was staying with her and her family drinking German beer and eating homemade sauerkraut.

My favorite story is when I went to Petra, Jordan. As I was visiting the ancient archaeological city, I stopped to chat with a girl who was selling souvenirs on the walking path. Her English was amazing (she was fluent in six different languages just from talking to tourists all day!) and she ended up inviting me into her tent for lunch. She told me about the history of the Petra Bedouin Tribe she’s a part of and about the 20-ish families who still live in caves in Petra. Long story short, she ended up taking me to the 2000+ year old caves where I met five of the families over a traditional Bedouin dinner and spent the night. In the morning, the brother put me on a donkey and we hiked for 2 hours back to the highway where he helped me catch a cab to my hotel. The featured image of this post is of the girl from this story and her mother in the cave after dinner.

None of this ever would of happened if I didn’t make an effort to meet people.

Utilize Your Personal Network

Let your friends and family know where and when you’re leaving and let them know you’d love to meet up with anyone along the way. I made a post like this over Facebook before I left and not only did friends living abroad let me know I was welcome, but I also received many messages like, “Hey, you should meet up with my friend who lives in Chile. Here is their contact info.”

Other Tips

  • You should never expect your host to provide you with food. Be grateful if they do, but don’t bank on it.
  • Come bearing gifts. I always showed up with a six-pack of beer or a bottle of wine. Another good idea is to bring something from your home country.
  • Leave it better than you found it. I always made a point to do some sort of cleaning like washing a sink full of dishes or taking out the trash.
  • If I stayed longer than three nights I also made a point to treat my host to something. Paying for their entrance to an attraction, taking them out to a meal or cooking them dinner are all good ideas.
  • Be clean. I figured this was obvious but I heard countless stories from hosts of couchsurfers leaving dirty underwear in the bathroom and dirty dishes in the sink.
  • Have a back-up plan. It’s always possible for your host to back out at the last minute so make sure you at have the address and phone number of a hostel nearby.

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thequestforawesome Author Bio: Dave is the creator of The Quest for Awesome. In a last ditch effort to get motivation to finish his Master’s Thesis he started planning a RTW trip. It worked. He sold all of his possessions except for three boxes of sentimental items and left on his 12-month adventure with only a 26L backpack. Today he is determined to become location independent and loves talking anything travel.

Comments

  1. says

    I agree with couchsurfing being a great way to meet people and experience places like a local, not like a tourist, but I had some bad csing experience last year. I was staying at 5 different hosts in different capital cities in Europe and they all tried to seduce me. When I refused to have sex with them, they started to ignore me and it was not cool. I still use csing, but pick up female hosts :).

    • says

      Blegh, I’m sorry you had to deal with those poor experiences while you were traveling :(

      Unfortunately, it seems like people are using CS more and more as a dating website instead of the intended use and popular bigger cities with higher tourist footprints seem to be worse for this than the smaller, less frequented places.

      However, there are ways to mitigate the risk and make sure you’re staying with genuine people with no hidden agendas. You mentioned staying with female hosts if you’re a female. Another is to look for couples who are hosts. Always check a hosts reviews from other travelers. You should always try to meet your host somewhere in public to get a judge of their character before agreeing to go to their house. Finally, always have a backup plan to excuse yourself if you start getting a weird vibe.

      The risk is always there, as a traveler we acknowledge this when we step into the unknown. Do your best to mitigate the risk but, at the same time, don’t let it ruin what could be an amazing experience.

    • carlitos says

      Hey. I see women comment on this all the time, but very few leave a non-positive reference. I know we are all scared of getting negative feedback as a petty vengeance, but it’s important to leave a warning to others. Even a subtle comment with a neutral reference might be enough to spare others.

    • says

      Haha, yes, I know I was immediately drawn to it because of the free accommodation aspect. However, after the first experience I realized what the true value was and now the cheap housing is just the icing on the cake of an already great thing.

      • says

        We have had surfers stay with us who arrived thinking free accommodation but leave realising the value, once they realise it they are more choosey about who they stay with.
        As for the hosts who think it is a dating site give honest reviews and report them it is the only way we will get rid of them

  2. says

    Echoing what Agness said, I read somewhere about guys using Couchsurfing as a way to “meet” women. These people give Couchsurfing a bad name. I haven’t tried it myself, but I know some people who genuinely just want to help fellow travelers through hosting Couchsurfers.

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