Couchsurfing – around the world, one couch at a time
If I am not mistaken, you have been a member of Couchsurfing for more than 6 years and during this time, you have visited more than a dozen countries with its help. Could you explain what Couchsurfing is all about?
Couchsurfing is an online community through which members can offer free accommodation to one another. The idea was born when, in 2004, Casey Fenton, an American student found a cheap flight ticket to Iceland that he could not resist buying. However, it was only when he started looking for a place to stay that he realised that he could not even afford to book into a hostel. Since he wouldn’t give up his travel plan, he decided to send an e-mail the students of the University of Reykjavík in which he explained his situation and offered to bring presents from the US in exchange for them letting him crash on their couch for a couple of nights. To his greatest surprise, he was inundated by positive replies, which inspired him to create the Couchsurfing website where anybody can register who would like to stay with others or would be willing to host a traveller for a few days. Although by today, the site has millions of registered members for whom the site provides a lot of other useful things, like a forum for sharing travel advice and local language exchange and travel groups, the ‘couch exchange’ has remained its main activity.
So, this means that for the few days that we are staying with a member, we can set up our temporary headquarters on their couch?
It depends. The main idea relies on the fact that almost all households have at least one couch, but I have slept on the ground, on a yoga mattress, on an inflatable mattress, and even in a hammock. I have been hosted in a campervan, but it has also happened that I was offered to stay in a wooden cabin that was created out of a garden shed just big enough to fit 2 mattresses in. But it also happens quite frequently that I get my own room, especially in places where the hosts are older and whose children have flown the nest. I could also say that every house has a different reinterpretation of the word ’couch’. The important thing is to be open and arrive without expectations because like this we will never be disappointed.
Is it safe? It is a stranger’s home after all...
Obviously, like most things in the world, it is not 100% free of risks. However, the site does everything to prevent unpleasant situations from taking place – that’s the reason why the reference system was created. Everybody who comes into contact with another user can leave a reference about them, in which they can talk about their first impressions about that person and whether they would recommend it to other users to host or surf with them. It is worth going through these references and listening to our intuitions upon seeing a profile.
I can see on your profile that you have more than 150 references, which obviously means that you are very active on the site. Why do you like it so much?
For me, Couchsurfing has opened a new dimension of the world. As a child, when we were on holiday in a different country, I was always dreaming about having the possibility of knocking on the doors of the houses to be able to look inside and see how people live. For me it’s not about free accommodation – even though I must add that if this opportunity did not exist, I would have never been able to visit so many places – but about having the chance to get to know a new country through its people. The hosts always try to do their best to take their guests to a few places that are special for them, thereby letting them look behind the layer of tourist attractions into how local people live. But for me the most important thing is that Couchsurfers are connected by their shared love for travelling and through the system one can meet really unique people with the same interest. Although normally I only stay with one host for a couple of days, these experiences are so special that often stay in touch for years after getting to know each other.
What was your most special experience with Couchsurfing?
During my backpacking trip around New Zealand, I stumbled upon the profile of a local man who decided that he was fed up with civilisation 15 years ago and left everything behind to move to the furthest-away point of a peninsula, to a place that can only be accessed by boat or after an 8-day hike. During the first 7 months, he was living in a tent and built up a wooden cottage from scratch where he now lives and hosts people. I sent him a request and luckily, he said yes. A week later, he was waiting for me in his boat at the jetty of a nearby village. On the sail to his home, he let me drive the boat and halfway there, we stopped to collect mussels, which we later cooked for dinner. When we arrived, I was completely blown away by the dream world that he had created all by himself. All around us was unspoilt nature and the transparent turquoise water, there were canoes scattered along the shore, a swing that flew all the way out above the sea, hammocks everywhere and a huge balcony from where the whole area could be admired. I learnt a lot from him: about self-sufficiency; about giving up money, about solitude; and about living in harmony with nature. For me, Couchsurfing is all about these special encounters which stay with me for my whole life.
What should those do who got interested in Couchsurfing?
They should register today! In the beginning, everybody is sceptical – that’s natural, but it is worth putting anxiety aside and giving it a go: at the end of the day, if it fails to live up to our expectations, we can delete our profile any time. A lot of people first look for accommodation together with a friend, because that makes them feel safer. It’s a good idea to participate in a few Couchsurfing meetings, because during these, one can listen to others’ experiences, they can ask questions from the more experienced and can familiarise themselves with the Couchsurfing mentality. If, after this, somebody is still not sure if they would feel comfortable sleeping in a stranger’s house, they can show a foreigner around the city to see how they feel in such a situation. There are very few people who decide against Couchsurfing in the end and I can only foresee one danger of being a member: once you get started, it is easy to become addicted and you will never want to go back to the ’normal’ way of travelling.