Do you have a spare couch?
Young people love travelling, but often find themselves constricted to the total amount of money they can invest in their trip. With plane fares becoming more affordable the past years, it is easier to reach new places. But what about the cost of accommodation? Couchsurfing (CS) is the most popular way to travel and save on accommodation thanks to the hospitality of those who make their couch available for free.
It originated as a web portal created by Casey Fenton, a young American programmer. He found a cheap flight from Boston to Iceland in 1999 and ended up emailing 1,500 students at the University of Iceland to ask if someone could host him. It gave birth to the idea that people anywhere would want to share their homes with strangers (or, as the founders like to call them, friends you haven't met yet), and so the website was created the very same year. Since then the ownership and management of the website has changed, evolving from a non-profit organisation to a profit making organisation, but the concept remains the same:
Couchsurfing is a community of people who share their life, their world, their journey. It connects travellers with a global network willing to share in profound and meaningful ways, making travel a truly social experience. It targets those who are interested in finding accommodation offered by like-minded individuals. These individuals can make their couch, floor or spare bedroom available online. All you have to do is to sign up to the website, enter all the details to create a complete profile with photos and information, including: age, occupation, place of origin, passions, interests and the type of people you would like to meet. Safety is guaranteed by an efficient system of references on the quality of service offered by a particular person. This includes comments left by those who have been already hosted by that user on their experience (positive, negative or neutral). This way one can evaluate the reliability of a potential guest or host.
Although Couchsurfing started as a platform to find free accommodation and this still is one of its major purposes, it turned out to be a useful tool to meet people as well. It has become a network of individuals who want to share life experiences and be inspired by one another also on a local, more accessible level – hence dozens and dozens of events happening every day across the world. This is also the reason why now the website promotes Couchsurfing as a great way to meet people, and its members organise a lot of language exchanges, sightseeing tours, interest groups, and, of course, parties.
These days the website has more than 12 million users from 200,000 cities who communicate with each other in over 366 languages, including English (70%), French (17.2%) and Spanish (16%), and the community has been supporting over half a million events. The top cities for couchsurfing are New York City, Paris, London, Berlin, Barcelona, Madrid, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, San Francisco and Rome.
There are also other websites and communities that followed the path of couchsurfing.com, or, on the contrary, offer an alternative to some CS features they don’t approve of, and are on the rise at the moment.
…AND OTHER PLATFORMS
Trustroots: owned and operated by Trustroots Foundation, a non-profit registered in the United Kingdom since March 2015. Works similarly to Couchsurfing (you can link your profile to other hosting & travelling platforms too), the main difference being the disapproval of their for-profit shift. Trustroots community is a bit more free-spirited and hippie, also working on projects like Hitchwiki, Trashwiki and Nomadwiki. Within the platform you will find various “tribes”, which are interest groups you join to connect with like-minded people. You can find e.g. tribes of hitchhikers, dumpster divers, vegans & vegetarians, buskers, cyclists, eco living, foodsharing, climbers, yoga, and so on. Manifesto: We want a world that encourages trust, adventure and intercultural connections. Our willingness to help each other is universal. Trustroots is completely free to use and will remain so forever. We believe in beauty, simplicity and transparency. We emphasize community. Trustroots has has over 300,000 members now.
BeWelcome is run by the organisation BeVolunteer, which is a registered non-profit organisation in France. BeWelcome was founded by former volunteers of Hospitality Club, another hospitality network. Later, ex-volunteers of Couchsurfing, yet another hospitality network, joined as well. These volunteers share the vision of a network that is based on the principles of transparency, openness, and democracy. BeWelcome is not in competition with other hospitality networks but sees itself part of a larger hospitality movement, where different organisations may have different priorities. Like others, BeWelcome is a hospitality and culture exchange network. Many members of BeWelcome offer a place to stay overnight to traveling or visiting members or to meet-up and show them around their city or region. Free of charge. BeWelcome aims at creating more real social connections in the world and to create deeper cultural understanding. It was founded and is managed by a team of volunteers from all over the world. Their dream is to create a project that allows everyone to visit a destination through the eyes of local people and to experience the variety of cultures in everyday life - when travelling but also at home. Currently over 100,000 members and growing!
WarmShowers: this community is a free worldwide hospitality exchange for touring cyclists. People who are willing to host touring cyclists sign up and provide their contact information, and may occasionally have someone stay with them and share great stories and a drink. All members agree to host others either now or in the future, but for some members hosting may be in years or even decades in their future. Started in the early 90s, as a listing, then database, and now have evolved into a multilingual portal connecting bicycle tourists. The community is not too big but super-friendly and quite active. Its moderate size and quite specific passion result in a sound level of trust and credibility; its members are extremely welcoming, and share a lot of inspirational stories. Curious about the stats? 106,411 members, 64,072 of them hosting right now. They communicate predominantly in English, French and German, and France, United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Canada are amongst countries with the most members. Random facts: Lichtenstein has 1 registered member, and Gibraltar has 2. Kosovo has 4 so they’re rocking it! As Greg LeMond once famously said: It never gets easier; you just go faster. Without doubts, it’s a fantastic and unique way to travel, so get your two wheels ready, and hit the road with WarmShowers!
Staydu is being advertised with a slogan Stay it your way – choose the type of your stay. You and your host decide. Staydu is the best way to experience cultural exchange. It allows you to become a part of a foreign culture. Using Staydu is more than just being a tourist. It has 17,205 signed up users, and hosts in 120 countries. Not too big of a platform, though offers an interesting choice between 3 different travelling/hosting options.
- “Stay and help” - hosts with a red circle host in return for help. You can stay with a local and help him building his garage or looking after his kids.
- “Stay and pay” - hosts with a yellow circle host in return for money. You pay for your stay in return for accommodation and electricity.
- “Stay for free” - hosts with a blue circle host in return for free. They like to welcome you as a part of their life.
There is also an option of local meet-ups and someone showing you around, without hosting.
Servas International: although not getting as much publicity as Couchsurfing, this is the real deal – Servas is nearly 70 years old, and its 14,000 members in over 130 countries will welcome you into their homes. Servas was founded by Bob Luitweiler just after the Second World War, when a group of friends from different countries who were meeting in Denmark came up with the idea of an 'open doors' network. Their aim was to work for peace by creating a framework for like-minded people to enjoy hospitality in members' home and promote international understanding. From there, Servas has grown into an international, non-governmental peace association with consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council Membership requires a personal interview and references. Once accepted, there is a minimal joining fee. Members can now manage their own details online and search for other Servas members worldwide. If you travel abroad with Servas you can have an official Letter of Introduction for an additional small fee and can then request a couple of nights hospitality with a Servas host, or meet up with a day hosting member. Ideally you should allow up to 3 weeks for membership to be completed, although in some situations it may be possible to process it more quickly.’ In Esperanto, Servas means "we serve (peace)".
Picture taken in Nu's home, Vietnamese National Secretary in Hanoi, when she was hosting Ruth Allen, Joint National Secretary, External Affairs, Servas Britain in Vietnam.
Religious/ spiritual/ ethnic communities: this might seem a bit random, but it actually works well! A friend of mine lived for a few months in a Buddhist centre, without paying for it – she would just help out around the building a bit. I remember staying myself for free in a female catholic convent in Belarus. If you share your beliefs with certain communities, and would be eager to help in exchange, then why not?
DOS AND DON’TS OF HOSPITALITY PLATFORMS
- Have an open mind and an open heart!
- Be respectful
- Be curious
- Bring a little gift for your host
- Offer help cooking and/or cleaning
- Ask – it’s better to have a what might seem like a silly question, than to misbehave, for example, having misunderstood local cultural codes
- Observe and mimic locals
- Try to learn a few words in the local language – ask your host for help
- Leave your expectations at home because each host is different. Flexibility is everything.
- Have a back-up plan. People are different; there might be some emergency (once my host’s father was taken to a hospital, so we couldn’t be hosted anymore - infortunately things just happen sometimes!). Just in case, look up some hostels or alternative accommodation.
- Give a genuine description of yourself
- Read other people’s profile super-carefully, go through their reviews
- Craft nice, personalised requests, as potential hosts need to see a value in spending time with you – try to make a connection through common interests, shared experiences, things you could exchange and teach one another. Make a joke. Be both regardful and fun.
- Plan ahead and be as precise as possible about your plans, so that you can easily meet up with the host on your arrival, and nobody loses time or stresses out.
- Go with it! Let yourself be surprised and captivated by local experiences!
- Leave an exhaustive reference, describing your experience.
- It’s always nice to leave a little “thank you” note too.
- Don’t be a freeloader. This is a cultural exchange, and your goal, above landing a free accommodation, is to experience local ways of life and make new friends.
- Don’t send short, generic requests – hosts hate those, and it’s ruining their faith in humanity.
- Don’t say “I’m coming with a friend” and just leave it at that – link to your friend’s CS profile or if they haven’t got one, write a nice little description of their personality.
- Don’t compose your profile of key words like open-minded, friendly, likes travelling, interesting and meeting people, learning cultures and languages. Look, we are all like that, so if you’re already on one of the hospitality portals, others can safely presume those are your default characteristics. Instead it’s better to share something more personal, unique or funny. Be deadly serious about preferring mangoes over pitahayas or Alice in Chains over Nirvana, tell the world that your favourite music group ever is an Estonian folk band. Share your habit of talking to your plants or naming your bicycles. List the weirdest jobs you’ve ever had. This kind of things will grab hosts’ attention.
- Don’t send anything without reading every single section of somebody’s profile. Maybe they are not able to host on Wednesdays, don’t accept couples or ask to include a certain key word in your request. In other words: don’t waste anybody’s time.
- Don’t be too focused on your sightseeing agenda – if you won’t have any time to hang out with your host, then Couchsurfing is not for you. Hosts understand that you travel to see places and go around, but they are not a free hotel, so unless you are genuinely interested in spending time together and making local friends, just give up on this travelling option.
- Don’t ever assume – always ask and double check everything.
- Don’t be messy or too relaxed. You’ll most probably feel at home in no time at all, and it’s okay to party too, but first you need to understand the situation, and learn your host’s likes and dislikes.
- Don’t be stingy – you’ve already saved enough not paying for your accommodation, so if you go out with your host, buy them a drink or pay for their meal.
- Don’t keep any information from your host – if you are planning to hitchhike or you don’t know which train you will end up catching, let them know about the possible delay, so that they can plan accordingly.
- Don’t ever pretend somebody you are not. If you are not comfortable about something, or feel anxious or uncertain about something, talk to your host - there’s no obligation of being a cool kid 24/7!
- Don’t expect luxury. It happens a lot that you will end up being offered a separate room with a view and comfy bed with soft sheets, but it can also be a couch in a common area, or a floor in case there’ more couchsurfers. If you know you’re not made for it, couchsurfing is not for you.
- Leaving your reference, don’t only say that the place was clean and well-located – of course, it’s great if that was the case, but tell the community a little bit more about your personal connection to the host, and how the cultural exchange was.
Couchsurfing is a truly life changing experience, and a brilliant way to travel the world. It’s not for everybody, and it requires some independence and sensibility, as well as flexibility, but once you’ve tried it, and felt it was your cup of tea, there’s no way back – the world is full of kindness, and you’ll never feel alone whilst on the road!
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