As technology advances at rapid rates in our modern world, trends in travel seem to advance right along with it. Nowadays, there are thousands of apps to help you plan your train itineraries, to text your friends back home for free, and to check into your flights and hotels on the way. Among these technological travel trends, my favorite and most cherished one is the online community called couchsurfing (CS).
This online community is comprised of thousands of fellow travelers who wish to meet adventurers from all over the world. In order to do this, CS “hosts” allow backpackers/travelers crash on their couches at no cost. The exchange of enlightened dialogue and storytelling is enough compensation for these hosts. In return, the couch “surfers” experience the city they’ve visited like a local and often, gain a free tour guide who knows about the random beauties of their hometown.
In an effort to save a little bit of money and feel more at home than at a hostel, my friend and I decided to give this a try. I made a profile on www.couchsurfing.org, and I filled out the extensive personality profile, which ranged from why I wanted to join CS to my most adventurous memory. From this profile, CS hosts can see if I would be a good match and if we have common similarities. Also, when requesting to stay at a certain CS host’s place, I was required to explain what I wish to accomplish when visiting the city – party, museum hop, walk around aimlessly, etc. That way, the CS host can determine if he or she would be the right match for me.
Now, when it comes down to it, I know many of you are thinking, “Kelly, this all sounds great in theory, but how is this even remotely safe?” The answer: You’ll never really know until you try it. My first CS experience was in Amsterdam with a man named Remi. My friend and I were definitely a tad skeptical of the whole idea, but the second we met him, we knew we made the right decision. He met us at the train station, walked us all the way back to his apartment, had bottles of wine waiting for us and our other friends, and toured us around all day and night until we couldn’t walk anymore.
“I love to host because you meet so many cool people from all over the world, and they all bring great travel stories and experiences. Most of the people are fun and very friendly. Also, you try a lot of new drinks and food, which is really cool. Now, when I travel myself, I have very cool places to stay,” Remi says.
Needless to say, our first CS experience left a lasting impression on us, leaving us wanting more experiences in new cities with local strangers, yet soon to be friends. Like in Amsterdam, we couch surfed in Barcelona, Frankfurt, Munich, Budapest and Prague, and our hosts were worldly, knowledgeable of their hometown, and very hospitable.
Some travelers I’ve met along my adventures have also used this new trending tool. Mathew, a student from Canada, traveled independently for three months last summer, and he couchsurfed every now and then.
“My first couch-surfing experience was last summer in North-Western Spain. I was reluctant to go at first, especially since I was traveling by myself, a reservation I think many people have. It ended up being my most memorable couchsurfing experience. I stayed at the home of a schoolteacher, who was also hosting a couple from Bulgaria. He gave us each our own rooms, cooked traditional Catalan food and even treated us with local liqueurs. He was very open-minded and well traveled, so it was very easy to have a conversation, share stories and learn new things. Couch-surfing hosts are most often out-going, adventurous and kind people, who just have a passion for travel and really try to help you experience the most of their culture and their hometown,” Mathew says.
Our CS host in Munich, Peter, walked us around to all the touristy spots. Even though he was hesitant to spend time in such tourist traps, he put on a smile, and later, played us songs on his piano, cooked dinner and took us to his favorite local, indie pub.
“What’s great about hosting is that you get in touch with other cultures, even when you don’t have the opportunity to travel. I love that most of the time the “surfers” are the kind of people you get along with so easily. Sometimes, even two or three days can be enough to make you feel like you’re not hosting guests, but you’re having friends over. That’s why I always try host people who seem like they’re open-minded and have stories to tell. But on CS, that’s pretty much everyone,” Peter says.
In Budapest, our CS host, Claudiu, so kindly cooked us dinner, bought us wine and took us to must-see bars, such as the famous ruin pub, Szimpla Kert. We discussed differences between cultures in the U.S. and Eastern Europe.
“I’ve always felt comfortable in an international environment and hosting on Couchsurfing did not fail to meet my expectations. I had the chance to meet adventurous travelers from all over the world, who would now and then find shelter in my museum-like flat in downtown Budapest and recall exciting stories from their past or recent journey. We exchange food recipes, philosophical ideas, travel suggestions and music and reaffirm our commitment to conquer the world on foot. This strengthened my belief that CS is tailored for our times. For those who still hesitate to use it, well, there’s always a small risk things will go wrong, but chances are, there’s plenty to gain,” Claudiu says.
As with any aspect of traveling, there is always a risk with this community. Out of all the cities I made plans to couchsurf, I only felt unsafe in one. Sure, CS is an ingenious way to save hundreds of dollars on accommodation, all while sharing experiences and memories with people form all over the world, but your safety, above all else, needs to be your number one priority. The second we felt uneasy about our CS host in that particular city, we politely told him “no thank you” and found a nearby hotel. No amount of money is ever too much to ensure your safety. Luckily with this community, you are able to report “creepers”, and make sure that no one else falls victim.
All in all, my entire CS past, present and soon to be future has been excellent. I still keep in contact regularly with my old hosts, and I encourage them to come stay with me in the States. You experience cities like a true local, and you learn so much more about the culture. I couldn’t have traveled through these cities in any other way. If you’re up for the adventure, I definitely recommend creating a CS profile and reaching out to strangers across the world. Who knows, they may turn into lifetime friends!