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  • Maria Smith

Couchsurfing: Seeing the World One Couch at a Time

I caught the travel bug when I was fourteen. Growing up in a middle-class family, our travel options had always been limited. So I signed up for every free field trip I could. Then college happened. When I studied abroad in Italy, it seemed as if I had overcome the ultimate financial obstacle: living abroad with a college student’s income. However, I quickly realized that my travels in Europe would be limited if I didn’t learn to budget what little savings I had. By mid-semester, it was evident that I hadn’t saved enough. That’s when I found Couchsurfing.

What is it?

Couchsurfing is an online platform that cultivates authentic travel experiences for both surfers and hosts. In short, hosts can offer up their couch or spare room to prospective visitors (surfers), and surfers can use the platform to find a place to crash. Presently there are 14 million community members worldwide, many of which have hosted and surfed. While the platform used to be free, they have now implemented a fee due to Covid’s impact on both travel and Couchsurfing’s services. Even so, the rates are $1.99 a month, or $13.99 a year, which is cheaper than eating a meal out. Aside from the fee to use the platform, there is no charge to book a couch; all boarding arrangements are free with the expectation that surfers will be open to host in the future.

How does it work?

Once you register and pay the monthly or annual contribution, it’s time to create a personalized account. Successful hosts and surfers have a thorough profile with quality personal photos. It’s important to take the time to develop your profile so that prospective hosts (or surfers) can get a glimpse of who you are. Like online dating, an honest profile can save you a lot of time and lead to more fulfilling experiences.

After you finalize your profile, hosts can be searched by location. Depending on the place, you can see hundreds (if not thousands) of profiles. Once you find someone who has availability and seems like a good fit, you can either request the dates of your stay directly or start a conversation through their messaging service. As an added tip, all profiles show if they are accepting guests or not, which is essential to check before initiating a stay. Likewise, the platform also reveals a host’s last login, which helps determine who is more likely to respond. I always check a host’s last login time to make sure they are still active on the Couchsurfing site. Of course, not all hosts will get back to you, which is why it’s a good idea to reach out to more than one.

Is Couchsurfing safe?

I’d be lying to say there wasn’t risk involved. However, risk is part of travel. When I first joined the Couchsurfing community, the idea of meeting locals wherever I traveled both thrilled and frightened me. What if I ended up kidnapped? Or worse? These concerns are no joke. Fortunately, Couchsurfing offers many tips and suggestions for safely surfing and hosting.

Couchsurfing highly recommends that all members get verified. Verification does come at an extra cost, but it ensures proper vetting and has added benefits, like 24-hour safety assistance and faster responses from hosts. However, verification is not required, so it boils down to personal preferences and how often you plan to use the platform.

If you don’t choose to verify your account, the site recommends choosing hosts who are verified or at least have a complete profile and several reviews. Reviews are critical. If someone had a bad experience with a host, they have the right to state so in a review, and the host cannot alter or take down reviews. Surfers can also be reviewed, which is why it’s important to be a respectable guest.

As with any platform, users should exercise good judgment. Don't give out personal contact information or exchange money with prospective hosts or surfers. Similarly, it's generally considered safer to travel with someone. Traveling in numbers provides you with a way to gauge if a potential host or surfer is the right fit. Remember, just because you accepted a host or surfer does not mean you have to follow through if something about them does not feel right. It’s better to be safe.

In my own experience, I have surfed four times and only once felt uneasy about a host. In that situation, my friend and I found an available hostel first and politely opted out of the stay. The other three experiences were fun and informative, and I left each one having made new friends.

While I wholeheartedly recommend Couchsurfing, I recognize that it isn’t for everyone. If you like predictability, privacy, and sticking to a plan, then hotels or even hostels are better arrangements. But if you’re up for a little adventure and meeting locals, Couchsurfing will give you an experience you’ll never forget.

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