I tried couch surfing twice when I was traveling Europe with my friend Angela. The first time was in Brussels and was awesome, but our second experience in Amsterdam left us running for the hostels.
The general idea of couch surfing, i.e., crashing on a friend’s couch when you need a place to stay, has been around for ages. However, the organization, Couchsurfing.com has only been around since 2004. I mention it in my post about accommodation types, but I’d like to tell you a little bit more about my personal experience with it. I have been a guest twice and a host once.
There is an old saying: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me thrice, blog about it.”
My first experience as a guest was really good. It was during the two week Toussaint, or All Saints, holiday that schools throughout France take every year, around the end of October. My friend and fellow English teacher, Angela, and I, planned a trip to Madrid, Spain and Brussels, Belgium. We were on a shoestring budget, so although we stayed in a hostel in Madrid, we looked on Couchsurfing.com for a place to stay in Brussels, hoping it would help our Euros last a bit longer. We searched through a lot of host profiles, reading bios and reviews and ended up staying with a couple who were friendly and welcoming and had a really cool apartment. When they had dinner plans one night, they gave us full use of their newly renovated kitchen, so we could eat in. Years later, I still remember how cool their kitchen was, with a floor to ceiling wall of cabinets that were completely flush with one another and had no handles. To open a door, you’d find a seam where the edge started and push it to release the latch. From afar, it just looked like a solid black wall.
In addition to their kitchen, they provided a comfy place to rest our heads and showed us around the sites in Brussels one day, which was tons of fun. They were awesome, fun, generous and totally Facebook-friend worthy.
That was our first experience with Couchsurfing and it was so good that at the end of the school year when Angela and I were getting ready for a month long trip touring Europe on a Eurolines bus, we planned to make our still minuscule budget last longer by relying on the generosity of Couchsurfing hosts in every other city we visited.
So before we got to our second stop, we dutifully logged on to Couchsurfing.com and searched through available hosts, sending polite requests to the ones we liked. We were accepted by a single guy who had good reviews and a pullout couch that looked comfy and big enough to fit us both. And when we arrived, everything seemed to be in order. Bob* was friendly and accommodating and his apartment was nice. The bed looked great and everything was clean.
The next day, Bob wanted to show us around. We were excited. As our hosts did in Brussels, we thought it would be great to have a local give us a tour and show us what the city had to offer. But things seemed odd when we took our rented bikes out past the center of town, beyond the edge of town, into the suburbs. Over the course of the day, it became clear that Bob really wanted us to experience life as a local. First, we visited his old elementary school; the next destination was his former high school.
He didn’t want us to stop at a coffee shop to buy a joint (80% of what we wanted to do in Amsterdam) and he strongly discouraged us from visiting De Wallen to see the prostitutes in their windows (the other 20% of what we wanted to do) so we were reduced to sneaking around like high school delinquents, smoking pot and checking out hookers on the one day he had to go to work. As I type this, I realize that we kind of sound like the weirdos here.
Bob and I shared stories about our travels in Southeast Asia. He wanted to see pictures from my recent trip to Thailand so I dug around in my suitcase and pulled out my portable hard drive. We plugged it into his computer and pulled up the pictures. But before I opened anything, he grabbed the picture folder and copied it directly to his computer, saying he would look at them later. Pictures of me in a bathing suit on a beach? Yes, I bet you will look at them later. I made him delete the folder, and empty his trash but still wondering if he got them back somehow.
In retrospect, we could have been more forthright about the things we wanted to do but we were a little blindsided by the “old school” tour and it was hard to regain our footing after that. Not everything was horrible though. We visited the Anne Frank Museum, had beers at a cool brewery and he even took us to a house party.
On our last night, Bob insisted that we have dinner at a posh Thai restaurant, then conveniently forgot his wallet. The irony of paying for a meal that cost triple the nightly rate of a hostel was not lost on us.
*Obviously not his real name
When I moved back to Austin in 2009 I was looking forward to putting down roots and being able to buy things without considering how they would fit in a suitcase. I got a job and I bought a house and inside that house, I had a couch. Although I’d stopped being a nomad for the moment, I wanted to give back to the community in a different way so I changed my Couchsurfing profile to add my availability as a host.
There are a lot of people using Couchsurfing as a free alternative to Holiday Inn. They don’t need hosting, they just don’t want to (or can’t afford to) pay for a hotel room. I didn’t want to be a hotel! I wanted to be a cultural ambassador! So I turned down a lot of requests, including one from a rugby team driving in from Houston who told me they would be gone all day at their rugby tournament, partying all night after it, and just needed my house for the shower. Um, no thanks.
Finally, I accepted a request from a former DJ from Ohio who was riding a scooter across the country. We had a great time. He came with me to an Against Me concert (we raced around finding a spare ticket on craigslist), I showed him around downtown, I made him mow my yard. (Okay, so maybe I am the weirdo.) But as I lay in my bed, drifting off to dreamland, my phone buzzed with a text message:
Ever make out with a Couchsurfer?
… No. Good night… (locks bedroom door)
The exchange could have been worse but I didn’t want to keep pressing my luck. That was the first time I hosted, and the last.
A Host of Last Words
I think Couchsurfing’s heart is in the right place, but as with anything that has so many variables, it’s impossible to control every experience. Often, that’s the sheer fun of it: meeting new people, experiencing different things, dealing with funny situations. But it’s important to keep safety ahead of anything else. Be careful who you choose for a host or a guest, let other people know where you are and who you are with, plan a regular check in schedule with them, be vigilant of your surroundings and your company and don’t be afraid to walk away from a situation that you’re not comfortable with.
These experiences happened in 2008 and 2009, just 4-5 years after Couchsurfing.com launched. Almost 9 years later, I’m sure a lot has changed so definitely don’t just take my word for it. If you think you might be interested, check them out! I am by no means disparaging the site or the community. It’s an awesome idea in theory, and while some of my experiences were strange or awkward, I’m glad I had them and I’m glad to be able to share them with you in all their unvarnished glory. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.