For most people, the main drain on your wallet while travelling tends to be the costs involved with accommodation. This is usually true whether you’re a backpacker on a budget or a luxury traveller. Websites like Couchsurfing, HospitalityCub and various others offer not only an opportunity to save on these costs but also an offbeat way of travel, giving you a chance to have a deeper understanding of the country, its people, their psyche and culture.
Travellers and locals we met in Bali.
All of which you might otherwise miss out on while staying in the same breed of hostels and hanging out with other travellers like yourself, the whole while. Not that there’s anything wrong with that of course. But most often in long term travel after we move from country to country in a region with lot of similarities, such as south-east Asia for example, we might find ourselves missing that special connection with a place and its people and the differences between hostels and people we meet in them start to blur.
We’d previously used HC or CS only occasionally, for the first time on a trip to Paris about 4 years ago, but recently on our big trip we had the opportunity to use it extensively during our travel in Iran. The CS community is particularly active there and what better way to learn about this rather mystifying country than to stay with some of its people, right? Till date that experience has been the highlight of our travels and we’re positive we will continue to remain active in the CS community.
With a fellow Couchsurfer Thomas from France in Persepolis, Iran
If you’re looking to explore CS, or any other such hosting website, as an option on your next trip but aren’t sure how to go about it or have some apprehensions (as we did too, initially) here are some tips to get you started.
How it works
Like most social networking websites, you establish your presence through the means of a personal profile. This being a travel related site, the information you fill out tends to be related to your interests in other countries, places you’ve been to or plan to travel to and even any skill you can teach/share with your host like a language or playing a musical instrument etc. You can also add friends, people whom know you personally, and depending on the relationship you share, they could also submit a reference for you which will help with your online credibility. References are key here, as they stand to confirm a bit about you from other travellers about how their experience was with you as a guest or host.
With our HC host Mehmet in Istanbul, Turkey
Before your trip
- Make your profile well in advance of your trip so you can build it up over time, so start right away!
- A more detailed profile with information about you, your trip, background, interests etc gets more noticed and also gives a better idea about who you are to your potential host than a generic one and thus increases your chances of being accepted.
- Look through your contacts and friends and add the ones you already know, this helps to build your profile even before you’ve started travelling. The number of friends you have, references they give you and vouches you get all add up to your credibility on the site and thus portraying you as a trustworthy guest.
Visiting Batu caves with our CS host in Kuala Lumpur, Nov 2011
During your travel – requesting couches
- Before sending out requests asking to be hosted, do plan out your trip to some extent in advance so you’re aware of your exact dates of travel and how many days you are likely to stay in one place. Also try to send your requests at least 2 weeks prior to arrival. Hosts like to be informed of when you plan to arrive and leave so as to give you an exact answer, if you’re vague in your request chances are you will get a vague reply as well.
- We sometimes received a reply from a potential host that he or she is currently hosting a traveller already and thus would need exact dates. This means here’s a person who is a keen couch surfer (considering they’re already hosting someone) and are willing to take you on too but only if you could do your bit and be more specific.
- Do spend some time reading a person’s profile before sending them a request, as this would help you not only to plan out your message to them and make it more personal, but also to get to know something about your potential host. Do not send out generic messages as those are not only easy to tell but don’t help convince someone to let you into their house and space.
- Reading their profile also gives you a lot of useful information like whether they can host more than 1 person, where exactly in the city they’re located, how to get there, whether sleeping bags are required etc. so it helps avoid asking having to ask those questions each time.
- I’ve also seen instances where people mention a certain ‘code word’ in their profile requesting that you mention the word in the subject line so they can tell you’ve actually read their profile. This might seem a bit extreme, but a little effort goes a long way in establishing a better connection with the host.
- Try to think of what information you would like to know about a person if they were requesting to stay at your house instead and frame your message accordingly. You have travel in common, but see if they are planning a trip to a place you’ve been to before or want to learn a language you’re familiar with. Mention relevant information about you, where you’re from how long you’ve been travelling and why you want to stay with this person and so on.
Drink break on the Vietnam highway with some friendly company
During the stay – As a guest
- From my experience, most people tend to be apprehensive about trying this out as they wonder what the exact etiquette here will be. Am I supposed to always sit around with the host, is it too rude if I retreat to ‘my room’ with a book? Is it alright if I choose to go around the city by myself or do I have to invite the host too? To all this, my only advice is be flexible and play it by ear. Within no time you’ll have an idea of your host’s personality and you’ll just have to adapt to the same. Remember that if you’ve chosen an active CS host, then you’re definitely not the first traveller he or she is meeting so they probably already have a better idea.
- However it is completely unacceptable to arrive at a host’s house and then just immediately go to sleep, especially if you’re staying just for one night. These websites are made to encourage cultural exchange and independent travel; they are not to be used just as a free means for boarding and lodging.
- Good manners is universal and especially so for guests, so things like doing your dishes, replacing what you eat or buying your own groceries, goes without saying. Your host will often be chilled out as it usually requires an easy-going attitude to host strangers in your own space. So while you don’t have to be paranoid, do respect their house.
- We often got our hosts a small gift at the end of our stay or at least cooked or took them out for some dinner, just as a token of appreciation. This is of course not mandatory and is based entirely on your relationship and comfort level that you’ve built up over your stay. Even a small box of sweets or a specialty from the city you’re coming from, makes for a nice gesture. After all they are agreeing to host you, a complete stranger, and just because there’s no monetary involvement doesn’t mean you can’t be nice.
- During our stay in Istanbul we grew to be really good friends with our host and stayed on for a total of 8 days with him. During our stay, we’d noticed a few large framed jigsaw puzzle pictures in his house and on our last day decided to gift him one. It was obviously a good choice as he immediately sat down to start the puzzle even before we left :)
Not only CS, but being hosted by your friends while travelling - also fun :)
Is Couchsurfing safe for solo women travellers?
- This is a tricky one. Though I’ve never used CS while travelling by myself, I did surf couches in Rome for a couple of days with a girlfriend of mine during our travels through Europe and since it was one of our first times using CS, we’d decided to play it safe and go with a female host.
- There’s no reason not to try it even if you are a solo women traveller. During our travel in Iran, we came across 2 solo women travellers who were couchsurfing their way around the country, so it definitely can be done.
- Depending on the location, there are several couples or even women hosts willing to host other women travellers, so this might seem like a more ‘comfortable’ option for most to start off with.
- If you are in fact a seasoned solo traveller and comfortable staying with a male host, do check the person’s profile thoroughly and read through the references. I’d even suggest to only request to be hosted by someone who has several positive references especially from other women travellers.
- A good tip for solo women travellers looking to use CS would be to meet up with your host somewhere public like a cafe before going to the house this would give you a chance to assess the situation for yourself.
- And as always, go with your gut instinct, if something feels wrong you can always just leave the place, especially if your safety is threatened.
A private concert of the 'Santoor' by our host's friend in Iran.
I’m not travelling at the moment, how can I get involved?
- Do you have your own place? Would you be willing to host people? You don’t really need a separate room to host someone. Travellers who use CS are often very accommodating and don’t mind sleeping on the floor, couch or in a common space.
- Even if you don’t have a place of your own that’s fine too. You can always meet up with other travellers visiting your city for coffee/beer and maybe show them around in your free time. This is also a great way for people to meet a local who probably has similar interests and it can lead to a deeper understanding of the country and its people.
Hanging out with other CS guests from Netherlands & France
Well I hope this has helped clarify some doubts you had about CS and other such hosting websites. If you think this is for you, do give it a shot! Lastly, always do make sure you always leave a reference for your host about your experience, or even if someone has taken their time out to show you around their city.
And of course do return the favour back to the travel world by hosting or meeting people in your home country when you’re back. It’s just good travel karma!