In my first two months of traveling around Europe this summer, I spent a total of just 10 nights in hostels or hotels. The rest of the time, I stayed in people's homes. I already knew a few of my hosts in these cities, but most of them I met on the Couchsurfing.org network.
Many people assume this is an unsafe method of arranging accommodation, especially for a solo female traveler. But I've had only lovely experiences. I am very careful about requesting couches from people who have many good reviews from other Couchsurfers and those who have thoroughly filled out their profiles. Many Couchsurfing profiles contain long personal essays, not unlike those found on a dating site. Other profiles include only short descriptions, letting references left by other Couchsurfers speak for themselves.
Many hosts won't accept surfers without prior references. I started my account by asking my Facebook friends to write reviews of me on Couchsurf.org. Another way to start a profile would be to host Couchsurfers at home before starting a trip. Even though I didn't have any "official" Couchsurfing experience before I started my journey, I was easily able to arrange my first two hosts in Berlin. Writing a personalized request is the best way of improving your chances of finding a good host. Some hosts are less likely to accept a couch request that has clearly been copied and pasted to multiple people. The website offers advice on how to write a good request for best results.
Couchsurfing is not just a way to get a free place to stay. It's a platform that facilitates the meeting of open-minded travelers, through which they can help one another in numerous ways. For many members, the Couchsurfing experience involves some kind of exchange.
When I stay with a Couchsurfing host, I try to contribute something to show my appreciation for the hospitality. At one host's place, I did the laundry and washed all the dishes each day. She never asked me to do these things, but she told me she liked the way it made her house feel as though it had been lived in while she was at work for the day. I like to contribute groceries, wine, or flowers, cook a shared meal, help with chores, and whenever possible, I leave a handwritten thank-you note when I go.
In addition to receiving free places to stay through Couchsurfing, I've also received many warm meals, beers, borrowed bicycles, toiletries, small gifts, snacks for the train, shots of local liquor, and so much more. One host picked me up at a train station at 4:30 a.m., another took me to watch a live water polo match, and several hosts drove me to lakes outside Berlin, Prague, and Krakow, Poland, on hot days. Staying with locals has become my preferred method of experiencing a new city.
I realize not everyone is comfortable staying with strangers, but Couchsurfing.org also provides a method for meeting new people without necessarily sleeping at their houses. If you want to stay in a hostel or hotel, you can still join Couchsurfing.org to find locals to show you around. Many cities also have weekly Couchsurfing meet-ups for travelers and locals who want to talk to new people in an open, multicultural setting. Couchsurfing can provide international networking opportunities: A fellow Couchsurfing.org member found me using the site's location search function and invited me to volunteer at an English language immersion program in Poland, in exchange for a free English-teaching certification course. I took him up on the offer.
Of course, some people have had negative experiences with Couchsurfing. It's just important to be safe and use common sense. For the most part, I only stay with women or couples. I will make the occasional exception and stay with a man, depending on specific circumstances, and of course only if he has many good references. If a situation with a host is uncomfortable, the surfer can always find a hostel to stay in, or if hosts have a problem with the surfer, they can ask him or her to leave. Couchsurfing.org also has last-minute couch request forums for people who need to find a new host quickly. As a safety measure, it's a good idea to give your account password to someone trusted so they can see whom you're staying with and where they live, just in case.
In Amsterdam, I was unable to find a good host in advance. The only responses to my open request included an invitation from a nudist couple (but only if I would get naked too) and an offer from a man who required all Couchsurfers to receive a full-body massage from him. So I booked a hostel instead of putting myself into an uncomfortable situation. My friends tried to convince me to stay with the nudists "for the story," but it wasn't something I wanted to do.
Yes, there are some weirdos out there, but overall, Couchsurfing has restored my faith in humanity and it has made me a better person too. The next time I own a couch, I will definitely welcome surfers in my home.
Anna Marden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.