One of the biggest lies in the online travel community is “you can sleep anywhere for free with Couchsurfing“, and whilst we’ve certainly welcomed the financial benefits that Couchsurfing offers, it’s by no means ‘free’
Having surfed with over 50 hosts in more than 10 countries since we started travelling around the world in 2012, we’ve heard our fair share of stories from our hosts of the ‘one off time‘ or ‘experience that almost made me stop hosting‘, and on almost every occasion it has been because of some encounter with a couchsurfer who has been mis-sold what Couchsurfing is really about and how much Couchsurfing costs.
What Couchsurfing Hosts Hate The Most
They arrive, drop their bags down wherever they please and then before they get too settled they’re out the door with a map and a set of keys at hand. They come back at all times of the night and day, barely say hello, and in some cases stay for a week without barely saying a word between going from the front door to their room – if they’re lucky enough to have one – without so much as a ‘Hello‘ for their host.
Now I know what you’re thinking – “that can’t be true” – right? It is.
That account was from one of our favourite Couchsurfing hosts in Taipei from our month spent travelling around Taiwan in 2012. And most – if not all – of the bad experiences we’ve heard are either identical to that in most ways or at least have some of the same events. Coming back to the the hosts location at 3am in the morning drunk and still in full party mode as if they were returning back to a hostel is one of the most common complaints, the complete lack of communication or desire to interact with the host being the second most mentioned by Couchsurfing hosts.
On another occasion one host returned to their apartment to find their surfer along with a couple of people they’d picked up along the way playing games and drinking in their lounge, and when the host waited for the surfer to explain themselves and ask their entourage to leave they were not forthcoming with any apology and barely even blinked an eye. It wasn’t long before the host asked this intimate party of new found friends to leave – couchsurfer and all.
First & Last Experience
All it takes is for one person to follow in the footsteps of one careless Couchsurfing traveller like those above to treat their host and their home like a free hostel or hotel bed and the kindness and future potential of this particular host wanting to try hosting again quickly diminishes, and that’s really not fair. It’s not fair on the host, and not fair on the rest of the community who do treat the people they stay with not just politely – as you would expect – but with an interest in learning about them, their local life and their perspective on the place you’ve decided to travel to, but then are you travelling to party or to live and experience the world?
So Why Do People Claim It’s Free?
Just as people claim that they score countless free flights from airlines internationally, the reality is that they are still spending plenty of money in order to claim all of the free points they’re getting, or most likely; rather than a financial cost what they’re actually spending is a lot of their time in order to claim each deal or offer. So the reality is that you don’t get something for nothing, and the same must be said for Couchsurfing. It’s not really free. It’s costing someone money, it’s costing someone their time. This might be you, but it’s also very much your host.
What It Costs Your Host
As travellers we must strive to remember that whilst our lifestyle enables us with an awful amount of free time to take things easy and in our casual stride from one location to the next, it’s more than likely that our future Couchsurfing hosts have a full-time job or work commitments that take up a large amount of their time, so our needing them to be there when we arrive or leave to let us in or out, and to maybe give us the keys to their place, is costing them their time. It’s also costing them their time to read our request and organise our arrival too, let us not forget.
It’s also costing them their personal space, something that they’ve willingly chosen to share with each and every one of us who choose Couchsurfing as a way to meet locals rather than a chance for a free bed. For any of us to exploit that desire to share that accommodating spirit by returning at all hours of the night and day or – based on extremely unfair and hopefully rare circumstances – treating the house as a bar and inviting strangers in is not only costing them personal space, but also breaking with good manners in a strangers house.
Another cost to the Couchsurfing hosts is shared between them and their next potential surfer.
Our success or failure at being a good surfer can have an immediate effect on the host and everyone in the Couchsurfing community. By not abiding by a few mindful rules, we could be costing the host the chance to host someone else at the same time who wouldn’t be treating it like a free night in a hostel, but who could be forging a strong relationship with a local. By accepting us, the host may have refused another Couchsurfer or more depending on just how popular the place that you’re travelling too is, and through that train of thought we’re not just costing the host a better experience, but also costing another surfer their chance to surf with this particular host.
The final cost to our host is the worst one in our eyes. It could cost them their being a part of Couchsurfing.
Our host in Taipei who only saw their couchsurfer during the walk between the front door and the door of their guest room over a few days really took a chance on hosting us. They’d had spent several years on previous communities similar to Couchsurfing and had nothing but fantastic experiences both as a traveller and host, so when they made the switch and their first experience was as miserable as the one they had, they’d been on the verge of closing their profile. Knowing nothing about it we sent our request and they took a chance with us, hoping that it’d turn out better than before, and thankfully it turned out to be a fantastic Couchsurfing experience.
If we’d been just another one of those travellers that thinks that ‘Couchsurfing is free‘ then we can be sure that they’d most definitely have closed their profile to requests a long time ago, and that’s a cost for the host that is simple not one any of us should be making them pay, especially considering how amazing Couchsurfing can be when done properly, even more so when you understand the costs not just for your host, but to yourself.
What Couchsurfing Costs You
Clearly there has been a lot of mis-selling and misinformation circulating the internet about Couchsurfing and the free night of accommodation you’re going to feel the benefit of. As mentioned, it’s already costing your potential host their time, space and potentially their future choice to keep hosting; but it’s going to cost each surfer something too, both personally and financially.
Whilst there may be a slim community who really are able to travel the world entirely for free by hitchhiking and depending on the generosity of strangers, most of us are travelling the world or on holiday with a budget to get us from A-to-B, to buy us enough food along the way and to pay for accommodation. With Couchsurfing there may not be rent to pay or a per-person-per-night cost, but you should still be using what money you have to make the best of your Couchsurfing experience, and this can be done in a number of ways.
One of our favourite ways of finding a potential couchhost is to use the Search by Map function on the site. What this does is collect not just the people hosting in the prime location of the center of the city or town you’re travelling to, but also the suburbs and outlying villages and towns that surround it. The only financial cost to you then is the price of a return bus or train ticket in to the center where you can wander alone or with your host if you so choose, but whichever way you look at it, it’ll still work out cheaper then any hostel or hotel for the night. Not only that, but most hosts outside of the center receive far fewer requests and as a consequence are far more likely to respond and accept your well written and personal request.
Another way of looking at the potential money you’ve saved from Couchsurfing is what you can do with it. Sure you’ve had a free nights sleep, but couldn’t that money serve a more beneficial purpose to yourself and your host? What if you spent some of that money on food for yourself and your host to make a meal? Even if you only use half of what you’d spend on a hotel dorm bed for one night on all the ingredients you’d need, you could tick off one meal from the day (two if you carry plastic containers like us and carry some for lunch tomorrow), whilst still saving the other half of the money for your travel budget.
One recommendation from Couchsurfing is to bring a gift from home, and perhaps the money you’ve saved could go towards that? Even if it’s not from your hometown, you could still pick something up from your last location as a gift if you’re so inclined.
Adding up the personal cost isn’t painful either, though on occasion it might be uncomfortable to begin with.
For us Couchsurfing was an uncomfortable personal cost as we gradually over time had to learn to adjust to being in someone else’s space, sleeping in a strangers home. It took time to learn to be trusting, less fearful and more open to relaxing as if we were with a long time friend or even family. Once we got our first few surfs under our belt we quickly learned that the cost is minimal to open our eyes, to come out of our shells a little and to welcome each opportunity with open arms; and not only that, we’ve now noticed that we more often than not walk in to a new couchhosts house as if we’ve known them for years, being careful not to overstep any personal space boundaries, but feeling totally relaxed and immediately at home.
The biggest cost of your personal and free time is the time in which it takes to write personal requests to your chosen potential host rather than spamming the same message to five hundred hosts who – I guarantee – delete your message as soon as they realise it’s just another copy & paste request.
Rather than spamming people with messages, make use of the customisable search engine to find exactly what it is you’re looking for; people with the same interests as you, or people with different tastes from your own that you’d learn to learn more about.
We’ve been using this method for the majority of our travels and apart from maybe two or three locations out of the many we’ve sent requests to have we failed to find anyone willing to host us. As vegetarians turning vegan we use the keyword search to find people from the local veggie community. Sometimes this means searching for our chosen word in the local language, but a quick Google search makes that easy and whoever does have that word and might not speak our language can still make for a great host. We also search for the genres of music we like, the films we love to watch and always read every single profile before we choose to send a message. Sure this costs us our personal free time, but almost every experience we’ve had with hosts we’ve connected with using this method have been the highlights of our travels. No message we send is a copy of another.
The Odd Exception
Not on every occasion do we have the chance to make a meal or contribute financially towards our stay with our host, sometimes because either they’re busy with work and other commitments, or because they’ve beaten us to it and made us something; or – every once in a while – won’t allow us to spend money on anything and bare the cost for everything during our few days together, because either we’ve bonded so well, or because it’s just in the custom of their culture. When this is the case we’re always so thankful to our new friends that we try to make the most of our time together and always agree to meet again in the future, no matter if it’s in our home, theirs or somewhere else altogether.
Spend A Little, Gain A Lot
Understanding the truth behind the ‘Couchsurfing is free‘ myth has changed everything about the way we surf and our experiences haven’t just gotten better, but unforgettable. It’s helped us to meet up with locals who know the location better than any travel guide ever will, it’s connected us with people who have fantastic travel stories of their own that have inspired us to change direction and head somewhere we’d never considered before, and recently it’s connected us with an army of fellow vegans and vegetarians who’ve loved our personal messages and pleas to learn one of their favourite recipes so that each time we make it we also think of them and our time together.
The community of Couchsurfing is one of the best ways of meeting with locals that we’ve come across (apart from stopping them in the street) and we’re absolutely in love with it. Joined and used with the right mindset, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t continue to connect travellers and locals for many years to come.
Couchsurfing isn’t free, but the potential memories are priceless.
How much is Couchsurfing worth to you?