Casey Fenton founded Couchsurfing.org, which connects millions of travelers with free accommodation around the world. (Photo by Alexandra Liss)
I met Alexandra Liss on a rainy day last September, outside of one of my favorite Thai restaurants in San Francisco.
Alex had just returned from six months abroad, traveling through 21 countries for free while shooting her full-length documentary, One Couch at a Time. She was wrapping up the film and had requested an interview with me.
Our topic of discussion? The Sharing Economy.
Startups that are part of this “sharing economy” — like TaskRabbit, AirBNB, Uber, and Sidecar — have given us unprecedented access to incredible experiences and resources, allowing many people to completely upgrade their lifestyles. By capitalizing on underused resources and new technology, people can live many strata above their income. In Alex’s case, she was able to raise $8,000 through Kickstarter to crowdfund her travel and the making of her film. She also lived rent-free during those six months, staying with more than 80 different strangers she’d met through Couchsurfing.org.
In this post, Alex shares exactly how she’s managed to become a couchsurfing guru, and the steps you can take to travel the world on next to no budget…
I love the look people get on their face the first time they hear about Couchsurfing.
I might mention how I’ll be hosting a revolutionary leader from Egypt, or that I’ll be crashing in the heart of the Amazon on a stranger’s couch. They inevitably tilt their heads like confused puppies.
Of course, once they’ve experienced Couchsurfing and understand how it works, their whole attitude changes. Nearly all of them end up loving it. Me? I can’t get enough of it.
After six months of sleeping in 80 different homes — staying with people I’d never met — I can definitively say that Couchsurfing has enriched my life more than anything else. In fact, I believe this site is changing our entire world for the better, one couch at a time.
What is Couchsurfing?
Couchsurfing.org is an online hospitality network that connects travelers to free places to stay all over the world. There are more than 4 million globetrotters and backpackers, in 80,000 cities, who want to share their homes and time with you… at no cost!
Couchsurfers are all over the world. This map shows the areas with the highest concentration of members.
A great host can offer a fellow surfer some of the richest experiences of their lives — and vice versa — all without a euro, rupee, dinar, peso, yen, shilling, or dollar being exchanged. Simply for the love of hanging out with a kindred soul.
Couchsurfing has brought more amazing people and incredible adventures into my life than I can count. Thanks to my hosts, I’ve met Peruvian Shamans, zipped through Ho-Chi Minh, taken boat rides in the delta of Maun, hiked to hidden spots in Victoria Falls, sat VIP during the Spanish Valladolid finals, ridden horses on an Afrikaans farm… The list goes on and on.
The bonds that form through Couchsurfing are on a completely different level from those that arise in hostels. Hosts will go out of their way to pick surfers up at the airport, open up their homes, cook exotic meals, and share their world. They can also readily show you the hidden gems in their city, unearthing attractions that you’d never find in a ‘Lonely Planet’ book. If you’ve ever wanted to get the Anthony Bourdain VIP treatment, Couchsurfing is for you.
But it’s not just the surfers who benefit; being a host can be tremendously rewarding, as well. For instance, my hosts in Morocco, Vietnam, and Brazil all use CouchSurfing as a means to improve their English. Others simply enjoy meeting new people and hearing interesting stories from the road. I get just as much enjoyment out of showing travelers around my city as I do being hosted. My appreciation for San Francisco is instantly revitalized whenever I see the wide-eyed look on a grateful CouchSurfer’s face, looking upon a site they’ve only seen in the movies.
Whether you’re hosting or surfing, it’s a win-win for both parties.
“Isn’t it dangerous?”
Everyone has a fair amount of skepticism when they first hear about Couchsurfing. The number one question I get from people is: “What if you stay with an axe murderer?”
My friend Eric, who hosted me in Paris, had this to say about the perceived “dangers” of Couchsurfing:
“When I first heard about CouchSurfing, I thought to myself, ‘There is no way am I going to stay with strangers and get raped, robbed, and murdered.’ But I was curious enough about the concept, so I did some research and made a profile. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made! It completely changed my life and has afforded me to see the world.”
As with anything in life, there are always potential dangers, but most risks can be easily avoided (more on this in the next section). As long as you adhere to community guidelines and use common sense, you are very likely to have great experiences.
Ready to give the Couchsurfer lifestyle a shot? Fantastic!
Here’s my advice for anyone who wants to travel rent-free…
8 Steps to Become a CouchSurfing Guru
1. Create a detailed profile.
Your profile is your key to the Couchsurfer’s kingdom. It allows hosts to learn about and trust you before meeting, and it will be a magnet for other fun surfers wanting to connect. It will behoove you to invest enough time and energy into building an awesome profile.
Here’s a screenshot of mine:
I cannot stress enough how important it is to accurately represent yourself. There’s no use in trying to be someone you’re not, or being bashful about your spiritual beliefs or diet preferences. If something is really important to you, then tell people! Show the community who you really are! The more information you can provide other members with, the better odds of everyone having positive exchanges.
Here’s what you’ll need to do in order to create a great profile:
- Register on Couchsurfing.org. After signing up, you’ll be asked if you’d like to verify your profile with a contribution. You can skip this part for now (we’ll cover it in “Step 2: Verify Your Profile”) and begin creating your profile right away. Just click your name in the top left corner, then click ‘Profile.’
- Post 5-10 pictures of yourself. We are visual animals, so don’t be afraid to upload a bunch of fun photos of yourself (ideally from any global excursions you’ve been on). Make sure the photos are interesting or remarkable, which gives fellow surfers material to start a conversation with you.
- Fill out your profile. There are a lot of fields to complete, but don’t worry! You don’t have to complete everything all at once. Fill out as much as you can, then polish up the rest when you’re up to it. [Since I host a lot of surfers, I included a note in my profile to spell the word “couch” correctly when messaging me. You’d be surprised how many people request to stay on your “coach.”]
If you’re already feeling overwhelmed with the task at hand, relax! Spend some time looking at other members’ profiles, take notes on what you like and dislike, then emulate your favorites when you’re ready to get started. And if you need a starting point, here’s my profile. Feel free to use it as a cheat sheet!
2. Verify your profile.
There are two primary methods for verifying your profile, which are designed to increase security and trust with members on the site. Both are technically optional, but I can assure you that you’ll have a much harder time getting started without having one or both of these:
- Personal references. Ask a few of your friends to leave a positive reference for you, which shows the community that you are a worthwhile person to host or surf with. If none of your friends have profiles on Couchsurfing, check out some of the local activities and meet up with couchsurfers in your area. Let them know you just joined the site, and after you’ve made a few friends, kindly ask if they’d be willing to vouch for you.
- Credit card verification. As mentioned in Step 1, you can pay a contribution to “lock in” your name and address. You’ll be mailed a postcard in 1-2 weeks with a code that you can enter into the site.
Members trust members who have been verified, so do not skip this step!
3. Seek compatible hosts/surfers.
Now that you have the two most important pieces in play, it’s time to get the ball rolling. Click ‘Surf’ or ‘Host’ in the site’s navigation bar, enter in your destination, and begin looking through the list of members in the area.
You can also set a number of filters to improve your search results, including:
- Keywords (e.g. “vegetarian filmmaker”)
- Has photos
- Has been verified
- Most recent login
- Apartment is wheelchair accessible
Take some time to go through all the profiles in these results. It reallys pay off to thoroughly examine a potential host’s/surfer’s profile before you decide to contact them. That means reading their description, scanning their photos, and going through each of their references. Some hosts will want to hang out with surfers; others are short on free time. Some hosts own three cats, or they need to wake up at 5:30 AM… Whatever the case, you can easily avoid mishaps and unpleasant experiences by figuring out what their expectations are of you.
Couchsurfing’s official recommendations for finding compatible hosts and surfers.
Although the chances of an ax murderer hosting or surfing with you is slim-to-none, I always always ALWAYS read people’s profiles diligently. I do not share interests in “making hair dolls” or “watching you sleep,” so I do my best to steer clear of members who could pose a problem.
Once you’ve found a fellow Couchsurfer whose expectations and priorities appear to be aligned with yours, it’s time to reach out!
4. Write legendary requests
The purpose of your first message is to show the recipient how great it would be for you two to connect (it is NOT to immediately reserve a free couch). If you can successfully show that you’re someone they have to meet, a friendly dialogue will begin and you can make plans from there.
Here are a few ways you can create legendary requests:
- Make it personal. This is absolutely essential. No matter how many requests you send out, every single one should be custom-tailored for its recipient (cut-and-paste CouchRequests are so obvious!)
- Create a video request. If you really want to stand out, record a video with the camera on your computer and appeal to your host directly. Upload it to Youtube as an unlisted video, then send them the link. This might take longer than writing a message, but it gives them a much better idea of how well you’ll get along and improves your chances of being accepted.
- Write a catchy headline. Include something about who you are and/or how you want to connect. For instance, one surfer sent me a request during a very busy week. She grabbed my attention in her title (“SOS Fellow Entrepreneur Coming to San Fran!”), then mentioned our similar interests in books and dancing. I made sure to meet up with her the following day!
- Make it memorable. No one likes boring messages, so include at least one thing in your message that makes you stand out. Mention something you both have in common, suggest cooking them a homemade dinner, talk about your life path or your love for Mario Kart… anything that sets you apart from the crowd.
Be respectful when you reach out to other members. Remember: Surfing is a privilege, not a right. When someone writes a lame request, where they show no interest in their host but free accommodation, it destroys their chances.
Here is an example of what NOT to write in a request:
Hi, my name is Anna, im 20 years old student. I am in New York for summer and am looking for coach. Looking forward to hearing from you – email me on ***@gmail.com
And yes, that is an actual message I received.
The correspondence you have beforehand establishes your connection with this person, so be sure to do it right!
Send CouchRequests to five members, 1-2 weeks prior to your arrival, and you’ll have a couch lined up in no time.
5. Preparing for your surf.
Once your host agrees on having you stay with them, you’ll need to exchange contact and travel information. Here’s what both parties should know…
If you’re surfing:
- Confirm your arrival and departure date. Although you might change these dates, it’s always polite to set reasonable parameters. This is CouchSurfing, not CouchLiving, so be clear when you’ll be in and out.
- Write down your host’s address and phone number, and enter it in your cell phone. I can’t tell you how many times I forgot to charge my phone when entering a new country. When traveling, expect for some type of miscommunication or technology fail.
- Have a backup plan! Whether it be your creeper meter or inevitable failings of plans – you need to have a back up. You’re in a foreign country and always need safeguards. Make sure you have established contact with a few other CSers who you might be able to call/message in an emergency, as well as the locations of some hostels before you arrive. Also, knowing where the nearest Internet cafes are can help you in a pinch to try to find a new place to stay if necessary.
If you’re hosting:
- Send the surfer your address, phone number, and directions to your couch. Include any details about hidden keys or codes to get in (assuming you’re comfortable with this). And if you’re feeling generous, offer to pick them up.
- Have their couch ready and room tidy.
- Have a few local recommendations in mind. Your surfer will want to know the must-sees and tastiest dishes. This is your chance to show the best of your hometown!
One more thing… CouchSurfing is NOT a dating site. Don’t make your host or surfer uncomfortable by crossing into OKCupid territory. And yes, I’d be lying if I said I’d never been attracted to a host or surfer. I’m just saying… keep it classy.
Let the surfing begin!
6. Immerse yourself in their culture.
Congratulations, you’re not in Kansas anymore! It’s time to mute your hometown identity and embrace this new culture. This is harder than it sounds at first, but you will quickly get the hang of it.
Here are a few tips to make your time in this new world much more pleasant:
Avoid tourist tendencies. See the spots you want to see, but don’t follow what every tourist does. If your host is willing, let them take you off the beaten path to their favorite local spots. And whatever you do, leave your “I <3 NYC” t-shirt in your bag.
“When in Rome…” If you’re in a different country, curb your ethnocentrism and attempt to assimilate. Learn how to say “hello” and “thank you” in the native language. Respect their customs, try new foods, use the hole-in-the-ground toilet, be willing to go out when you are tired… In short: show your appreciation!
Facebook surgery. You’re traveling, nerd! Peel yourself away from the computer and go explore :) Your friends will withhold their ‘Likes’ of your photos until you return.
7. Express any concerns or issues.
If, at any time, you aren’t happy with your CouchSurfer’s behavior, be sure to tell them why. In most cases, the problem will be unintentional or a cultural difference. But if you don’t speak up, your CouchSurfer might never know they’ve bothered you (or vice versa). And if the awkward antlers keep cropping up and lines are repeatedly crossed, it’s your duty to warn the community of your experience in your reference.
In my over 150 CouchSurfing experiences, I have never had to leave a negative reference or had one left about me. However, I’ve had countless instances of cultural misunderstandings and uncomfortable learning experiences. For instance, when I was traveling through Cambodia with my Pakistani friend, Zohra, I thoughtlessly made an off-color comment about terrorism. Whoops. My “sense of humor” was extremely offensive to her, and when I learned about the atrocities she lives with everyday in Pakistan, I realized I’d been watching too many episodes of South Park. Best to leave your amateur hour material at home.
8. Leave the couch better than you found it.
When it’s time to hit the road, make sure that you tidy up and leave your room spick-and-span. If you borrowed anything, double-check that you’ve returned it. If your host isn’t at home when you leave, make sure that you know how to secure the door correctly. Leave a handwritten note or a gift from your home country to say “thanks.”
Last but not least, leave them a thorough reference. If your host treated you well, be sure to write positive things about them so other CouchSurfers will want to stay with them! And if you set the bar with a kick-ass reference, they will usually return the favor.
The age of sharing is just beginning. I’ve experienced first-hand the inspiration and transcendence that regularly takes place, and I plan to be a CouchSurfer for life. I want my future children to grow up around different cultures and instill sharing and exchange. And when I’m too old to travel myself, I’ll be hosting from my rocking chair.
If you’ve ever fantasized about taking time off to globe-trot, I would highly recommend Rolf Pott’s Vagabonding. It is one of only two books I took with me when I traveled the world for 18 months. Outside Magazine founding editor Tim Cahill calls Vagabonding “the most sensible book of travel related advice ever written.”
I recently partnered with Rolf to release the exclusive audiobook for Vagabonding. For more on this incredible book, click here.
Do you have a story about how Couchsurfing or the sharing economy changed your life? Tell us in the comments!
Also, there are two public screenings of One Couch at a Time coming up soon…
We’d love for you to come join us! (If you’d like to request a screening of the film in your city, click here.)