In my travel tips series, I try to give you the inside scoop on what makes our experiences spectacular. And I'd be remiss if I didn't clue you in about my favorite way to travel: couchsurfing.
And I'm not just talking about "couch surfing" as a general concept; I'm talking about the hospitality network called Couchsurfing.org (CS for short).
I first heard about CS from a friend who traveled Europe for five months with her husband. She only stayed in hostels a handful of times. The majority of nights were spent with strangers - people she met via the CS website. Her blog told of incredible connections and experiences that would have been impossible without her CS hosts. I was intrigued.
And when Andrew and I decided to travel to Japan in 2012, we also decided to give CS a whirl.
What is Couchsurfing?
They say it best on their website:
Couchsurfing is a global community of 7 million people in more than 100,000 cities who share their life, their world, their journey. Couchsurfing connects travelers with a global network of people willing to share in profound and meaningful ways, making travel a truly social experience.
What that means practically:
If you have an couch or guest room, you can open your home for travelers to stay for free. They get to hear about your city from your perspective, learn where the best restaurants and sightseeing spots are, and see the city through a local's eyes. You also get the opportunity to meet some really cool travelers and hear stories you'd never hear otherwise.
If you are a traveler, you get to stay with a local, share about your own culture and travel experiences, and make a friend who can give you a much broader experience than you'd have from following a guidebook alone.
You start by creating an online profile on couchsurfing.org. You can search for travelers who need a couch near you, or if you're the "surfer", look up possible hosts and send them couch requests.
Although getting "verified" costs money (see below), CS can be completely free. Some hosts will ask you to pitch in money for longer-term stays.
But CS runs on hospitality - which means you're in it for the experience.
Is it safe?
How in the world do you decide to spend the night in the house of a total stranger, met online?
It sounds like a story from a bad online dating experience. But there are several safety nets that make CS feasible.
- First, Couchsurfing.org has a team dedicated to the safety of its members - You can read their tips on safety on their website here.
- Everyone sets up a free public profile on CS. You can see our profile here. You post photos, write about your travel experiences, what you like in a host or surfer, and any restrictions (i.e. non-smoking home). The more someone writes, the easier it is to see what they're all about.
- Members can get verified. This means you pay $25, and CS staff mail you a card with a special code to verify your address. It's just another check to make sure you actually live where you say you do. We haven't done this because...we don't actually have a physical address in Poipet. We literally live in a place where the streets have no names.
- Other people vouch for you and post about their experiences with you. This is the linchpin of what makes CS work. After hosting or surfing with a CS member, you can leave a positive or negative review and talk about why the experience was great (or terrible). If you're cautious, you can only ask to stay with someone with fifty or a hundred positive referrals. We asked our friends to leave a positive review on our profile, which helped us when we asked for a host in Japan.
- You can see how you're connected with others. When you view others' profiles, you can see how you're connected with them by clicking the "How do I know ___" button. I just went online and clicked on a random name, and they are friends-of-friends-of-friends-of the guy we stayed with Kuala Lumpur. The world really is a small place!
CS is basically the online version of posting to Facebook if any of your friends know someone in England or Los Angeles or wherever you're traveling who can host you for a few nights. Connections are everything.
So hopefully I've convinced you CS is safe. But why would you choose to sleep with strangers?
Our experiences staying with CS hosts and hosting CS travelers here in Poipet have enriched our lives and our understanding of the world.
While surfing, we've seen the city through the eyes of a local. We've eaten in a tiny sushi restaurant in a Tokyo neighborhood, served by a chef who'd trained there seventeen years ago and worked there ever since. We've eaten Portuguese egg tarts in the best cafe in Macau and spent a day traveling Kuala Lumpur with two Malaysians, a Lithuanian, and an Iranian.
We've hosted a man from the Basque region of Spain and another from the German-speaking region of northern Italy (did you know that even existed?) with his Indonesian girlfriend. We've gotten tips on the best places to eat, how to navigate the insane Tokyo metro system, and where the best beaches in Bali are.
Through CS, we've either hosted or surfed in 4 different countries with people from 10 different nations.
CS has given us a much richer experience than we could ever had on our own.
And yes, it does save you money by staying with people instead of hotels. But what we've gained is far more meaningful than any cash we've saved.
This post is meant to be a taster of why we love couchsurfing.
Although we haven't hosted anyone since having our baby, we've continued to communicate with travelers and help them navigate the border crossing at Poipet and give them tips about what to see in Cambodia. And I secretly hope we can continue hosting people when we move back to Kansas City and staying with hosts when we do travel - whether in America or abroad.
If you've couchsurfed or hosted before, I'd love to hear your story!
Share any tips helpful for first time surfers or hosts. And if I know you personally, feel free to ask me to recommend you on your new CS profile!