Cheapo Travel: Couch surfing making a comeback?
You may have heard of couchsurfing.com, which has actually entered our language as a coined verb.
Millions of people have signed up to "couch surf," which in this instance means to crash at strangers' pads for free as you travel. You're not always on the couch - you may even have your own bedroom - but all the hosts promise you'll have a place to stay.
If that makes you squirm, you can also just arrange to meet up with local people and learn about their cultures - or meet visitors when they come to your country - without an overnight involved.
I first learned about couch surfing when a local pastor told me he did it to meet and stay with other kiteboarding enthusiasts as he travelled around the world.
To use couchsurfing.com, you need to sign in and build a profile on the site telling prospective hosts about yourself.
Then you can search for people who want to come to your city, or who might be willing to put you up in theirs.
But these days, some people say it's become harder to find anyone who wants to host you in the city you want to visit.
Why would this be? Well, apparently, too many people just want a free place to crash while behaving boorishly and turning off hosts.
I was interested in the following perspective from American photographer Cassandra Morgan who learned all about couch surfing while travelling around the world.
Here are her observations and tips:
"Different kinds of people use couch surfing: One type of person uses it and hitchhiking to travel, with no money and depending on the hospitality of others. This person toes the fine line between being a minimalist budget traveller, or simply a freeloader.
"Then there's the person who uses couch surfing for cultural exchange, who can afford a hostel but chooses instead to plunge headfirst into the experience and soak up every bit of the cultural information available.
"I'm a cross between the two. I won't lie and say that I haven't couch surfed to save money. Truthfully, it has helped me be able to travel longer, see and experience more. But while I started out in the 'Hooray, free accommodation!' boat, I've quite easily slipped into the 'Let's make friends in different cultures' one, which is where I think everyone should be.
"Couch surfing has positively impacted my trips in ways I never could have imagined. Your hosts are your future friends all over the world, and they can make your experience of a new culture an unforgettable one."
SOME TIPS FROM AN EXPERT
Morgan's advice on building a profile and sending "Couch Requests":
Create a full profile: Make sure to give potential hosts plenty of things that they might have in common with you. Examples of favourite books, bands, movies, interests, ideals, etc. List the countries you've visited and want to visit, and put in a few good pictures of you.
Search with keywords: Morgan said she always looks for things in common with potential hosts because it's much easier to stay with someone who has at least some similar interests. "I got enthusiastically accepted by the coolest metalhead girl in Berlin, who took me to the Viking Metal bar," she says.
Know your host: I've asked hosts I've stayed with what makes them decline a Couch Request, and it's almost always a "copy and paste," meaning that the person didn't write anything to indicate they'd even read the host's profile.
Find common music, places visited or other interests to mention when you write your request, or something you're curious about. A question you might have about something they wrote. Emphasise what you have in common, don't just talk about yourself.
Also, make sure to read the couch section of someone's profile. They might say they're an hour outside of town, or that you have to leave at 7 am. when they do, so only apply to people whose schedule or location you can handle.
READ MORE: Kiwi Traveller: A road trip through Europe
Don't talk about money: There's no better way to get denied than by putting, "Hi, I'm really broke and looking for a free place to stay." Especially if you have nothing else to add to that. There are definitely hosts who will accept anyone and don't care about your reasons, but they're few and far between, and it's couch surfing, not .
Request one to three weeks before arrival: Every host is different, but for the most part it's better to request a bit earlier. Most cities will also have an "emergency couch" group, but this is only for if you need a couch 24-48 hours before arriving. Read the rules before joining, if you post in the group two weeks beforehand, you will annoy people.
WHILE YOU'RE SURFING:
Be clear about arrival: Keep in touch with your host and arrive as close to on time as possible. Try to meet at a time that's convenient for them. Sometimes I've stayed at a hostel the first night and then met my host the next day so they didn't have to deal with me getting into the train station at 2am.
Bring or leave a gift: This is pretty traditional for most cultures. Personally, I don't always bring something when I arrive; once I get to know what my host likes, I have a better idea of what's best to give. Usually it's food, sweets or drinks.
Be respectful: Keep your stuff contained and be considerate of others' space, do the dishes (yours, and your host's if you feel generous) shortly after using them, share food and drinks and just generally be helpful.
Communicate and socialise: I try to let my host know when I'm coming and going, if I'll be back later, etc. If your host has free time and is interested, it's a perfect opportunity to do new and interesting things. Go explore some abandoned buildings in Russia, party like the locals in Peru, visit your host's favourite site that has no signs in English or learn to wakeboard in some random town in South Korea.
POST-SURFING, AND OTHER TIPS:
Always leave a reference for your host: Unless you genuinely had a bad experience, leave a positive reference. Luckily, I've never had to leave a negative or neutral. Simply not clicking with someone isn't a reason to leave a neutral or negative, so consider carefully before doing so. The website has some information on how and when to leave a negative reference.
Be specific: I like to write references that mention something we did together or had in common, especially which might not be obvious just by reading their profile. Like when I unexpectedly couch surfed with another vegetarian and we cooked epic vegetarian meals together.
Local place pages: Each location has a general message board where you can post to get advice or meet up with people, even find a travel buddy. It's perfect for solo travellers. It can help you find others to share a camper van in New Zealand, or make that Jeep tour far less expensive. There are also events you can attend, or you can organise one.
Meetups and references: Usually, if I meet someone and hang out, I'll leave them a reference. If you're brand new to couch surfing, going to meetups is a good way to build up references. The more you have, the easier it is for a host to take a chance on you.
Think about hosting: I know when I settle down somewhere, I would definitely love to host. Some people I've surfed with actually have spaces specifically for couch surfers. One guy in South Korea would accept as many people as he could fit. His house had two extra rooms and could accommodate six-plus people at a time. Maybe I won't go that far, but I do believe in paying it forward.
Would you couch surf? Let us know in the comments below.