When I decided to go on a solo backpacking trip of Western Europe, I figured I’d CouchSurf for a few nights to take a break from hostels and save a little cash. It didn’t quite work out as planned.
Instead, it ended up taking over my life. I ended up CouchSurfing (CS for short) for the entire four months I spent in Europe. And then CouchSurfing around the east coast of the US for another month. And then moving in with my CouchSurfing hosts in Cologne. And then becoming a nomadic ambassador. And then becoming a Brooklyn ambassador.
CS ambassadors were the ones who organized events, moderated the message boards, and did their best to make sure the community was awesome.
It’s almost ten years later and a good portion of my friends are people I met through CouchSurfing. It’s totally changed my life.
CouchSurfing probably won’t change your whole life trajectory like it did mine. It will, however, be a pretty cool experience and a fun story to tell later.
I used to welcome new members and run new member welcome workshops in New York. I combed through my old presentation slides (58 of them!) to give you the highlights.
Here’s what you need to know to have a good CouchSurfing experience.
Here’s what you need to know to have a good CouchSurfing experience Click To Tweet
What this is all about
CouchSurfing is like AirBnB, but it’s free. For a long time it was a nonprofit, but eventually it had to switch to a B-Corp (which is sort of a business with the heart of a nonprofit). Money changes things in lots of ways that are hard to put your finger on.
- You decide where you want to go and look at the profiles of hosts in the area
- You send out a few couch requests and wait to hear back
- Hopefully someone accepts your couch request
- You coordinate with your host to decide how long you’ll stay and meeting up
- You stay with them and (hopefully) have an awesome time
- You leave references for each other
While I’ve had several bad experiences with AirBnB, I’ve never had a bad experience with a CouchSurfing host. And I’ve done a lot more CouchSurfing.
The best way to think of CouchSurfing is like a homestay that only lasts a few days. The goal is to build a global community and break down barriers between people. Yes, it’s great to save money, making travel accessible to people who couldn’t otherwise afford it, but that’s not the main point.
Part of how that community is built is through message boards on the and events organized on the CouchSurfing website. This is in addition to all the friendships that come out of actually staying on somebody’s couch.
So, even if you read through this and decide spending the night in the home of a stranger is not for you, going to CouchSurfing events is a great way to meet other travelers and the message boards are full of travel tips.
Setting up your account
CouchSurfing is a community built on trust. And the joy of serendipity.
Yes, it’s a great way to save money…and maybe even meet your next date. But if that’s why you’re joining, you’re not going to have the best experience (and neither will your host).
So many couples meet at school or church. But if you go to school or join a church to meet potential dates that’s super creepy. The same thing applies for CouchSurfing.
If you’re just looking for a cheap place to crash, that’s what hostels are for.Get started on CouchSurfing! Here's how Click To Tweet
There are lots of CouchSurfing hosts who will accept a request from anyone. And lots of people who will send a request to anyone. That’s not how I CouchSurf. I check out the profile (and references!) of everyone I send a request to.
I don’t need to have much in common with my hosts; getting to know someone I have virtually nothing in common with is one of the most magical things about CS. I do want to know they’re on CS for the same reasons I am: meeting people and making connections. Read between the lines of what they’re explaining in their profile.
Think about what you would want to know about a person before you’d agree to let them stay in your home. Put that information in your profile. Here’s some basic tips:
- Actually fill out your profile
- Talk about how you heard about CouchSurfing and why you joined
- Talk about your past and future travels
- Upload pictures that show what you’re like and what you like to do
- Upload at least one clear image of your face
Please don’t say you’re really open minded, easy going and love to travel and meet new people. If I had a nickel for every profile that says that…it just tells me you’re boring.
Connecting and references
You probably have a few friends and acquaintances on CouchSurfing. Let your friends know you joined. You can use Facebook login to connect with people you know and ask them to leave you a reference.
If you don’t know another soul with a CS account, find a local CS meetup.
If you’re trying to find a host in a major tourist destination, it can be tough. Hosts in Paris, New York, Tokyo, and other hugely popular cities get dozens of requests every week. Sometimes you need to look a little bit outside of the city to find a host. Take a look at the transit map and you’ll find hosts who are 15 or 30 minutes from the city center who hardly ever get requests.
The key to having a great CouchSurfing experience is knowing your boundaries. So much of the joy of CS is getting outside of your comfort zone — meeting new people, trying new things, exploring a different lifestyle. But you should never do something that pushes against a hard boundary.
Some CS hosts are pretty weird
There are some infamous CS hosts you’re likely to hear about from other Couchsurfers. Perhaps the most storied host is the Italian wrestling guy. There are various nudists. People who run collectives and live in squats. Plenty of hosts have strange requirements or persnickety rules. They’re also often amazing hosts. As long as their house rules are clear from their profile and you stick to them, it’s all good.
Anything goes so long as there’s no money exchanged and a host isn’t pressuring you to do something you’re not comfortable with. It’s all about informed consent.
If you’re cool wrestling with your CS host or hanging out with nudists, that’s great. If you’re not, that’s great, too. There are plenty of other hosts who don’t have weird requirements.
This is one of the reasons reading a profile is so important. If someone’s profile makes it very clear their home is a clothing free zone and they answer the door naked…well, you should have read their profile.
If someone’s profile says nothing about being a nudist and they answer the door naked, that’s something to leave in a reference or alert the CS safety team about.
Remember: you’re never under any obligation to stay with someone if it doesn’t feel right to you.
Send personal requests
You don’t need to write a unique message for every host you request to stay with, since most of the details are the same. You shoud always personalize the message for each host.
What to look for
When looking for a host, there are a couple things to look for.
People who are verified have paid a small fee to CouchSurfing. This verifies that their name is real and CouchSurfing has their mailing address. This is hardly foolproof, but it does mean people can’t just delete a profile full of negative references and start over fresh.
Check to see someone’s response rate and when they last logged in. There’s no point in sending requests to someone who’ll never see them. You can limit your search to people who’ve been recently active.
Take a look at their references and photos. Photos give you a good idea of someone’s personality and make it a lot easier to meet up with them.
Old school CouchSurfers
People who’ve been members of CouchSurfing for a long time will have the pioneer badge and might have flags showing they were an ambassador (although somehow I don’t have one!). In the old days, event organizers and volunteers were ambassadors.
Early members would vouch for their friends. Once someone was vouched for by three people, they could vouch for others. You had to have a certain number of vouches to become an ambassador. These were one of the ways you could assume someone was trustworthy, like being a friend of a friend.
We’ve come a long way since the early days.
Don’t forget to read about their home! This is especially important if you have pet allergies, dietary restrictions, or just want to make sure you’ll be comfortable. Hosts can offer different accommodations: couch in their living room, an air mattress on their bedroom floor, a spot for your sleeping bag, an entire guest room, or even the whole place. This is usually spelled out pretty clearly in the My Home section of their profile.
If someone hasn’t described where I’d be staying if they hosted me, I don’t send them a request. Quite a few people are less picky than I am. I want to know what I’m getting into.
If public transportation access is important to you and they don’t provide information on their profile, ask! You may also want to clarify if they’ll be providing guests with bedding and a towel or if you’ll need to bring your own.
In cities where it’s hard to find a host, I’ll search for hosts through mutual friends or groups I’ve joined on the CS website. I get lots of requests from people who find me in the Queer CouchSurfing group. This way you have a connection that can help you get a couch.
Yes, you can create a public trip that’s visible to other CouchSurfers in that city. It’s the easiest way to find a host. However, it’s not always the best experience.
Sometimes people don’t want to commit to hosting people in advance, so they’ll offer couches at the last minute. Other people just like the company and entertainment of hosting. But public trips have a reputation for being attractive to less savory characters.
Staying with hosts who reach out to you in response to a public trip is probably not the best first impression of CouchSurfing, especially not if you’re a woman.Always check references when @CouchSurfing! Click To Tweet
If somebody has a ton of good reviews and they’re all positive, showing a long history of hosting, then chances are they’ll probably be a great host.
Of course, if all those references mention going clubbing and you hate clubbing, maybe it’s not the best fit for you. References give a great idea of what it’s like to stay with someone: what the accommodations are like, how much time you’d spend with them, and what you’d do.
I’m suspicious of single men who only have references from young, attractive women.
References are the main tool for avoiding potential creeps on the internet. Once again, you have to read between the lines and use your street smarts. If something seems off, then trust your gut. There are plenty of other hosts (and other places to stay).
Lots of people won’t leave a reference if they have a bad experience. If someone seems to host a lot but has hardly any references, that could be a warning sign.
Of course, there are retaliatory negative references (although they just redid the review system to fight that) and references that seem unfounded. Use your judgement.
Talk about your trip
No one wants to host you indefinitely. Let your prospective host know how long you’re planning on staying in their city, how long you’re traveling, and where you’re going next.
If you have a specific reason for visiting their city, like a conference or a concert, say so.
Acknowledge their profile
Many CS hosts want to know that you picked them for a reason. At least mention something to show you’ve read their profile. Personally, I think it’s great if you say why you want to stay with me.
I also want to know that you realize what you’re getting into. Lots of hosts have house rules they want you to acknowledge.
Telling a potential host that they won’t even realize you’re there probably won’t work in your favor. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’d be better off in a hostel. Most hosts want the experience of meeting you, not have a stranger crashing in their living room.
Stay with people who are nothing like you
Yes, it’s fun to stay with someone who has so much in common with you. Some of my best CS experiences were when I’ve stayed with people I (thought) I had nothing in common with.
Don’t overlook retired people and families as potential hosts. The families I’ve stayed with have been so welcoming and it’s so fun to experience family life in a new place.
I’ve even stayed with people where we didn’t have a common language — which made cooking dinner together and touring the city quite an interesting experience!
You might be super chill on vacation, but your host isn’t on vacation. Sending requests somewhere between a month and 5 days before your arrival is the best bet. If you’re planning to visit during the high season or during a special event, you’ll want to plan ahead.
There are always hosts who’ll accept requests at the last minute, but waiting until the last minute greatly increases the chances that no one is going to say yes.
Remember, no one owes you a place to stay.
Before you arrive
Confirm your arrival time
It never ceases to amaze me how often CouchSurfers will not tell me when they plan on arriving — and just assume I’ll be home. It’s not a good first impression. Let your host know when you’re arriving in the city and see when they’re available to meet you.
I no longer give CouchSurfers my address until we have a confirmed arrival time because I’ve gotten tired of coming home to them waiting outside my door like lost puppies. I don’t want my neighbors to think I’m running an illegal hostel in my apartment or renting out an extra room, so do your best to be on time and not make a scene.
Pay attention to directions
If your host provides very specific directions, it’s probably for a reason. In Brooklyn there’s a Franklin Avenue and a Franklin Street — they’re very far from each other, but it’s easy to get them mixed up in Google Maps. In my current building, knowing the apartment number is no help when trying to ring my doorbell, since they use randomly assigned codes instead.
Write the address down on paper, screenshot Google Maps, or do something so you won’t end up lost and helpless if something goes wrong like not being able to connect to the internet.
Sometimes a host will agree to meet you somewhere, which is great! But always make sure you have a backup plan in case things go wrong. Write down their phone number or email address on a piece of paper — you never know when your phone will die or the app will freeze.
Let them know where you’re coming from
Your host probably knows the local transit options better than you do. My host in Buffalo knew the westbound bus route started all the way in New York City and was always hours behind schedule. I know everyone gets lost their first time taking the New York City subway. Knowing where someone is coming from means I have a better idea of when to really expect them to arrive.
If you give me your flight number and you’re late, I can check to see if your flight is delayed. If your flight is delayed, I’ll know when to expect you and be ready for a CouchSurfer who needs to decompress when they arrive. If your flight is on time, I know you may have gotten distracted by a bar or — it’s happened — a Broadway show. If that’s the case, you’re on your own.
Provide alternate contact information
The old CouchSurfing site used to go down pretty often. While it’s good to arrange the details of your stay within the CouchSurfing system, it’s a good idea to give them your phone number, friend them on Facebook, or do something else so you have a second way to contact them if you need to.
Don’t make a scene
Lots of us have snooping neighbors. Don’t give them cause for concern. Be quiet in the hallways, be courteous to other people in the building. If you’re doing something that’s going to attract attention — like carrying five enormous suitcases or shouting up to a window — don’t.
There’s a lot of hate for AirBnB and a lot of misunderstandings, so if someone asks it’s always safest to say your host is a friend of a friend.How to be the perfect CouchSurfer Click To Tweet
When you’re there
Ask what time they typically go to bed and wake up
It’s awkward to wake up hours before your host and feel trapped in their apartment while you wait for them to wake up.
Ask before using the kitchen
Making a quick meal doesn’t seem like a big deal to a lot of people, but can lead to problems if you don’t clear it beforehand. Then your host is stuck kashering their kitchen because you didn’t realize they kept kosher.
Ask if it’s okay to use the kitchen. If they say yes, check if there are any rules beyond cleaning up after yourself. Does someone in the house have a food allergy? Is it a vegan space? Is the smoke alarm super sensitive?
Always clean up after yourself and replace any groceries you used.
Keep your area neat
Maybe at home you throw your things on the floor when you get home, but you should never do that in someone else’s home. See how your host acts — do they take their shoes off in the hall? — and follow their lead. If in doubt, ask.
Even if you’re CouchSurfing in a frat house where anything goes, good manners are always the safest bet.
We all have those (usually unspoken) rules in our home. Be mindful of how your host does things and do your best to fit in. Some hosts will tell you specifically how they want their home to be treated while others may quietly cringe when you don’t take your shoes off at the door. Pay attention and ask to avoid misunderstandings.
Some hosts are very particular about how they expect their guests to behave. This is almost always obvious from their profiles, so steer clear if that isn’t your style. Other hosts are very relaxed about things — and may have the messy home to go along with that.
When staying in house shares with roommates, picking up household supplies and leaving extra beers in the fridge is a good way to make sure future CouchSurfers will be welcomed.
It shouldn’t have to be said, but respect your host’s privacy. Don’t snoop.
Don’t sleep all day
The same goes for spending hours on the internet. Get out and explore!
Sometimes when you’re traveling you need a day off to rest and recuperate. While that’s understandable, it’s weird to stay with someone to visit a city and then spend the whole time in their apartment. Even if you’re feeling in need of a lazy day, go out and do one thing so you’ve seen the city a little bit.
When I’m feeling lazy, I’ll find a spot in a park and read a book or relax in a coffee shop and get a little work done. CouchSurfers aren’t hosting you so you can watch movies on their Netflix all day or sleep until 3pm. Unless your host is doing that with you, in which case you can carry on.
Expect to hang out
CouchSurfing is about the social and cultural experience, so don’t expect someone to simply provide you the keys to a place to stay. It’s the best part of CouchSurfing, so hopefully that’s what drew you to the idea in the first place.
Sometimes I’ve felt socially obligated to do stuff — or eat things — that were outside of my comfort zone. This is part of the adventure of traveling and exploring new things. As long as they’re not pressuring you into sex, drugs, or crime you should stretch your comfort zone and live a little. CouchSurfing has totally changed the way I eat and I’ve discovered that I enjoy all sorts of things I never would have tried otherwise.
Expect to entertain yourself
Some CS hosts are eager to spend the day with me. Others have told me when they leave in the morning, when they get home at night, and left me to do my own thing. I’ve even had hosts (more than one!) hide keys for me and meet up with me days later.
Yes, a lot of CS is about the social element, but sometimes a host’s packed schedule doesn’t really allow for it.
One of my first hosts, Bree, was super busy when I stayed with her. We went to a Munich CS meetup, but other than that she was glued to her laptop. We still stayed in touch — and ended up meeting up in Stockholm and Istanbul years later.
Go to events
Check the website for local CS meetups in the cities you’re traveling to. It’s a great way to meet other travelers — and maybe find your next host. Even if you opt to stay in a hostel, you can still go to CouchSurfing events to meet other travelers.
A lot of events are meetups at bars, but there are lots of other options for people who don’t want to drink. I’ve gone to museum tours, dinners at people’s homes, dinners at cafes, picnics, and all sorts of events. You can always organize your own event.
If you’re not sure about CouchSurfing, going to a meetup is a great way to decide if the idea works for you or not. This works on a local level, too. You can get to know other CouchSurfers in your city and ask them about their own experiences to help get a feel of it before you go.
Let them know your plans
Even if a host gives you keys, let them know what you plan to be doing. Sure, plans change, but give them an idea of when you’ll be at their home.
Trust your gut
If you get a bad vibe from your host, it’s simple enough to let them know your plans have changed and you’ll be staying somewhere else. There are a lot of hostels, BnB’s, and hotels in the world.
The same goes from your host. They’re not required to host you. If something comes up or they don’t feel comfortable with you staying, they’re entitled to ask you to leave. You should always have an idea of someplace else you could stay if you needed to. With smartphones that’s super easy.
After you go
A thank you is mandatory
There’s no need to leave an extravagant thank you gift, but you need to arrive with or leave something. I’ve found arriving with a gift to be awkward — you never know who’s allergic to flowers, doesn’t drink, or has a sugar-free home. While I felt awkward showing up with poorly-matched gifts, my hosts at least knew I meant well.
It’s not about the money, it’s about demonstrating appreciation. Tokens from your home country, chocolates, or other small items are perfectly fine. Even if you don’t leave a gift, a thank you note is much appreciated.
One of the things my hosts seem to appreciate the most is a postcard from further along in my travels.
Always leave a reference
Sure, you’re busy when you’re traveling, but you should always leave a reference. It doesn’t have to be a great work of literature, it just gives an idea of what your experience was like.
Not every reference should be a glowing one. It’s fine to be vague if you didn’t have a great time. When leaving a neutral or negative reference, stick with the facts. Or make it funny.
If your experience was negative because you didn’t read their profile and missed some key details about what to expect at their home, that’s probably not a good reason to leave a negative review. You should still be honest about your experience.
If you felt uncomfortable with a host, go ahead and reach out to the safety team. They won’t take immediate action, but they do what they can to manage hosts with a pattern of bad behavior. If anything goes seriously wrong, you should absolutely file a police report.Want to host on @CouchSurfing? Here's what to know Click To Tweet
As a host
Remember, it’s always okay to say no to a couch request. In fact, when in doubt, it’s safer to say no. Maybe you’re too busy, maybe you’re not in the mood for guests, maybe something about their message irks you. You don’t have to host anyone.
Responding quickly is always appreciated. Some people blast out 50 requests, but most of us send out three and wait for responses.
While you should always do your best to avoid having to cancel, sometimes it happens. Let your guest know as soon as you can. If you can help them find a new place to stay by introducing them to other hosts you know, that’s great.
Make sure to get super clear details about when someone’s arriving and when they’re leaving. And make sure to be there to meet them! People are always going to get lost and flights are always going to get delayed, so leave yourself a little wiggle room.
Finding a place in a foreign country — or even your own country — can be really tricky! Have a friend read through your directions to make sure you haven’t left out something that’s obvious to you and not obvious to a stranger.
It’s nice to have a bit of a welcome kit for people you’re hosting. You might want to include paper or digital copies:
- A guidebook for your city
- A map of your city
- Local recommendations
- Your wifi password and house rules
- Guest towels and linens (if you decide to provide them)
House rules are great! They reduce awkwardness and misunderstandings for everyone. Know what you’re comfortable with and let your surfers know.
It can be awkward to tell someone you don’t drink, follow a special diet, have a serious medical condition, or have serious allergies, but it makes everyone’s life easier to tell your surfer — and see if there’s anything you need to know about them. Giving someone who’s in AA a bottle of wine is awkward. Having someone go into anaphylactic shock after dinner is worse.
Remember, you don’t have to be your guest’s new BFF. Sometimes you’ll hit it off, sometimes you won’t. Sometimes you hang out for a weekend and are booking flights to hang out ten years later.
The majority of people I’ve stayed with will take me for a quick tour of the downtown or at least get a beer with me. I’ve cooked dinner with lots of my hosts. Some hosts will spend the whole day with me — or even take me on a day trip! It’s rare for someone to not spend any time with me, but it’s happened once or twice. Decide what you want to do and let your surfer know the plan.
Some visitors come to town with a whole itinerary — or are here for an event that takes up most of their time. Others are eager to spend time with you. Others spend a weird amount of time in your home and you have to nudge them out the door to see the sights.
Essential rules of CouchSurfing
- Know what you’re getting into
- Be open to new things
- Be considerate
- Trust your instinct