Lets return to our alternative lodging series. Today we’ll look at the third option- couch surfing. What is couch surfing? At the most basic level, it is when one person travels a country by hopping from one couch to the next for the night. The owners of the couches can be friends, family, acquaintances, or people you met in the park that day. It is a community of travelers and welcoming hosts who want to meet new and interesting people around the world and provide somewhere free to sleep for the night. Yup, free. One good way to try to couch surf is by using the website couchsurfing.org. They do a great job of connecting surfers and hosts.
How do they do it? Well, like most social networking sites, it all starts with your profile. Like AirBnB, Couchsurfing is a big recent phenomenon. They have almost 3.5 million registered users in 250 countries. And like AirBnB, Couchsurfing.org attempts to build safety precautions into the system. They provides several levels of authentication from address/identity verification, to traveler recommendations and friendship links. I recommend becoming verified. It has a nominal cost, helps support the organization, and improves your reputation in the organization. Also, be sure to follow up on recommendations of your surfers/hosts- for the same reasons.
When it comes time to travel, do your research ahead of time. Check out available hosts on Couchsurfers.org, and send several couch requests out. The first person you check in with may not be available when you’re traveling.
Even if you choose not to stay with a host, they can be valuable sources of information. Meet up for a coffee or a beer and have a chat about their town. Sometimes there are Couchsurfer meetups scheduled; these are a great way to meet several travel-friendly people all at once.
I’ll tell you about my first CouchSurfing.org experience. It was last January, when my friend and I were backpacking in Europe. The first half of the trip was over, but sadly we had much less than half of our budget left. We decided to try something new for the next country we went to: Denmark. So we logged-on to CouchSurfing.org and checked out a few friendly locals in Copenhagen. While we weren’t able to find a couch for the first night, we did find one for the second. One of the hosts that was unable to have us, because he had another surfer already, told us about a gathering in a local bar that the Couchsurfer hosts had organized. We had barely disembarked from the plane and dropped our bags at the hostel we chose to lodge in that first night, before we were out the door and heading towards the bar.
What a stunning collection of cultures in that smokey back room! There were girls from Australia, guys from England, a pair of twins from Brazil, and about a dozen other people sitting around and sharing animated travel stories with each other. That night we were told about a fabulous Swedish sauna to try, just a half hour train ride away, and met a friendly guy from London who invited us to stay with him when we got there (about a week and a half later).
The next night, we stayed with a computer programmer from India, working for IBM in Copenhagen. We arrived late at his house, since he had been working, and had time for a good conversation over some tea before we all called it quits for the night. The next morning we were out the door before dawn, to catch the bus to the train station and head on to Stockholm, Sweden. But by then we were hooked. Couch surfers are a friendly, multicultural, welcoming bunch. I highly recommend trying it out- either as a surfer, a host, or both. I hope you catch a wave and surf on in to your next trip!
So, I hope you’ve learned a bit about alternative lodging options, and realized it isn’t necessary to spend too much of your budget on where you lay your head at night. Next up, packing: tips on traveling lightly and comfortably.