Adventures in Couchsurfing

When I began researching options for reducing travel expenses, I came across couchsurfing. It seemed like a great way to not only reduce our expenses but to get to meet locals, develop friendships globally, and to experience an area through a local’s eyes.

couchsurfing

My first experience was . . . less than golden

Initially, I had some safety concerns about traveling with a child while sleeping in a stranger’s home, but my friend Lainie from RaisingMiro.com, is a single mom traveling with her son, and they couchsurf a lot. I found some other people who couchsurf and figured it would be okay. Especially since people have a profile with references (or advise to stay away) that they can’t edit.

Since we were still in the US, I figured we could start our experience by hosting. Shortly after signing up, I was contacted by a young man. He had no references and was looking for a last-minute situation. As I also had no references, I figured you have to start somewhere, and I offered to let him stay. Tigger was gone that weekend, which made me feel a bit better.

He seemed like a nice guy, and I was feeling better about getting this opportunity to meet new people. At the time I was also plagued by a kidney stone that we had been trying to get passed for about a month. Whenever it would shift, or try to shift, I would be in severe pain. One of these attacks happened shortly after he had taken a shower in my bathroom.

I couldn’t find my pain medicine.

couchsurfing

When it comes to medications, especially pain meds in the middle of a kidney stone situation, I’m pretty anal. I tore the whole place apart while he watched. I explained I was having a problem with kidney stones, and he sat there and watched me writhe on the couch. I hoped after seeing me in so much agony my pills would suddenly reappear, but they never did surface. Luckily, I kept some spares in my work bag in case I had an attack while away from home.

I wrestled with the situation for a couple of days after he left until I received an odd message in Couchsurfing’s site. It was from someone else who had hosted him after I did. “Did you have anything end up missing while he was there?” Crap!

We chatted, and I discovered he had done something similar to her. I went ahead and contacted the police to have it registered, and I also notified Couchsurfing. Then another email showed up. She had contacted his current host, and sure enough she had items missing as well.

Not the greatest introduction.

Our first attempt at being hosted ended up being a bust a well. The hosts never showed up, and we left their house to stay in a hotel since their house was freezing, and I couldn’t find any way of getting some heat. They didn’t respond to text messages or phone calls either.

couchsurfing

Looking up

When I had to go to Utah for the open water portion of my scuba training, I decided to give it a try again. I found someone who seemed interesting. It turns out he lives with his parents but was out of the country. His family was okay with hosting me, though, and I help my breath when I arrived.

They turned out to be amazing, and I thoroughly enjoyed my stay with them. I decided to keep up the Couchsurfing experiment.

Later I would host a guy from France who was traveling through the US. I didn’t get to visit with him very much, but we had a enjoyable experience. Phew!

On the road

We didn’t get many opportunities to surf while traveling mostly because prospective hosts never responded. While in Mexico, we did have the opportunity to stay with Wandering Earl and his girlfriend. They were superb hosts, and I consider Earl a good friend to this day.

We were in Utila for 8 months, and we had the opportunity to host several people, many of whom became good friends. One couple, Erica & Shaun from OverYonderlust.com, are like family to us now. One of our surfers remained in contact with us and made the long journey to Cozumel right before a hurricane so she could be with us for Tigger’s 11th birthday.

This is when I really fell in love with couchsurfing. We had so many great experiences during our time on Utila.

When we left Honduras for Colombia, we had a host in Bogota. She even joined us on our bicycle tour.

couchsurfing, Colombia

And then Ecuador happened.

We ended up with a couple in Cuenca who seemed quite lovely. One of them was a dance instructor, and together they also owned a shoe company that did brisk business. We had a great room and wonderful hospitality. Although, I felt extremely uncomfortable with one of the couple.

That discomfort peaked one day while I was at the dining room table working. He came up with that same creepy small that made me want to run from the room. “Estoy enamorado de ti,” he said. For those of you that don’t speak Spanish, he just confessed he was in love with me. He and his partner have been together for 25 years. My skin crawled.

As soon as he walked away, I brought up AirBNB and started searching for a place to move to. Luckily, a lady answered us fairly quickly, and we had a place to go. I thanked them for hosting us and let them know we were leaving the next day.

His partner knew something was wrong and kept apologizing. “I know we’ve done something wrong.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him and just kept replying that HE had done nothing wrong.

When I told Tigger why we were leaving, his response was: “Yeah, he was looking at you like he liked you all the time. I thought it was pretty weird.” When a 10-year-old catches it, you are not being subtle at all.

couchsurfing in Colombia

Time for a break

After that, I decided we were taking a break from surfing. We gave it a go again in France and had a wonderful experience with a fascinating couple in Lyon, but we haven’t surfed since.

Activities

Some communities are quite active with Couchsurfing, though. You don’t have to surf or be a host to join in with some of the activities. Medellin, Colombia, for one is incredibly active and has gatherings all the time. So one can still use Couchsurfing to meet locals without spending the night in someone’s home.

Yeah or nay?

I still think Couchsurfing is worthwhile. We have had some great experiences, on top of our (mis)adventures, and many of them have turned into wonderful friendships. When we’re staying in an area for a while, I usually connect with the local community to see if there are any activities since those can be great ways of meeting locals and developing relationships.

The biggest lesson I learned as a host is to really pay attention to their profile. Read their references and try to get a sense of the person. If they have a hastily posted profile and few to no references, I’d probably not host or surf with them. Someone who is really interested in the mission of couchsurfing will take the time to have a meaningful profile.

If a person needs more than 2 nights, I always start out with 2 nights and say we can take it from there. If they end up being highly annoying or something, 2 nights is tolerable enough. If you hit it off, then a longer stay is reasonable.

As a surfer, it is so important to plan time to spend with your host. Sure, it’s a free place to stay, but the idea is to get to mingle with people from different walks of life and different cultures. I learned so much from our stay with our hosts in Lyon. You’re really missing out on some great experiences if you don’t make time to get to know the people you’re staying with.

Have you ever done couchsurfing? What was your experience?

Share This Post On

32 Comments

  1. Wow, what a story! Glad to hear you had some good experiences with Couchsurfing but also sorry to hear you had some not so good experiences too. I think with the last incident it was definitely the right thing to do to just get out of there as quick as possible :-)

    I’ve not tried couchsurfing yet but I might in the future – I considered it while I was in Australia but at that point I was also travelling as part of a couple. Now I’m a solo traveller I think it’d be a great way to meet people :-)
    Beverley | Pack Your Passport recently posted..Things to Do in Queenstown for Non-Extreme Sports EnthusiastsMy Profile

    Post a Reply
  2. Wow, that a whole range of experience. I am glad most of them were positive, still the view that weren’t are a bit scary.

    I hosted for the first time just two weeks ago. It was a woman around my age from Colombia and we immediately connected both having a passion for photography. In the evenings and at the weekend she joined me with my plans. It was definitely a enriching experience and I will host this weekend again.

    Great way to met people but I agree that picking your host/ surfer needs to be doe with caution!
    Synke recently posted..Marokko: Roadtrip per Bus, Bike und KamelMy Profile

    Post a Reply
    • I hear you about the privacy. Most of the places we’ve surfed have given us our own room which has been great.

      Yes, colorful is one word for some of them. LOL

      Post a Reply
  3. Not my cup of tea – I’ve never been good at walking in to cold situations where I feel vulnerable. And, as Natasha stated, I value my privacy to highly. But, I can certainly see where it would be a great option for those who are open to it!
    Patti recently posted..Revenge is a Dish Best Served French ~My Profile

    Post a Reply
    • I can certainly understand that. Another nice facet of couchsurfing is meeting people just for coffee. Many of the people on the CS don’t host but like to meet new people in the area. So you get some of the benefit without the pure weirdness.

      Post a Reply
  4. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve only had positive experiences Couchsurfing, I guess. It can be easy to fall out of the habit of trying to find hosts, though, as we’re experiencing in South America. That first experience of yours sounds pretty unpleasant, and would have definitely left me with a bitter taste in my mouth; good for you for continuing to try it and give it a chance!
    Sam recently posted..July 2013 ReportMy Profile

    Post a Reply
    • It is definitely harder in some places. Colombia was great, Ecuador wasn’t (and not just because of our Cuenca experience). Central America was really awful for finding hosts.

      Post a Reply
  5. We’ve couchsurfed a lot starting in 2007. I’d say of our three years traveling, we stayed with people through CS more than half the time when exclusively traveling. Other times we’d rent places or stay with family and friends.

    Europe and the US are fantastic. Never had a problem finding a place to stay and have been overwhelmed by people’s generosity more times than I can count. I’ve also been amazed at how quickly we’d get to know people. It’s like a well written profile does away the need for any small talk. It also underscores the need for fully filled out profiles.

    Many of the people I met are still good friends, and we continue to cross paths in various places around the world. We’ve also hosted many, many people at our place (including Erica and Shaun and other travel bloggers, too). :) It used to be that anyone I met through CS was amazing, and every experience lead me to want more.

    I did not have the same experience in Central and South America. While yes, I did meet many wonderful people, , CS isn’t quite as strong, and not everyone is looking for travel and a community connection. What I tend to do now is find places to stay through people I already know through CS plus other travels.

    In the past few years, though, I’ve found CS has grown so big that many just don’t get it. They’re looking for a free place to stay. In which case, I say go to a hostel. Or they’re looking for someone to date. Thankfully, as a woman with a husband and daughter, those people stay away from me.

    I can’t tell if CS is going through growing pains or if it’s changed in a more permanent way. Either way, I haven’t given up on CS, though. I still go to meetings and get in touch with local communities whenever I travel.
    Leigh recently posted..Do you believe everything you read?My Profile

    Post a Reply
    • I feel like a lot changed when they became a corporation as well. The whole tone seemed to change quite a bit. I hope it bounces back. It’s a great project and mission.

      Post a Reply
  6. “…really pay attention to their profile.”

    I’ve had a profile on CS since 2008 and hosted tons of CSers when I lived in Seattle (here in VN foreigners can’t do such) and have surfed quite a lot in my travels. I’ve had only good experiences with all and I believe that the key is “profile, profile, profile”. I only host/stay with those that have very robust, positive profiles. Shoot, I often know more about my CS guests/hosts before they arrive than some of my personal friends!

    I saved TONS of money CSing in Australia, and even “closed the CS circle” by staying with a lovely lass in Port Macquerie that 3 years previously had surfed w/ me in Seattle!

    That said, I do agree w/ Leigh that the CS site has gone “mainstream” these days so of course you’re going to get a lot more “fringe” folks who are only looking for a freebie stay and sadly, miss the whole (imho, brilliant) point of cultural exchange that is the hallmark of Couchsurfing.
    Dyanne@TravelnLass recently posted..Taa-DAAA!My Profile

    Post a Reply
  7. Wow Talon, you really had a mixture of interesting and not experiences with CS. We’ve been couchsurfing for more or less 100 days so far during our trip and we’ve been lucky enough to never have horrible experiences. It did happen sometimes that we didn’t feel 100% comfortable or that we didn’t click with our hosts enough to become friends, but overall it has been amazing! We made some friends for life of which we are still in touch and we’d like to think we’ll always be.
    We heard of very nasty stories too, so your advice of being very careful with who to host or surf with is more than valid. One day we’d like to host too, whenever we’ll manage to stop somewhere for a bit longer :)
    Franca recently posted..Weekend Photo Theme – Buddhist MonksMy Profile

    Post a Reply
    • We’ve had some where we didn’t click that strongly as well. Our Bogota one was a bit lukewarm and seemed quite happy to see us leave even though she was never really unfriendly. She just seemed to have more in common with the younger couple coming behind us.

      I look forward to hosting again as well. I really enjoyed that.

      Post a Reply
    • Harder but doable. In fact there’s a CS community for families and those open to hosting them.

      Post a Reply
  8. Great post and wow what a lot of different experiences. Seems like you had some awesome ones and some bad ones. I never tried couchsurfing and I’m not sure I ever will. Like some others here, I quite like my privacy but maybe I will give it a try once just to have had the experience, I surely hope it will be a good one then :)
    Freya recently posted..Travel with an Increased Green AwarenessMy Profile

    Post a Reply
    • There is also the option of just meeting people for coffee. That way you get the benefit of meeting a local without the awkwardness of sleeping in their home.

      Post a Reply
  9. Great read. always thought about trying it but a bit hesitant but thanks for the great info! Happy Travels!

    Post a Reply
    • I was hesitant as well, but I’m glad I went through with it. Even if I did have a few less choice experiences.

      Post a Reply
  10. Very balanced article, Talon. Love how you highlight the cons as well as the pros. Couchsurfing hasn’t really taken off on Gran Canaria yet. We’re only just establishing ourselves as a backpackers’ destination. Hopefully, though, this development will arrive sooner rather than later.
    Gran Canaria Local recently posted..MoyaMy Profile

    Post a Reply
  11. I’m an old-school couchsurfer, started my adventure with it back in 2005 and had nothing but great to awesome experiences, many of which turned into amazing friendships. However these days I prefer to stay in the hostels and just meet with local CSers to hang out and get a real sense of the city I visit. For few years now it’s getting harder and harder to find a decent host, there are too many people on the website who registered for wrong reasons (either to find love or to steal from others – I heard so many of these stories…) that it lost all the greatness. I always trust my intuition when I look for a host or when someone contacts me, even if the person has 100 positive reviews but I feel we wouldn’t click I don’t go for it. I’m so sorry you had such a bad experiences, among all the good ones, I’m not surprised you’re losing your faith in CS. But I’m afraid such situations like yours will happen more and more often as CS owners don’t seem to care their project turned in a wrong direction…
    kami recently posted..Discovering Poland: AugustówMy Profile

    Post a Reply
    • It’s truly a shame because it’s a great cultural exercise. But looking for hosts in Christchurch has brought me back to thinking I’ll probably not be using it much in the future. Most of the hosts respond to requests about 60% of the time. Why be listed as a host if you aren’t going to bother responding? Just change your status to available for meetups only or something.

      Post a Reply
  12. We followed a similar CS trajectory to you: we signed up for the service before we left on our trip and figured we should host a few people before we left to see if it was even something we liked doing, and also to build up some karma points because we would be away for so long. We enjoyed hosting quite a lot, but for us CS really clicked once we were out there in the world being hosted by others. Our 1st experience wasn’t so positive as the person who was supposed to host us just never got back to us after accepting our request and we were left scrambling the day of to find a hotel where we could stay instead… but ever since then, we’ve just felt so lucky to meet really incredible, wonderful people, many of whom we have kept in touch with ever since. It definitely has added an extra dimension to our travels and made our experiences all the richer.

    That said, we haven’t been using the service as much since we have reached the cheaper parts of Asia. It’s not that we don’t want to surf, but I am an introvert, so I need to space out our Surfing with private stays and because we are so picky about who we’ll even send requests to (we rarely send out more than 3 requests for a given location), it takes a lot of time and effort to set something up. We always like to interact with our hosts and make time for them, so when I am feeling selfish and just want to do my own thing, I know I need to find my own lodgings rather than look for a host.
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..Chewing the Fat with Sarah Somewhere!My Profile

    Post a Reply
    • Yes, definitely. I’ve had some of those moments, too, where I just don’t feel like I want to socialize and share my space. Those are the times when having my own room or place are essential.

      Post a Reply
  13. Hey Talon,

    Thanks for sharing your post. I have been toying with the idea of couchsurfing for a while as a way of connecting with others while we travel. It sounds like it can be very positive, but has the potential to not be so great.

    Post a Reply
    • Like anything else it can both ways, but usually it’s very positive. In fact, we’re preparing for Romania, and with very little effort we have an invite to stay with someone, they’re picking us up at the airport, and they’re planning on introducing us to their other friends with kids. We have another family interested in meeting up as well. So, I’d say largely positive. ;)

      Post a Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

CommentLuv badge