I was introduced to the world of Couchsurfing 3 years ago when I started planning a trip to the Maritimes (Eastern Canada). I have been using it consistently since then, even when I'm not travelling. I have both couchsurfed and hosted travellers. When someone tells me about their future travel plans, I always suggest Couchsurfing, especially if they are travelling solo or in twos. But most don't know what it is and could easily mistaken the site as a place to find free accommodation rather than understand what the community is about. So, what is it then and how can you participate?
WHAT IS COUCHSURFING?
Couchsurfing.com is a free site that people (mainly travellers) use to find places to stay, connect with locals and travellers, and find events and meetups happening in different cities.
HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?
To become a part of the community, you need to sign up on the site and fill out your profile. 100%. All questions answered with proper photos of you. The site is free, but there is also the option to become 'verified', which involves three steps: Payment, Phone, and Address verification (UPDATE: They now have Government ID verification option). Verifying your account is not necessary, but it does reassure hosts and travellers that you are who you say you are. One important question that you have to answer on your profile is, "Why Am I On Couchsurfing?" If your first answer is, "to find a free place to stay," then you are better off staying at a hostel. The whole point of the community is more than finding free accommodation. It is about building relationships with people (locals and travellers) and experiencing the place(s) you are visiting from a local's perspective. If this is how you want to see the world, this site is for you.
After you have completed your profile, I'd suggest getting references. But how can you get references if you've never surfed or hosted? Simple. Get friends and/or family to write you personal references. A couple is good to start with.
Your profile is complete, references are done, and now you are ready to find hosts. There is a great post on the site that explains how to use Couchsurfing and how to send a proper request. In the past 3 years, I have come across hosts who are open to accepting anyone, but I have also come across hosts who are a bit more hardcore and have certain expectations for sending requests. As always, read a Couchsurfers profile in full, including their references. Most of all, do not expect 5 star accommodations. Hosts offer what they can, and this includes couches, floors, sleeping mats, and sometimes a bed. Be prepared to have a ton of rejections and unanswered requests. It's super frustrating, but keep reaching out to potential hosts.
Lastly, what is a free place for you is not free for hosts. They are allowing you to use their electricity, water, hydro, space, food (sometimes), and more. Be respectful of their home and rules, and thankful for being welcomed into their home. Bringing little gifts from your hometown/country is a great way of saying 'thank you' as well as leaving references.
When I couchsurfed for the first time in Eastern Canada, I was blown away by all those who trusted me when they had never met me before. They opened their doors and let me into their homes. Every host I had was different, but they were all kind and helpful. Some made meals or showed me around while others who were busy offered what help they could and made my stay comfortable. By the time I got back to Ontario, I was so amazed by this community that I wanted to give back by hosting. I had my opportunity to do so when I was living in Ottawa and I hosted over 10 travellers (1 Canadian, 1 Costa Rican, 6 Germans, and 3 French). Since I was a student at the time, my schedule was not flexible, but I did show guests around when I could or offered maps and suggestions. The best part about it all was making new friends and getting to know them. Everyone had different things to say and I learned so much. I especially loved hearing travel stories and being inspired by all the things the guests had done and were going to do.
If you aren't travelling, but still want to be a part of the community, try hosting. I can understand hesitation about letting strangers into your home, but follow your guts, read their profile, and be cautious. I've turned down requests because people's profiles weren't filled out or I got bad vibes. Do what makes you feel comfortable. This is a great way to get references that will help you when you are travelling.
The site is also great to find events and meet-ups happening nearby. Big cities, where the Couchsurfing community is active, usually have daily or weekly meet-ups at a restaurant or other venue. If you are new to the site, I'd definitely recommend going out to these meet-ups to get a feel for what the community is about. Another part of Couchsurfing is the 'Hangout' feature, available only on the mobile app. This came in handy on my solo trip to Scotland, which I used to meet with people who were nearby to explore places or get food.
If you've signed up for a Couchsurfing account, you can check mine out here to use as a reference to set up your own profile.
Two cool gals (from Norway and Germany) I met via Couchsurfing on my last night in Scotland.
Happy Couchsurfing and let me know about your experience using the site!