I’ve always been a big fan of Couchsurfing as a language learning resource for finding native speakers of your target language without having to leave your own city. A few weeks ago though we finally got to use it for its original intended purpose – travel – and for anyone who hasn’t heard of it yet I wanted to introduce you to it and share a bit about out own experience.
While ‘couch surfing’ is a general term for staying overnight on someone’s couch, when I say ‘Couchsurfing’ I’m specifically referring to Couchsurfing.org – a non-profit social networking service with the goal of connecting travelers and hosts from all over the world.
Simplifying things a bit, Couchsurfing essentially lets you either stay at another person’s home for free or allow others to stay at your home for free. There’s no obligation to host people and when traveling you get to choose whom you stay with (though the host always has final say on accepting or denying travelers). While ostensibly the purpose of Couchsurfing is to provide travelers with a free place to stay, the real purpose of the community is to bring people from all over the world together to spread cultural awareness and learning.
Rather than go into all the specifics of how Couchsurfing works, how they handle the issue of safety or how to sign up (topics about which volumes have already been written) I’m just going to send you over to the Couchsurfing.org About Page.
Our First Couchsurfing Experience
Being familiar with Couchsurfing but having never used it to travel, we decided to dive right in and give it a try for our recent trip to Chicago. We had a family reunion on the weekend and wanted to stay in Chicago for a full week beforehand to do our own sightseeing and experience the city.
There are two ways to find hosts on Couchsurfing, you can either post an itinerary and hosts can send you offers or you can seek out specific hosts and send them individual requests. We chose to do the former, posting our itinerary almost a month before we were schedule to leave. To my surprise, a host offered us a place to stay the very next day.
I’ll call him ‘D’ here instead of using his name to respect his privacy. D said he would love to host us, so we checked out his profile. He was a verified member, had over 30 positive references and 0 negative ones, had been vouched for and had tons of pictures up – all indicators of a good person to stay with.
D is in his late 60s, breaking the stereotype that a majority of the people on Couchsurfing are very young, and has an apartment right in the heart of the Loop only a few blocks from Millennium Park. A hotel in the same area easily could have cost us over $200 a night. In addition to all of that, he told us he could get us free parking for a week at his weekend job. If you’ve ever been to Chicago you know free parking is kind of a big deal.
D’s hospitality while we were there was staggering. The first thing he did was give us a key to his apartment and then took us grocery shopping where he insisted that he buy us whatever groceries we would like for the week. He loved showing us around the city, and gave us an extensive tour. Through the week he treated us to two meals and showed us around to several other places.
Beyond all of that, the best part of the whole experience was getting to meet and hang out with someone new. D not only seemed to know everyone in Chicago but had a plethora of stories – about the city, his past Couchsurfing experiences and his childhood in Ireland.
The Bottom Line
Our first experience with Couchsurfing was overwhelmingly positive. I’m already looking forward to our next trip and intend to open our own home up to travelers here in Cincinnati. While the surface benefit of Couchsurfing is saving money by not paying for accommodations the real spirit of it is so much more than that. Even if you only stay with someone for a night I highly recommend giving Couchsurfing a try – 9 times out of 10 you don’t just get somewhere to stay, you get a new friend.
Have you used Couchsurfing in the past? Did you have a good first experience or a not so good one? Share your stories in the comments!
Photo Credit: Stephan Geyer