This post is an excerpt from the new best-selling book, “Buy Your Own Island.” The most thorough and comprehensive handbook for lifestyle design and the mobile lifestyle on the planet, the book outlines how to travel the planet using strategies such as couchsurfing and much more. You can download it immediately from Amazon, or download the audio book for free by clicking here.
The Biggest Travel Hacking Secret? Free and Low-Cost Accommodation
A Comprehensive Guide to Successful CouchSurfing
Are you on CouchSurfing yet?
There is an incredible, interconnected community through the site (www.couchsurfing.org) with locations in over 100,000 cities all over the world!
In Hanoi, for instance, there is a strong “Couchsurfing Hanoi” group that meets for coffee and drinks three times a week, each event packed with dozens of friendly locals. I developed so many great friendships developed through that group.
The potential for cultural exchange is incredible, and the richness of your travels can be multiplied to an extend that simply isn’t possible without such a community.
One time, on my way back home to the US after several months of overseas adventures, I had a ten hour layover in Tokyo. I posted that I’d be in town a couple days before arriving on the Tokyo CS page. A friendly local girl met up with me, showed me around the neighborhoods of Shibuya and Harajuku, and we even caught part of the Nihon Grand Sumo tournament together.
It sure beat sitting around the airport all day long!
There are so many uses for this website, beyond just sleeping on strangers’ couches. You can pose questions, buy or sell items, find pub crawls to join, meet people, and so much more.
I’ve traveled the world pre-CS and post-CS and since making the switch recommend it to everyone.
The site also uses a verification and “reference” system which allows you to screen people before you agree to meet anyone. Of course, the potential for a less than incredible experience exists, just like any situation in life involving other people.
After having a local cart me 45 minutes away from the Hoan Kiem Quarter of Hanoi (the only place where I really wanted to hang out) to sleep on a mat shared with two other people, I decided that simply paying $6 for a hostel bed and all-you-can-eat breakfast was a better deal. But to have a truly bad experience is extremely rare.
Upon returning to the US after a 7 month-long RTW trip, within a few weeks I was traveling again. This time I set off on a month and a half long road trip across the US and Canada. Even while traveling in North America (which many would agree is far more expensive than most developing countries), I was able to keep my daily budget under $25!
The secret was that I had a friend host me in every city I visited.
Usually I stayed in a guest room with my own bed, though I slept on a couple of couches. In cities where I didn’t know anyone, I was able to connect quickly with like-minded locals and they hosted me in their home.
Not only was it cheaper, but the travel experience was incredible. I had as an enjoyable experience traveling within the US and Canada as I had previously in any foreign land anywhere in the world, and a big part of it was being able to hang out with local friends and having them show me around.
Before you Begin…
Couchsurfing successfully is not easy. There are right ways to go about it and there are wrong ways. Above all, it requires a healthy combination of common sense, tact, intuition, and excellent social skills.
Here’s a few “guidelines” to keep in mind that will help you to become a successful CouchSurfer.
First of all, be someone worth meeting. Create a detailed profile that shares your passions. What are your favorite travel experiences? Are you a great photographer? Are you writing a book, or working on something else that’s interesting? Are you an expert on a topic that would make someone else want to meet you and learn from you?
Share all that stuff. Show the community who you are – the more information you share, the greater your chances of having positive interactions with other members. And show pictures of you having fun.
Also, CouchSurfing allows you to provide links to your Facebook, YouTube, etc. which you should definitely include.
Be interested in other people. The biggest mistake that people make when using CouchSurfing is they only think about themselves.
Too many people are out to “take” free accommodation, without considering the feelings of the locals who could potentially host them. They make shallow requests, and have no interest in a potential host whatsoever beyond what the host can do for them.
There are far too many college-age girls who register for the CS website a week before their first trip abroad, looking only to get a free place to stay.
When you interact with someone through CS – either a fellow traveler, local, or potential host, read their profile first. Find common ground, shared passions, and build rapport. Or maybe you’re completely different and bring something new to the table. Find a way to engage a person based on their interests.
Someone opening their home for you to stay is a BIG deal. So in what way can you provide value to your host?
Don’t prioritize surfing people’s couches
When traveling around the US, I’m usually fortunate enough to have friends in each town I visit. But, I don’t want to become the kind of person who only calls a friend when I need something. None of us wants to be that person.
So if I’m going to connect and potentially stay with someone, it will be one of the last things I suggest – and even then, very indirectly and subtly.
Don’t ask your friend if you can stay with them – ask if they happen to know anyone who could host you. If they suggest themselves, say “well I don’t want to be a burden.” If they reply by saying it’s no burden, then you’ve got yourself a host!
The point is – don’t come across as assuming they’ll let you stay, if they are willing, give them the opening to suggest it. You are not entitled to anyone’s couch.
The same rule applies to new friends you meet through the website. In many ways, CS is parallel to online dating – you don’t get married on the first date. The best way to meet someone on an online dating is through something low-commitment, like lunch or tea. The person may not look the same way as they did in their pictures, or you may not like him/her anyway for some other reason.
Approach potential hosts the same way – if the two of you “click,” and both parties like each other, then scoring a couch is almost a given. Like other people and be liked in turn and you will go far as a couch surfer.
Avoid this mistake when searching for hosts
On the new CouchSurfing interface, finding hosts is a simple 1-2-3 process – but you’ll be more successful if you know how the process works. Simply start by searching “Find a Host” and enter the destination where you’re heading. On the next page you can view host profiles and begin contacting hosts individually.
If only it was this simple. Getting a host can be extraordinarily tough if you don’t know what you’re doing. The odds are stacked against you even further if you’re a male and over 25.
When the website presents a result of hosts in a city, the CouchSurfing website prioritizes the most active members. In other words, the same top 20 hosts that show up on your screen are the same top 20 that show up on everyone else’s screen.
These hosts get BARRAGED by a never-ending stream of couch requests – especially the ones who seem the coolest-looking.
Because of this and other factors, the majority of your couch requests will be declined or ignored.
How to Increase Your Chances
Start by going deep into the list of host profiles – go back about ten pages. Find about 5-6 hosts that last logged in to their home city – they could very well be traveling themselves.
Next, find hosts with a high response rate, but who haven’t been active for at least a few days or maybe a week (if they were online today it’s likely because they were answering couch requests!).
The next thing to consider is the host’s age. In general, you’ll have greater success as a couchsurfer if your hosts are older – old enough to earn a good income and live in a decent place. If you’re contacting hosts that are 21, be prepared to sleep on the floor.
Additionally, an older host around 30 who is on CouchSurfing is most certainly well-travelled themselves, and they’ve probably done quite a bit of surfing of their own. They have stories to tell, and can often even provide you with valuable professional references.
Lastly, try and plan out your couchsurfing stays well in advance. Messaging hosts two weeks before you arrive gives them ample time to reply.
I am notoriously bad at this. Being a poor planner, I’ve often contacted hosts 2-3 nights before arriving. A few times I’ve gotten positive responses after I’d already left the city.
Duration of Stay
In general, you should try to shoot for 2 or 3 nights with any particular host. Many hosts are not willing to have someone stay longer than three nights, and often they will post the maximum length on their profile.
If the two of you get along really well, it’s certainly not uncommon that a host will invite you to stay longer – but as far as expectations go, it is safe to assume a span of 2 or 3 nights. Since couchsurfing often entails short stays in each place, it’s important to be flexible and always have multiple options available to you – both in the city you’re visiting and the next destination.
Spend Time With Your Host
Since you usually only get a few nights per couchsurfing assignment, I’d recommend finding a balance between hanging out with your host and taking time to yourself.
Do a favor or two for them. If you can’t cook, then offer to pick up food. Be a gracious guest. Clean up after yourself. Take an interest in their life and if you see anything you can help them with, offer to do so. Even if it’s just some simple work in the garden, do your best to endear yourself.
It’s always a nice touch to remember their address and send them a friendly card or postcard afterwards, too.
Couchsurfing is definitely an art that improves with practice and experience. I wish you success and happy CouchSurfing, hope to run in to you somewhere around the globe! 🙂