The Top 5 Rules For CouchSurfing
By Matt Stabile
During a recent road trip to Montreal, it came up in conversation that one of the riders in the car was going to be CouchSurfing for the first time at an apartment in the city. This being her inaugural experience into the world of sleeping in a stranger’s apartments for no other reason then you both happen to be members of CouchSurfing, she naturally had a few questions. “Should I expect to spend the entire weekend with them? Do I need to bring some sort of present? What do I do if they turn out to be creepy?”
Which got me thinking: there really should be some sort of guide to helping newbies figure out the protocol of CouchSurfing. I’ve had a few experiences myself, all of which were great, and I have learned a few lessons along the way. So, to help newcomers out, I put together my top five rules for CouchSurfing.
1) Arrive Bearing Gifts
The whole point of CouchSurfing is that it’s free: you’re not expected to pay anything to stay with someone, and you’re not expected to ask for anything in return for hosting. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should arrive empty-handed for the very same reason you don’t show up at a dinner party with nothing in tow except for an empty stomach.
But what to bring? Remember, it’s a token of appreciation, not a lasting investment for your host’s home. A bottle of wine, an interesting trinket from back home or, even better, a bag of groceries with the intent of making dinner as a sign of your appreciation. The more social the better — your host is probably as interested in making a new friend and learning about you as you are in saving a few dollars. It may not be necessary, but as we all know, no one turns down a free gift.
2) Find Out Your Host’s Expectations
This one can be a little tricky, as it requires a little intuition on your part. What is your host looking for? Do they want to hang out and be a part of your trip, or are they just being friendly and simply offering an empty couch? This is important to figure out early on, usually before you even arrive, because the last thing you want to do is end up as an albatross on their busy schedule, or, conversely, come off as being rude, treating them like some sort of one-night stand.
Ask ahead of time when you’re e-mailing each other on the site. “Do you work? What’s your schedule? Will you be around while I’m there or do you have plans?” They’ll likely just come out and tell you what they’re looking for, or, at the very least, you’ll get some hints. Also, don’t be afraid to volunteer your own expectations. “I’m here to see as much as possible in as little time as I have, do you mind if I’m not coming back until late at night? I’ve been traveling a lot the last few weeks and I’m looking forward to taking it easy the next few days, are you around to hang out? I’ve never been here before, will you have time to show me some of your favorite places?” And if your expectations conflict, e-mail them “thanks for the offer” and move on to someone else. Believe me, there will be no hurt feelings.
I’ve been on both sides of this. Once, when I was in Ireland, I was visiting distant in-laws, and I let my CouchSurfing host know ahead of time that I’d be spending most of my time visiting them. He gave me a key when I arrived and let me know he was busy studying for finals, but he looked forward to hanging out the next time he found himself visiting New York, and that was the last I saw of him. On another occasion, the little brother of an Aussie friend of mine was in town for the weekend. He told me ahead of time he had no plans and wanted to have fun around town. I cleared my schedule, and we spent the weekend meeting up with other CouchSurfers in town, checking out the nightlife, and barbecuing with my neighbors. When he left I felt I’d made a real friend, and I was truly sad to see him leave.
3) Rate Your Hosts And CouchSurfers
The biggest concern with CouchSurfing, and the one that is the most unfounded, is safety. In fact, this is usually the first thing someone asks about when they hear of the organization for the first time. “How do you know they’re not going to tie you up and steal all your possessions?” After explaining to them that if someone were to do that in my house, they would maybe walk away with enough money to treat themselves to a fancy lunch at Subway, I have to explain, “Well, you just know.”
Most CouchSurfers are backpackers, just like you and me, and the last thing they’re interested in is committing petty crimes in a foreign country or a distant city. Further, despite the site’s growing popularity, chances are your average hardcore criminal and run-of-the-mill serial rapist has probably not heard of CouchSurfing, and is more likely to stick to knocking off local liquor store and trolling their own neighborhoods for victims than spending a fortune on a plane ticket or traveling several thousands of miles just to rip off your laptop.
The other, more concrete, way you “just know” is that CouchSurfing is highly dependent on user reviews. Just like you rate a new phone or album, surfers and their hosts rate each other based upon their experiences, using “Negative,” “Neutral” and “Positive” to describe their stay. Plus, you’re able to leave comments about each other. This is where those rare surfers with fatal B.O. or ax-murdering tendencies are weeded out from those who were truly respectful surfers. So, once your trip is done or your surfer has hit the road, make sure you make the time and write an honest, informative review. You’re not only helping out your host for their own future travels, but you’re helping ensure your surfer lands themselves on a couch in the future.
4) Whatever You Do: Keep Your Pants On
And I’m not talking about your trip from the shower to your backpack. Going along with the safety theme, we know you’ve been on the road for several weeks, and like a sailor on shore leave, you’re not opposed to having a little fun while in town . . . and look what we have here, an attractive host who happens to be sleeping mere yards from your bed. This is like looking directly at an eclipse: you really want to, but you know that in the end, when you’re stumbling around for the next few days with burned retinas, it was a really bad idea.
There’s nothing that ruins a CouchSurfing experience than an overly amorous guest. You may sense there’s some chemistry between you and your host, but more than likely, especially with female hosts, their number one concern is safety, and you groping them after you stumble home from the bar means you’re out on the street the next day. Also, not only does it means your host is not likely going to be letting anyone else stay over anytime soon — ruining it for travelers in your footsteps — but it also means your hurting the image of CouchSurfing itself.
The solution is simple: if you think there’s something there between you and your host, check into a hostel and make your move during a night out on the town with them, or wait until they’re in town visiting you. Chances are your instincts were right, but in the off-chance your natural, Casanova-like skills were not on target one night, the worst that can result is a broken heart and a lonely night out on the town, not a deleted CouchSurfing account.
5) Be Active
Finally, now that you’ve obtained your CouchSurfing merit badge and you’re a seasoned veteran, time to be an active member in a social network that is actually social. If you have the room, give back to the travel community and offer your spare bedroom or empty couch up to other surfers. Your profile lets you choose between being available for a simple cup of coffee or as a full-blown host.
Even if it’s just a few days out of the year, invite someone to crash at your place for a few nights, or, at the very least, meet up for a drink and make a new friend. Remember that, like your own trip, those things others travelers are likely to remember more than anything else about their trip were the people they met. Be a part of their experience and, who knows, maybe they’ll be returning the favor shortly.
By Matt Stabile
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matt Stabile is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Expeditioner. The Expeditioner began in 2008 and is headquartered in New York City. You can read his writings, watch his travel videos or contact him at any time at TheExpeditioner.com. (@TheExpeditioner)