Couchsurfing, or CS as it is commonly known, as defined by the Urban Dictionary:
- A cheap form of lodging used mainly by college-students or recent college-grads, where one stays on acquaintance’s couches rather than a hotel
- What someone who can’t afford rent on their own and/or can’t find roommates quick enough does when they are “between” places
Unfortunately, these are the perceptions that most people have about CS and propagate further. It has probably been abused countless times by travellers looking to save some cash. But there is so much more to it than that.
I have had 3, almost 4, experiences with Couchsurfing in my European travels. My introductory experience was in 2012, when I was doing a 2 month internship in France. I wanted to visit Le Mans for La Nuit des Chimères (I would highly recommend anyone in France during the summer to visit Le Mans for this) and I heard about this website where I could stay for free in someone’s house. Cheapskate that I was, I jumped at the opportunity. I sent in a couple of requests, and I was surprised to hear back pretty quickly. It seemed too good to be true. I was even more surprised when I reached Margaret’s house. She had planned a dinner party for some friends that night and very graciously invited me to join. Free food along with a free bed – double whammy only. I enjoyed a pleasant dinner with Margaret and her friends and was surprised how much they knew about India! They played Kolaveri Di (all the rage at that time) and asked me about the caste system. There was also some typical stereotypes – Do Indians really travel on elephants? I had a great time. However, as fun as this introduction to CS was, I did not really appreciate it for what it stood for.
My almost experience with Couchsurfing was when I was going to visit Paris that same summer of 2012. I was to stay with a couple in La Défense. I reached a little earlier than I had planned to and tried to get in touch with them but could not reach them so I had the bright idea of landing up at their doorstep. I hunted down their address with my super sleuth skills (and a lot of asking around in broken French) and I rang their bell. No one answered and I panicked. I was sure I had been duped and that these people were going to leave me homeless. Having already spent a couple of nights at train stations, I was not eager to take the risk so I jumped on a train back home. Later I got a message from them saying that they had not been at home during that time as they were expecting me much later and they profusely apologized.
In my recent exchange term, I couchsurfed (that’s right, it’s a verb) twice. Once was in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Our host, Andrew, was amazing. He had a lot on his plate during that time but he still came down to the train station to pick us up and drove us around Ljubljana. He gave us his keys, and went to stay at his parents’ place so that we could be more comfortable. Even more unbelievably, we found out that he himself was a student, supporting himself through a part time job. I could not understand why he would just let people stay with him for free! That too, when there exist popular options like Airbnb, which is a similar service, but allows hosts to charge a certain fee. I guess I still didn’t understand CS.
The transformational CS stay for me was when I was in Florence for 3 nights at a “professional” CS host’s place. When I say “professional”, I mean that this guy hosts multiple groups of people at a time regularly. Leonard was a little eccentric, but he was a true member of the CS community. He loved Italy and could speak at length about Italian culture, especially cooking. He also had a “rule”, so to say, that anyone staying more than 3 nights had to cook a meal from their country. He had a bunch of other rules too, but they are not relevant. I enjoyed Italian and Chinese meals and cooked an Indian meal. I met a guy from England who had bicycled his way through Europe. I heard anecdotes about so many other people from different countries. Mostly, it was probably here where I truly appreciated how much of travel is about the people you meet along the way.
Couchsurfing is a wonderful way to really live your travel. In all my experiences, I learnt something about the place I visited that I would not have otherwise known. An amazing restaurant, a not so well known scenic spot, a historical anecdote or even ideas for souvenirs. Couchsurfing is a community of likeminded individuals who believe in sharing – be it ideas, cultures or their homes –with complete strangers. How this works is mutual trust and the willingness to take a chance.
Of course there have been people who have had negative experiences with Couchsurfing (you can refer the Wikipedia article) and some in fact, view it as free sex. Since I usually stay with a woman or travelled with my boyfriend, I have personally never faced any issues. The negative experiences are very few and there are enough safeguards to ensure that you are not bludgeoned to death or raped by your host/guest if you check the person’s profile carefully enough.
I would recommend anyone I know to Couchsurfing (9 million members of this community worldwide). It is a wonderful way to make friends you will surely remember and have experiences you will treasure for years to come.
Sowjanya is a member of LSD. A closet writer, this is her first actual blog post (despite starting and abandoning 2 blogs of her own).