A Guide to Couchsurfing

What Is CouchSurfing?

CouchSurfing is a community of over 12 million members from every country of the world. It allows travellers and locals to connect with each other online, in order to meet offline, so that they can share hospitality, cultures, and adventures. It can be used to meet people both locally or on the road. Most commonly, CouchSurfing is used to find another member who can host you (let you sleep at their house) for free.

How Does CouchSurfing Work?

Users create a profile and use this to contact other members. It is also possible to create or join groups and activities related to personal interests or locations, offering you to meet people in the place that you live, as well as travellers. If looking for a place to sleep, users can search for members by location and contact them directly. Other ways to find a host are using the open request function or emergency group pages, as detailed below.

The Unwritten Rules Of CouchSurfing

When you are using CouchSurfing to stay at someone’s house, I think it is very important to remember that you are staying at someone’s house. Yes, you are using it as a place to stay for free temporarily, but it is not a free hotel. You need to be respectful of the person whose house it is and in most cases, offer them something in return for hosting you: I’m not talking about physical objects, I’m talking about conversation and good company. Most people host because they want to spend time with interesting people or to share experiences, so to try to offer this. When I say these rules are unwritten, they probably aren’t unwritten and I’m sure they are all over the CouchSurfing website, but it makes them sound more special if they are unwritten. Either way, it’s super important to give back (metaphorically) to your host as they are letting you into their home.

Why Would You Use CouchSurfing If You Can Afford A Hotel Or Hostel?

CouchSurfing is not simply about a free place to stay for the night. It helps you to meet great new people in new places and they will often show you interesting parts of their home area. I have been to gigs, restaurants, houses, and events that I would never have heard about if I had not been CouchSurfing, and I have had so many unplanned experiences that made my travels (and my life) richer. When travelling, it can also be refreshing to get off the tourist trail and start spending time with locals. If however, you simply want to find free accommodation and not interact with your host, stay away from CouchSurfing and read this page about free accommodation instead.

Is CouchSurfing The Only Website That Offers This Service?

No. CouchSurfing is my personal favourite and in my opinion, the best site to use, and way bigger than other sites that offer similar services. At this moment in time, there is no other site that has anywhere near as many members or active communities, meaning that you will be less likely to find hosts or meet-ups. If you do want to look elsewhere, other websites such as Hospitality ClubGlobal FreeloadersPlace2Stay, and Travelers for Travelers (amongst others) offer similar services.

Why Do You Recommend CouchSurfing Over The Other Sites?

I have successfully used CouchSurfing many times in the past (you can see my profile here – please note, I only ‘friend’ people I have met in person) and have had many wonderful experiences. CouchSurfing is bigger than the other websites that I listed above and you will be more likely to find a host anywhere in the world by using this site. It also has a rating system (for increased safety) which allows you to review your host or guest, meaning that other people can use your review to make a decision on whether or not they will meet with a person.

Is CouchSurfing Dangerous?

In my (and many other people’s experience), CouchSurfing is no more dangerous than regular life. As with regular life, things do go wrong and when terrible things go wrong involving CouchSurfing, they will blow up on the news and point the finger of blame at the website. It is important to be as vigilant when using CouchSurfing as you would be in regular life, and a big part of ensuring that you are in a comfortable situation is establishing the ground rules online before you meet your host / guest (see next section).

In order to help improve safety, CouchSurfing uses a feedback system: After staying with someone, leave either a positive, negative, or neutral feedback so that other users can see more about the person in question. Look at a users feedback, pictures, and profile before deciding to stay with someone. If they have all positive feedback, you can assume that they are a good person to stay with. After agreeing to stay with someone, you can also post the details to Facebook (or anywhere) so that the whole world knows where you are staying and who with. If a user makes you uncomfortable, such as by refusing to provide details of their address in advance – you can simply say you don’t want to stay with them. Users can also verify their address, account, and phone number. Little symbols will be displayed next to their profile when they do this and this is a good way of knowing that someone is more trustworthy. If I was choosing between two different hosts and one had verified their phone number and address, I would probably choose to use this person.

Read more about how to be safe when using CouchSurfing on the CouchSurfing website.

Set The Ground Rules In Your Online Contact

I think laying out the ground rules before you meet is one of the most important things to do on CouchSurfing. Fill out your profile honestly, letting other users know the type of person that you are and what you like doing, and take a look at other users’ profiles before meeting up with them. Certain people go well together and others do not. I have stayed with families in rural countryside who have asked me to help with their cows and I have stayed with students in big cities who want to go raving at massive parties – I have enjoyed both experiences and went into them willingly, knowing vaguely what to expect. Be clear about your expectations and try to stay with someone whose life and expectations align with your own. This way everybody gets a positive experience.

Where Do You Sleep?

It all depends on the individual involved. My experiences vary from a private apartment through to a floor space with 6 others. I have stayed in barns and squats while my hosts have varied from individuals of all ages through to families. Look at each profile for more information about the sleeping arrangements and it will be detailed there. Some of the more unusual sleeping arrangements are the most fun and you will get a good idea of what is fun and what is weird by looking at the reviews.

How Do I Start Using CouchSurfing?

Go to CouchSurfing.com and sign up. Create a profile by filling out all of the information. This is important because users will look at this information when deciding whether or not to host you / be hosted by you. Bear in mind that everybody is ‘open minded,’ ‘easy going,’ and ‘enjoys travelling’ as they are willing to go across the world to stay in the homes of strangers, thus you do not need to put them on your profile. Upload a few photos that show you in different environments with at least one that shows your face clearly. When using CouchSurfing, I sometimes accept or reject invitations based purely on their photos. If a person does not have photos, I wouldn’t stay with them or let them stay with me. You then need to get some reviews from other people that you know on CouchSurfing, so find your friends who already use the site and get them to leave you a review. Without reviews, you will find it very difficult to find a place to stay and I would not accept a guest who has no reviews.

How Do You Find A Place To Sleep Once You’re Registered?

The normal way is to press ‘Surf’ and then search for the location in which you want to stay. It will bring up a list of people’s profiles and you simply click them to see more. When you think you math well with a profile, send them a CouchRequest. Be thoughtful and polite and send out a few requests for each place that you would like to visit. Often people are busy or don’t check their messages in time. They may already be hosting at the time that you want to visit or have plans. When sending a couch request, you can also check the box that says ‘Other nearby hosts can send me invitations to stay with them.’ This creates an open request, meaning that hosts who are looking to have visitors can invite you to their home.

What Is An Open Request?

An open request indicates that you are still looking for somewhere to stay in a certain area. It means that hosts can contact you if they are looking to host someone. I use open requests all the time because it saves me going through many profiles and means that I am only in contact with people who can host me. The downside is that you are not guaranteed to receive any invitations at all. You can also create an open request by clicking the small symbol of a couch at the top right of your page, then selecting itinerary and adding details for your trip.

Last Minute Requests

If you have been looking and you really, really can’t find anywhere, you can use the last minute groups. On the groups page, search for the name of the city in which you would like to stay in and find the last minute group. They are often titled ‘Emergency Couch [CITY]’ or something similar. Sometimes the Emergency Couch group is a subgroup of the main city group, so you can also look within groups. Here you can post why you haven’t been able to find a place and ask for someone to contact you. Do not use this as a normal method for finding beds because it is not fully reliable and also cuts down on the amount of emergency couch invitations for those who really do get stuck in a bad situation. You should only really use this option if it is less than 48 hours until you need a place to stay.

Is CouchSurfing A Dating Site?

No, CouchSurfing is not a dating site. However, due to the nature of fun loving, open minded people being in constant contact with each other for short periods of time, relationships inevitably will form. If you go into CouchSurfing looking for some form of a relationship, you will get shunned by lots of the community and people will feel threatened by you, so don’t do it. If something happens, it happens, but if you want to date, use an actual dating site or App, that’s what they are there for.

Does Everybody On CouchSurfing Want To Have Sex?

As they are human beings, most of them do, at some point, want to have sex. CouchSurfing is not an appropriate platform for this however. There are so many dating sites outside CouchSurfing – and safety systems on CouchSurfing – that this shouldn’t be a concern, but read the aforementioned advice on whether CouchSurfing is dangerous.

What Are Your Experiences Of CouchSurfing?

I love CouchSurfing. Some of the people I have met will remain my friends forever. With others, I shared a few precious moments that are pleasant to remember, even though I will never see those people again. I wrote about a lot of these experiences in my book, The Boy Who Was Afraid of the World, and in it I tell the story of how I first started using CouchSurfing and how I was super scared about it to start out with. I don’t use CouchSurfing as regularly as I did in the book anymore – largely because I was hitchhiking around Europe for six months at that time – but I will always go back to CouchSurfing time and time again in the future as it is a great experience.

If you want to view my profile, you can view my profile here. I won’t add you as a friend, because I only add real people so that I can leave reviews about them, but you can see how I have set up my profile in a way that gets me positives responses when I get in contact with people.

Remember This

People are letting you into their home: It is not a free hotel. I said this before, but you should spend time with them and be polite, essentially exchanging your company for their hospitality. Some people don’t want this and genuinely want to be helpful by offering you a bed, so try to read people and understand what they are looking for from CouchSurfing by reading their profile. In rare instances, be aware of people who want to use CouchSurfing as a dating site (their profiles are easy to spot and avoid), use your intuition when meeting or arranging to meet with people, and share your trip details with a friend or family member so someone knows where you are if something does go wrong. If you are friendly, people will be friendly back. Often I bring a bottle of wine or offer to cook my hosts dinner. You do not have to do this, but it is a nice thing to do.

This is just a brief introduction to CouchSurfing and not an extensive guide to using the site, but I hope that it helps to give you a little outline and gives you the courage to try out this wonderful website. You will find many great friends along the way. If you are looking for other ways to find free accommodation, please visit my Free Accommodation Around the World post.

13 Comments

  • Being verified on CouchSurfing make individuals more likely to acknowledge your requests. A Complete profile, lots of pictures, friends and references truly helps.

  • Hi Jamie,

    Great points! My friend and I are planning on couch surfing for the first time this Spring. We created a joint profile on CS and have sent out a few requests. No positive response yet. Could you please have a look at our profile and give us your feedback? We would really appreciate it!

    https://www.couchsurfing.com/people/aarthisanchita

    Thanks so much! 🙂

    Sanchita

    • The profile looks fine to me, you just need some references. Get other friends who are already on CS to leave you references and maybe host people or meet up with local CS people to build some references. References build trust and this is where CS thrives and why people trust you without meeting you. Additionally, if you are trying to get hosted in popular locations (eg Paris), it is much harder to find a host. I never send out requests more than a week or so in advance as people’s plans change and they are less willing to accept someone who is not visiting until many weeks in the future.

      • Thanks so much, Jamie! Will definitely get some references and try to host someone before we leave. Last question, would getting verified make a huge difference?

        • I honestly don’t know, but it certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing. I got verified when I first joined and got some friends to write me references, then I started finding hosts quite easily. That was about three years ago, but I imagine it should still work the same.

  • Actually I am rather a new comer on CS. One significant disadvantage is I don’t have any reference. Worrying if I’d never start as others will accept me.
    Some days ago a guy asked if I wanted to grab a coffee in the evening (kinda late). Wasn’t sure he meant only a meet up. Does it happen to other CSers too?

    • Once you get references, it does make things easier. Some CSers do like to arrange short, social meet ups, so it shouldn’t be anything strange. Doing this might be a good way for you to build up references. Just do what you are comfortable with and if you are concerned, take a friend with you.

  • nice post! it helped me with some doubts i had

    I just downloaded the app and want to start using it in january. But how could I do so if I haven’t got any feedback yet? Is it usual to accept people who just joined Couchsurfing?

    Greetings from Peru

    • The more reviews you get, the more likely you are for people to accept you. It’s a trust thing so keep on asking and try to build up a good profile, then everything becomes easier.

  • Hey Jamie,
    Nice post on CS. I know its a naive question, but I’m 26 from India and I I’ve not traveled much before but want to start traveling both within India and outside.
    Could you add a post / some tips which advice a beginner traveler on the dos and donts on traveling ?

    Thanks,
    Krishna

    • Do: Start! Everything else falls into place one way or another.
      Don’t: Plan too much – just see where you end up.
      Also, pack light and smile. Very basic, but this works for me and covers almost every journey I ever go on.

  • Cool intro! We love it too 🙂 and believe common sense should be enough to keep you away from danger. Keep enjoying your CS experiences!

    • Common sense does ever so much in life to keep you safe. Another great thing about couchsurfing is that it now includes safety features such as references and verification in order to help you stay safe as you travel the world.

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