Join the Couchsurfing Revolution
Couchsurfing is what one might call ‘Airbnb without the fee.’ More than that though, it is a passionate travelling community.
The dynamic between host and guest is geared towards a rawer, more authentic travelling experience that focuses on forming bonds between people rather than merely housing them. As a traveller, you see the place you're staying through the eyes of a local. As a local, you get to see your home through the eyes of a traveller.
How does it work?
Head over to the Couchsurfing website.
Every user there is able either to provide a couch for travellers or search for a couch to stay on themselves. I use the term couch iconically, by the way - you can usually expect to stay on a bed, don't worry.
Create a profile, add photos, and write a bit about yourself and your personal travelling experience. You can conveniently link your Couchsurfing account to your Facebook account, which always helps to expedite the process in your social media sea.
So, you don't pay anything?
Couchsurfing is free, but that's not to say there isn't an unspoken quid pro quo. I always try to make some kind of gesture. If I'm staying with a quiet couple, I might offer to cook them dinner one evening. If I'm staying in a university dormitory, a pack of beer usually suffices.
Whilst there are no official costs, it's rewarding to embrace the social this-for-that element of the service and keep the world spinning.
Travel or host or do both!
If you're travelling yourself, you can write an itinerary of dates and locations so that people interested in hosting can find you and offer you a place to stay. You can also independently search out specific areas yourself.
Even if you aren't travelling, becoming a host and making your sofa or spare room available can be just as much fun. Accepting a stream of eager-eyed strangers into your house and showing them around your hometown not only pays the time you've spent in other places forward, but is an enjoyable way to experience the place you live through the eyes of a traveller.
If you're hosting, you can make it clear what you're able to offer (do you have a couch presently available? how many people can you put up? do you have pets? etc.).
You can add friends to your social network, who can give you positive feedback and write an initial blurb about you to help corroborate your profile.
Is it safe?
Much like eBay's feedback policy, hosts and guests can leave positive, neutral or negative feedback and give a written account of their experience. This is one way the company works to ensure safety for its users, but there are others.
Hosts can also have their addresses and identity verified. There are ambassadors who can be contacted in most cities where a Couchsurfing community exists, and you can easily select who you do or do not want to host or stay with.
I've Couchsurfed in several countries multiple times and, though I have definitely had some unusual experiences - sleeping next to a pig in a trailer in Alabama, for example - I have never had any problems.
The degree of comfort will vary
Whilst every host I've had has gone out of their way to try and secure me some degree of comfort, it's healthy to lower your expectations. These are not hotels, and your hosts are not landlords.
If you want guaranteed comfort, it might be a better option to stay in a hotel or hook yourself up with an Airbnb host. Like I said, you can usually expect a bed, but I've slept on sticky leather couches, damp mattresses, and pillows on hardwood floors. Board should be considered secondary to the unique bonding experiences.
Over the years, I've made a lot of new friends through Couchsurfing, more so than I have through Airbnb. A couple I stayed with for a few days in Memphis ended up staying with me in England later the same summer as part of a springboard into their European travels. I incidentally met up with them again a couple of weeks ago for a gig in Seattle, where they again offered up their home.
It's easy to stay in touch, and making connections across the planet puts you in a great position if you're ever in need of accommodation again on further travels - this time you can say you're staying with ‘old friends.’
Off the beaten path
I stayed with a group of young hosts in New Orleans a couple of years ago. Rather than coalescing with the hordes of tourists on Bourbon Street, they took me to some local favourite dive bars outside the French Quarter. We also ended up eating crayfish cross-legged on the kitchen floor after a night out (it's harder than it sounds). It was an experience I might not have had were I staying alone in a Super 8.
In Copenhagen, my friend and I were hosted by a man who introduced us to the decidedly sophisticated discipline of dumpster-diving. He foraged with a furrowed brow, and what followed was a surprisingly delicious (and, for the record, not at all unhygienic) stew.
Extend your networks
I stayed with a couple of university students in Virginia. They were hospitable lads who couldn't do enough for me anyway, but after discovering a kindred taste in music, one of the guys hooked me up with some of his friends in Chicago and Kansas City.
This led to me being shown a way into the subcultural music scenes in those cities. We went to gigs, went to famous studios and venues immortalised by some of my favourite bands, and played music together in the house.
These new friends were people outside the Couchsurfing community. The generous nature of one Couchsurfing host and his extended network of friends ended up blowing my travelling experience in that part of the world wide open.
And it keeps on giving
Beyond the low-cost accommodation and bonding on the road, local communities exist and host regular meet-ups too. So even if you aren't hosting OR travelling, you can still get involved and meet a ton of foreigners in your hometown. Excursions typically involve movie nights, drinkathons, bowling, etc.
Couchsurfing has shaped the way I travel and left me with a wealthy network of travelling companions and friends, not to mention a wad of extra cash to spend on other things.
Are you planning a trip, or do you have one coming up? Consider your accommodation options. Maybe you'll get to see that part of the world through the eyes of someone who actually lives there, or, better still, with a friend you haven't met yet.