Years ago, I went to Hawaii for nearly 2 months and spent a grand total of $1,500, not including my air ticket. Thanks to Couchsurfing, I managed to get away with spending just $100 on accommodation.
You might already have heard of the Couchsurfing network, which essentially links travellers up with hosts who let them crash at their place for free.
However, if you’re thinking you’ve found a replacement for those expensive nights at the Hilton, Couchsurfing is not for you. While some people think of it mainly as a way to get free accommodation, using the network actually changes the tone of your entire holiday. Here are some things to consider before taking the plunge.
You must have a genuine desire to meet and interact with locals
Couchsurfing completely changes the tone of your holiday because you’re essentially sharing a space with a local. The experience is going to be vastly different from staying in a hotel or Airbnb, where you are left alone most of the time.
For those who genuinely want to make local friends and experience their destination in a more personal way, I recommend you try couchsurfing a couple of times and see if it’s for you. While every host and every couchsurfing experience will be different, if it’s your thing you’ll find it very rewarding.
On the other hand, if all you want is free accommodation and your main goal is to be left alone to see the sights in peace, it’s likely you’ll find couchsurfing a tiring experience.
While hosts are more than happy to let you do as you wish (if you want to take a solo day trip somewhere or need to stay in to get some work done on your laptop, it’s not a problem), be aware that you’re still using someone’s space and it’s most certainly poor form to treat their home like a hotel and retreat into your own world. Hosts open up their homes to others because they enjoy meeting new people from different cultures, not cleaning up after someone who only appears late at night.
Be prepared for frequent changes in accommodation
Couchsurfing tends to require more effort than simply checking into a hotel. If you’re staying in one particular destination for more than a few days, it’s likely you’ll be required to change hosts a few times.
The frequency really depends on the habits of the hosts in that particular destination. When I was in Hawaii, hosts generally wanted people to stay at least 5 days, and I even had a host who let me stay close to 3 weeks. On the other hand, in Japan, most hosts only accept guests for 1-3 days, so be prepared to run around quite a bit if you’re going there.
This is a little more cumbersome that it sounds, as on your last day you are usually required to leave with your host when he or she goes to work, and you might only be able to to meet your next host when he or she is done with work. So be prepared for a bit of uncertainty and pack light so you’re not weighed down with luggage.
Be flexible enough to accommodate your host’s schedule and lifestyle
Different hosts have different styles. Some will show you around the city, cook for you, take you to parties and introduce you to their friends. Others will give you the keys and say you’re free to come and go as you please. And while it’s rare, there are some hosts who expect you to leave the house when they go to work in the morning.
As a guest, it’s your responsibility to respect your host’s schedule and requests as much as possible. If you have certain preferences or needs, such as wanting to party till 4am and then sleep in till noon, make sure you ask your host in advance if they’re fine with it before accepting their offer.
Never send out or accept a request before first reading a host’s profile and “My Home” section. They’ll usually warn you if they have pets or other particularities, and some will give you an idea of their work schedule.
Be prepared to sacrifice some privacy
Most hosts are very respectful of a guest’s privacy. I’m quite a long sleeper myself, but have never had a host insist on waking me up.
Still, you are sharing someone’s home with them, so obviously you will not exactly be the king of your castle or be able to walk around in the nude.
Some hosts will have a private room for you. I once stayed with a host who had an entire floor in his apartment reserved for his guests, complete with bathroom. But the most common arrangement tends to be a sofa in the living room. In expensive, dense cities like Tokyo, many people live in tiny studio apartments, so you could find yourself sleeping in the same room as your host.
Your host might also not be living alone, so be prepared to share the space with their partners, family members, roommates and pets. This information is usually indicated on their profile or My Home section.
Be prepared to show gratitude and respect your host’s space
As a guest, be aware that a stranger is generously opening their home to you. As such, make the effort to be polite and respectful. Clean up after yourself, offer to help out wherever possible and if you can, show your appreciation by bringing a small gift, offering to cook dinner or whatever.
Most importantly, be aware that your host is from a culture that is quite different to yours, and may have interests and lifestyle choices that would baffle the average Singaporean. Be open to discovering new ways of life, and be fine with not holding on too tightly to your initial travel plans.
Also be aware that your host is incurring time and financial costs by hosting you. It’s always nice to offer to chip in when you get groceries, or treat your host if you go out to a meal.
Benefits of couchsurfing
The amount of money you can save on accommodation is significant when you couchsurf, especially in expensive cities and on longer trips. Couchsurfing demands sacrifices and rewards in terms of your time, travel plans and personal space, but if it’s something you enjoy, you’ll find it terribly rewarding beyond the mere fact of getting free accommodation.
You often save money in other ways when you couchsurf, too. Hosts usually let you use their kitchen, so you can save money by cooking instead of eating out at every meal. Your host might also have a car and be up for showing you around, which is very helpful if there are any areas you want to see that may be difficult to access by public transport.
Depending on your host, your couchsurfing experience can also help you to make a network of friends at your destination. Some hosts will invite you out with their friends, and I even had a host who planned a house party with more than 20 guests on my last night in town.
Meeting people with a wildly different worldview can be incredibly inspiring, and might even motivate you to open your own doors to travellers when you get home.
Have you ever tried couchsurfing? Share your experiences in the comments!