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What is couchsurfing and how does it work?

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Couchsurfing is a phenomena that has been growing considerably in recent years. But what actually is couchsurfing and how does it work? Read on to find out….

What is couchsurfing

What is couchsurfing?

Couchsurfing comes from the idea of friends sleeping on friends’ sofas when they need a place to stay. The term was originally linked to people who were semi-homeless. However, it has now expanded to be somewhat of a global movement, where travellers will stay on strangers’ sofas in order to make travelling cheaper…

Couchsurfing definitions

The Collins English Dictionary defines sofa surfing as (of a homeless person) the practice of staying temporarily with various friends and relatives while attempting to find permanent accommodation. As mentioned above, this is where the term originates from. It has now been adapted to relate to travel.

The term ‘couchsurfing’ is most commonly linked with the app and social networking site CouchSurfing, a corporation launched back in 2004. They have trademarked the word ‘couchsurfing’.

The company doesn’t seem to offer a strict definition of what they see couchsurfing as, but they do say “We envision a world made better by travel and travel made richer by connection. Couchsurfers share their lives with the people they encounter, fostering cultural exchange and mutual respect”.

How does couchsurfing work?

Couchsurfing works by people offering up their sofas, floors, spare rooms, hammocks and so on for travellers to sleep on. For example, someone who lives in New York might advertise their couch and someone from Italy would see it, get in touch and voila – they have free accommodation for their trip to New York!

What is couchsurfing?

Of course, the app/website does all the hard work for you and offers a layer of protection. You can read about it below! But realistically, you don’t need to use the company in order to actually couchsurf. You could put a post out on social media asking if anyone has a sofa you can sleep on when you’re in London next week, and if someone says yes then technically you’re couchsurfing!

Couchsurfing app

However, the CouchSurfing app (and by extension their website) makes it all easier and arguably safer. The app is described as a social networking service and hospitality exchange service. 

Nonprofit platform HiSoUR describe hospitality services as… also known as “accommodation sharing”, “hospitality exchange” (short “hospex”), “home stay network”, or “home hospitality network” (“hoho”), is a centrally organized social networking service of travelers who offer or seek homestays (lodging in a home) either gratis or for money. Hospitality services generally connect users via the internet and are examples of collaborative consumption and sharing. In cases where lodging is offered gratis, they are examples of a barter economy or gift economy. A hospitality service may collect commissions on each homestay, charge a membership fee, or be completely free.

On the CouchSurfing app and site, you make a profile with your location and other details. Many cities host regular CouchSurfing events in order for users to meet up and get a feel for how it all works/ask any advice, which they recommend you do before offering up your own sofa or going to stay on someone else’s.

If you’re looking to book a stay, you can search by city and find everyone who has available couches. Send out requests with your dates and wait for someone to get back to you! You can chat before you go, which is a great way of making things more comfortable for both parties. As a host, you can list your couch and then set your ‘couch status’ as one of three settings:

  • “Not Right Now (but I can hang out)” if you want to be available as a city resource for travelers but are unable to host
  • “No” if you’re not available or don’t have any extra space
  • “Maybe/Yes” to show up in search results for travelers who are planning a trip to your area

Is couchsurfing free?

Using the CouchSurfing app, hosts cannot charge guests. The app itself was originally free to use, but during the pandemic they started to charge. This was met with outrage from users, but the company did their best to explain in depth why they needed to do so. There were many reasons but essentially with the app growing to be so big and popular with millions of users, it was unsustainable to be doing this for free. However they do not charge a lot, and it’s just to cover their running costs. They say:

All we are asking for is some marginal financial support to help cover our costs. In the United States we are asking for $2.39/month or $14.29/year. This amount is adjusted in a number of currencies and is often considerably lower in various countries.

In terms of more casual couchsurfing, this also tends to be completely free. Of course you might offer to give whoever is hosting you some money towards any bills or food, for example, but this is just something you work out between yourselves.

Is couchsurfing safe?

As with all types of travel and homestays in particular, people may have concerns about safety. And as with everything in life, there is no blanket answer as to whether or not this is 100% safe. CouchSurfing as a company do whatever they can to ensure client safety – for both hosts and guests. They have an entire page dedicated to safety, which you can read HERE.

The app also now offers a lifetime verification option. You pay roughly $60 USD to have your ID and phone number verified, which offers an added layer of protection for everyone involved. This also allows users access to priority support and the newest features. 

Generally, common sense safety rules apply when you are couchsurfing. Let someone know where you’ll be staying, and keep in touch with someone you trust. Ensure your privacy, and know your limits when it comes to alcohol consumption. Have a backup plan in case you should need it, and (when using the CouchSurfing app) don’t give out your personal contact details before meeting your host/guest. You can communicate just fine through the app. CouchSurfing also have a feature which allows you to write a reference about your host, or your guest. This can be written with 14 days of the homestay taking place, and is of course really helpful for future travellers and hosts alike.

Couchsurfing horror stories

Couchsurfing is, for the most part, a safe way to save money and meet new people while travelling… but there are definitely some horror stories! Ranker have rounded up some of the best, and I’ll share some interesting ones below.

One of my friends in college spent a semester couch surfing across Europe and stayed with a nudist in Paris. Apparently on the listing the guy didn’t give any warning that he was a nudist and my friend was obviously surprised upon arrival. He said the guy was super nice but the whole nudity thing was a little weird.

Girl with no reviews sends me a message saying that she’s stranded and her host canceled. I go across town at 11 pm to meet her, and, well, she’s silent the whole night, and smells homeless. It takes her three hours to start talking, at which point she explains that she’s running away from her bf and snuck out in the night, taking a last minute megabus from Detroit to anywheeere (no, just Wisconsin), to meet family. I’m happy for her, but she then said no more words and didn’t sleep. Just stared at my wall and refused to eat food. I know how it goes, and I hope that she’s begun her journey towards brighter days. Just… most awkward guest ever with a rather heavy “surprise.”

Woke up to find him watching me sleep and eating a sandwich and drinking vodka. Obviously, I kind of freaked out, I mean, who eats a sandwich while drinking vodka? I get juice, but vodka? Edit: It was in a coffee mug, for those interested

Couchsurfing destinations

CouchSurfing as a brand operates in every country around the world. And of course, if you’re just sofa surfing as a casual thing, you can do it anywhere you can find a willing host!

What is couchsurfing?

Couchsurfing in New York

There are over 200,000 CouchSurfing hosts in New York. At the time of writing this article, 334 travellers were looking for accommodation in NYC. There are weekly meet ups for the CouchSurfing community, and other upcoming events like ice skating, theatre trips and more. New York is obviously costly when it comes to accommodation, being such a tourist trap. Couchsurfing is obviously a great way to make your trip a bit cheaper! It is also the perfect opportunity to bypass the big tourist sights, and get to know the more local side of New York.

Couchsurfing in India

There are almost 800,000 CouchSurfing hosts across India. At the time of writing this post, 1226 people were looking for accommodation for upcoming trips to India. There is a monthly meeting in Delhi, and other upcoming events for members of the CouchSurfing community. Again, couchsurfing is an ideal way to meet locals and experience a side of India that you might not have access to otherwise.

Couchsurfing in Cambodia

Cambodia is home to almost 67,000 CouchSurfing hosts. When writing this blog post, 45 people were looking for somewhere to stay in Cambodia. There is a weekly meet up every Saturday too! Cambodia is very much the kind of place where hanging out with locals is recommended; it isn’t the most touristy destination, so it helps to have someone who knows the best places to go and how to get around!

Couchsurfing: Conclusion

To conclude, CouchSurfing is a great option when it comes to budget friendly travel. It helps you see a more local side of your chosen destination, and there are enough safety measures in place that it seems like an overall great choice.

Further reading

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