Surf Them Couches

Great balls of fire. I would be lying if I said I didn’t slightly forget about this blog’s existence, but Eureka! We’re back in business. Tuesday, I am going to conquer you, and I shall begin with this *~*fanTAStic*~* blog post.

Let us begin with a simple question. Have you heard of Couchsurfing? If you’re like me, when first hearing this term, you conjure up a really confusing image of a surfer dude riding some sick waves on an ocean. There’s fire-breathing dragons in the background. Just me? Perhaps.

Fire-breathing dragons aside, Couchsurfing is an AMAZING resource for those of us who travel on a budget but MOST IMPORTANTLY those of us who actively seek out cultural immersion during our travels. This past summer, I backpacked through Europe in your semi-typical postgrad archetype. When initially trying to figure out how to backpack without breaking the bank, Couchsurfing came up as a cheaper alternative to hostels. Technically, it’s free. The more I looked into it, the more I fell in love. In 9 of the 11 cities I visited, I stayed with Couchsurfing hosts. These hosts varied with everything from a family of 3 in Wroclaw, Poland, to a 63 year-old dog-loving musician in Dublin, to 2 energetic 20-something hosts in Paris, to an eccentric conspiracy theorist in Linkebeek, Belgium. You can imagine the stories I got from these homestays, not to mention the cultural experiences.

When asked about my back-packing trip upon my return, I couldn’t NOT talk about my trip without gushing about Couchsurfing at least a little. You’re welcome, Couchsurfing marketing team, I think you owe me a beer. Couchsurfing was probably the best part of my trip – yes, seeing Notre Dame at night and eating gelato on the Spanish Steps and all of these types of experiences were mind-boggling and truly amazing. However, the biggest takeaway from my adventure was the interactions I had with my hosts in each city. After a full day of sightseeing (and I mean FULL-with an average 1-2 days in each city, my travel partner and I jam-packed our days with as much as possible) we would meet up with our Couchsurfing hosts and stay up into the wee hours of the night swapping travel stories, discussing the eccentricities of Japanese culture, sharing a bottle (or should I say bottles) of wine, and in the process getting more connected to the city than your average traveler. Not only were we feasting our eyes upon the cultural sites and experiences of each cit, but further connecting to it through its people. It was through these experiences that we were able to get a true feel of the city and ask our burning questions about their culture and daily life. Many of my hosts I am still in contact with, over a year later.

The Couchsurfing “Deets”

Couchsurfing is a hosting program run through a website, which you can explore here. The way it works is fairly simple. A person who is willing and wanting to open their home to travelers creates a profile, where they provide background information on themselves, their interests, where they’ve traveled, whether they’re Team Angelina or Team Jennifer – what have you. More importantly, they give information about their hosting space, or “Sleeping Arrangements” (Couch? Extra bedroom? Personal castle?), hosting availability, hosting preferences (how many people, length, maximum number of guests), and hosting details (whether smoking is allowed, wheelchair accessibility, etc.).

Is It Really Free? Sounds Too Good To Be True…

Way to be wary! If everything was as good as it sounded, I’d have won 100 *~*frEE*~* iPads by now for being the 100,00th visitor to a website. But in this case, Couchsurfing really is free in terms of not having to pay money for a place to stay. However, written in unofficial Couchsurfing code is when you stay with a host, you give them a hosting gift. My travel partner and I initially had a lot of problems figuring out what to bring, as we didn’t want to add a lot of weight into our backpacks, and wanted to bring something “American.” Since we couldn’t figure out a way to get bald eagles past airport security, we settled on a bunch of mini Yankee candles (get it?!) and gave the hostess gift when initially meeting our host. If our host chose to take us out and show us around the city we were in, we would also buy them a beer, or something similar. Bringing a gift for your host is written into Couchsurfing culture, and is important to bring.

I’m Convinced! But How Do I Get Started?! 

Next come the travelers seeking to be hosted, such as you and I. I was lucky enough to have a cousin who had Couchsurfed extensively and was willing to take me under her knowledgeable wing, and through her I learned the tricks of the trade. One thing I quickly learned is Couchsurfers and hosts are a passionate group of people who love to travel and help others achieve that goal. Don’t have a Couchsurfing cousin? I can be whatever you want me to be, but right now I’ll be your own personal sensei. 😉

Much like MySpace (#memories), you first have to create a profile. Are you bad at following directions? Cool, here’s a step-by-step guide to becoming a CouchSurfing King or Queen:

  1. Go to couchsurfing.com and sign up for your free account. Easy enough.
  2. They’ll send you a confirmation email you’ll need to confirm your account with.
  3. At the top of the page, you’ll see something that says “Become a Verified Member.” This basically means you pay them $20/year to verify your account, and apparently it helps you find hosts faster. Alas, my account isn’t verified, and I was able to find amazing hosts in each city. To each their own.
  4. The fun begins! Next, you just need to go through the steps-first click on “Complete Your Profile.” Now, add a profile picture, whether you’re accepting guests, and so on and so forth. Under Essays, click “Write 3 Profile Essays.” This is important-the more complete your profile is filled out, the more easily you’ll find hosts. Tell the Couchsurfing community all about you! Don’t hold back! Be yourself! Let your wings unfurl! Or however else you motivate teenagers. On my personal profile, I don’t have one section blank, and I’ve been told by hosts this helped them accept me as a surfer. Fill ‘er up!
  5. If you’re new to Couchsurfing, find a way to have someone write you a reference. If nobody you know uses Couchsurfing (shudder of horror) have somebody who loves you create a profile and write you one. This will help hosts know you’re a real person who has at least one friend in the world.

I’m Done! But Oh Couchsurfing Guru, How Do I Search For A Host?

I’m glad you asked, young grasshopper! First, begin your search at least 3 weeks before your trip, but it’s a delicate balance-you shouldn’t ask too soon, or too late. Sometimes hosts will specifically state in their profile their preferred timing. When I was searching for hosts, some people would say in their profile not to ask earlier than 2 weeks prior, but others don’t care. Just don’t be too last minute about it. However, most people will be willing to help in a bind! This speaks to the awesomeness of the Couchsurfing community. In Rome, we had a last-minute cancellation, and I was able to send out requests the day prior and find a last-minute host named Luigi. Who worked for Vatican City. And made us homemade pasta. How much more Italian can you get?!

To search for a host, all you have to do is locate the search bar on the top of your dashboard, and select the city you need to find a host in. A list of potential hosts will appear-here’s a couple tricks of the trade to help you find the best host:

  • DO use the Search Filter on the right of the page. This will help filter out members who haven’t logged into Couchsurfing for years, and accommodate your needs in a host. For example, under Host Info I always check “Has References,” and change the “Last Login Date” to “In the last six months.”
  • DO pay close attention to References. This was the most important thing I look at when sending out Couchsurfing requests. The more, the better. This is where you’ll find some really good info about the host, such as if they are willing to show Couchsurfers around, or if they’re a crazy cat lady. Also, for all my fellow ladies out there – my female travel partner and I didn’t discriminate on the gender of our host, but before sending a request, if the host was male I ensured he had positive reviews from female Couchsurfers. Also, if in their reply to my request they sounded flirty, I would decline the offer with a polite “thanks anyway.” Just use your brain.
  • Once you find a host that fits your needs, it’s time to CREEP! Check out their profile! Read everything! Read References! The “My Home” section is especially important as it is here you’ll learn about their hosting space.
  • Depending on the city, find between 5-20 hosts that fit your needs, and then it’s time to…

Send Your Request!
This is where the magic happens. If your eyes went wide at the 5-20 range, here’s why. Some hosts in cities will receive more Couchsurfing requests than others-for example, think of the difference in popularity between Paris, France and Wroclaw, Poland. For a city like Paris, this is perhaps the most popular city to visit in the whole of Europe. This also means there is a majorly high volume of Couchsurfing requests-my Parisian host told me she gets around 8 requests a day. Now that’s one way to feel popular. On the other hand, Wroclaw isn’t the biggest or the most popular city to visit in Poland-which also isn’t one of the most popular countries-and so due to less demand, I didn’t need to send out as many requests. Looking back, for Paris I did end up sending over 20 requests, and for smaller cities I averaged about 10-15.

Once you find a suitable host, on their profile page click “Send Request.” Enter your arrival and departure date, number of guests and the all-important message. Time for the magic. The message is important because this is what will make the host decide if they’ll host you or not. Keep in mind, a host is inviting a stranger into their house and accommodating them at no cost. The more detailed and relatable a message is, the better your chances of finding a solid host are, though I hear ghost hosts are pretty fun too (did you catch my feeble joke attempt there, lolz). Moving on.

My process is to write a general draft introducing myself, the reason behind my trip, and an introduction to my travel partner if there is one. Once this is done, I add a section titled “Why I want to be hosted by you” and here is where I relate to the host. Generally (and perhaps obviously), you want to find hosts that you relate with as this will make your entire experience better. I usually look at books/movies/past travels and find commonalities and remark on these, or mention how I’d like to hear more about/learn more about so and so. I lastly mention my plans for the city, time of arrival, etc. and sneak in a sentence about how I’d like to get to know the host for as much is convenient for them-meaning if they have the time I’m wanting to hang out with them. Make your message yours and positively reek of you! This is your chance to introduce yourself, make a good impression and convince the host you’re not actually a serial killer. Once it’s all said and done, my messages end up being around 400 words, and I’ve had past hosts say it was my message that convinced them to host me even though they were extremely busy, or host me over others. It’s your time to shine, baby.

Lastly, if you don’t hear back from anyone, keep sending more requests. This is where the (wo)men are made and the most work needs to be done.

The Waiting Game

Now all you have to do is wait to hear back from hosts. Easier said than done! Always reply to messages even if it’s somebody telling you they can’t host you. Be nice! Once the “Accepted” replies roll in, look through them and make a decision within a few days, as you don’t want to keep the host waiting. My turnaround time is never longer than 2 days. Once you find a host you can’t live without, hit confirm and from there…

Become The Best Guest Ever!

Take the initiative on figuring out a time that works for you to show up at their place, or a general meeting place. It’s also very important to establish a means of communication besides Couchsurfing. If you’re abroad and have an international phone or way to call, ask for their number, utilize Facebook messenger, what have you. This can be used if you get lost on the way to your hosts’ place (which happened to us in Wroclaw-turns out the public transport system and house numbering system is more confusing than seeing people wear jeans at the gym) and avoid becoming yet another lost foreigner.

Most hosts will mention if they have towels/blankets/pillows for you or not on their profile. If they don’t, ask beforehand. Obviously if you’re in another country you probably won’t have blankets, and in this case they’ll assume you need them. Don’t forget the host gift, and in the mornings make sure you clean up your sleeping area. Fold blankets. Don’t be a slob. Chew with your mouth closed. Do the dishes. Interact with your host. Be helpful. Mind your P’s and Q’s. Ask host what P and Q actually stands for.

The Reference

Alas, the reference. Once you’ve completed a stay, within a week you should complete a reference for your host. This helps them out by showing other potential hosts what this particular host is like. Good things to include are things you did and whatever your heart tells you to say, unless it’s telling you to say you actually don’t think their cat is the cutest thing ever. The host will also write a reference for you, so keep this in mind during your stay-if you’re a good guest, you’ll get a good reference. It’s that simple. To write one, simply go to the profile of your host and under “More,” click “Write Reference.”

Now Get Out There and See the World!

Again, Couchsurfing is the bee’s knees (and elbows and nose and wings and EVERYTHING) and I am so excited for whoever reads this and decides to have their own Couchsurfing adventure. The Couchsurfing community is one I love, and will continue to utilize in the many adventures I have planned for my future.

Peace, love, and a personally sentimental collage of pictures taken with hosts:

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Picnic along the Seine with our Parisian hosts

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On a pub tour in Dublin with our first host

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Taking a walk in Linkebeek, Belgium with our eccentric host

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Out to dinner at a legitimate Roman restaurant with our host in Rome

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Walking tour with host in Wroclaw, Poland

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Arriving back at our host’s flat in Amsterdam

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Amazing homemade dinner with Florence host (or should I say he cooked while we watched)

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Our living space while in Berlin

Shoutout to all the European hosts I had which inspired this blog post. Love from the states.  🙂

 

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An Incurable World Travel Addict

Traveling is hard. Once you throw yourself into the world, you never want to be thrown back into the safe bubble called home. You want the world to hold onto you, and keep giving you the chance to see more, more, more. It’s never enough.

Growing up, I was lucky enough to have parents who wanted their kids to have an expanded worldview. While my friends were traveling to Disneyland and taking their annual trip to Orlando, my family was riding camels in Egypt and doing homestays with Hmong families in Viet Nam. My childhood and early adult years led me to do my own travel, both in the somewhat classic study abroad experience in the not-so-classic Asia, and a self-planned back-packing trip through Europe. Each of these experiences has absolutely transformed my life, broken hundreds of pre-set stereotypes, made me more uncomfortable than I’ve ever been, and lead me to find my one true love: world travel. Was that cheesy? Eh. It’s true.

Yet once you begin, you can’t stop. World travel is a fickle friend, for it is something that gives you an addiction you can only satisfy every few years (unless you’re lucky enough to have the bank account of Jay Z and Beyoncé). I continually find myself struggling with how to DEAL with these mind-shattering experiences life has thrown at me, and how to not forget how much I’ve experienced, learned, and grown from them. Alas, this blog.

It is on these pages I plan to remember. It is right here I aim to guide others in their own cross-cultural endeavors, and write on topics that are important for world travel. I’m a baby to the blogging world, so bear with me while I traverse the blogosphere for the first time. Let the thought-pouring and finger-flying begin. f1fa32bba6bb9aef106341e5d2c9ed15