One of the best part of studying in London was being in close proximity to the rest of Europe. Nothing beats being able to hop over to Spain or Italy in just a few hours. Plus, being able to take advantage of Ryanair's cheap flight fares only fueled my wanderlust. But even with cheap plane tickets, taking a trip to a new European destination every weekend can add up quickly with the cost of hostels, food, and souvenirs.
Looking to reduce to travel expenses, I decided I would give couch surfing a try. Before I left for London, my friend Ashley (read her guest post here) had told me about Couchsurfing.com. It's similar to Airbnb, but instead of renting out spare rooms, locals offer up their spare bed or couch to travelers for free.
Now the first thought that crosses most peoples' minds is "Why would someone do that? What do they get out of it?". And while some people definitely abuse the system and use it for hookups (aka "sex surfing"), most hosts are just extremely hospitable and generous people who want to help out other travelers and make new friends. It's pretty amazing how someone would be willing to help out a complete stranger and share their home with them, isn't it?
While at first I was doing this to save money, I've found that I really enjoying staying with a local who's willing to share their culture with me and insider tips for exploring. And as a solo traveler, I much rather build a friendship with my host than stay with 10 random strangers in a hostel. So if you're thinking of give couch surfing a chance or want to spice up your normal travel routine, here are some helpful tips:
1. Pick your host carefully
This should be a no brainer. It's so important that you read through their references and profile thoroughly to make sure they're the right host for you. Pick someone with similar interests to you or that you can relate to. If they don't have any references, their profile isn't filled out, or they just seem sketchy, trust your instincts.
I like to establish a line of communication with my hosts before I stay with them, either through Facebook or WhatsApp. That way you can get a feel for who they are as a person and whether or not you'll feel comfortable staying with them.
3. Be open-minded
Remember that your host may come from an entirely different culture and lifestyle. Respect their differences and keep an open mind. The whole point of traveling is about experiencing and appreciating different cultures, so why not embrace it?
Also, keep in mind that not every host has a luxurious apartment or house. Sometimes I've had my own room, other times I've slept on a air mattress in a shared room or a couch in the living room, which is still much preferable than sharing a bathroom with 10 strangers in a hostel .
4. Your host has a life too
Work around your host's schedule. I've actually had some hosts just give me a key to their apartment so I can come and go as I please, which I found surprising because of how trusting they were. But it's still important to give your host an idea of when you're leaving and coming back. Be flexible and don't make them work around your schedule.
5. Make an effort to interact with your host
All of my hosts have always made time to hang out with me, whether its making dinner or taking me to a cool restaurant or bar I wouldn't have otherwise found. Make time to connect with your hosts and build a friendship. Chances are, they're travelers themselves, and travelers have the best stories to tell.
6. Bring a small gift
I try to bring something small as a token of appreciation for my host. This can be a small souvenir or nice hand-written note on a postcard from the previous destination I visited. You can also offer to make dinner or take them out for a drink.
7. Be clean
This one should be obvious. Make your bed, wash up your dishes, and don't leave your things all over the place. Leave the place in better condition than when you arrive.
8. Don't overstay your welcome
Two to three nights are generally how long a traveler stays unless your host agrees to a longer stay. Just keep in mind hosting someone for free can actually get costly for them in terms of the extra water, electricity, and any goods consumed, so be considerate and don't turn into a free loader.
9. Don't sleep with your host (...unless you're both into it)
I generally wouldn't recommend sleeping with your host, as it could get awkward real quick. But if the feeling is mutual then you do you. I mean...when in Rome, amirite? However, if at any point your host is making you feel uncomfortable, make sure you know a few hostels in the area as a back-up plan. And always let someone know who you're staying with.
10. Leave feedback
If you've had a good experience with a host, take some time to write a nice reference for them. And if you've had a bad experience, it's even more important to give a reference to forewarn other travelers. Couch surfing with a stranger in a foreign country is a big risk, so we have to all look out for each other!
If you have any more questions about couch surfing, feel free to ask! And if you've couch surfed before, I'd love to hear your experience.