Saturday, June 05, 2010

CouchSurfing - what it's all about plus when to and when not to

This post is in response to an article titled: “Are Couchsurfing networks legitimate local travel?” (from the website Local Travel Movement) discussing the merits of CouchSurfing (CS) and how it fits into the industry. The debate was started by a few comments with negative opinions about CS and I would venture to guess that the comments on the original article against Couchsurfing are from people who have no experience Couchsurfing. Thus, my response below…

I’ve traveled extensively (to over 50 countries on six continents) and stayed in pretty much every “accommodation” imaginable from a mosquito-infested concrete floor of a rural bus station in Africa, hostels virtually everywhere, a homestay while studying at a language school in Guatemala, Couchsurfing across Asia to B&Bs in New Zealand, a holiday apartment in Buenos Aires, and a 5-star hotel in New York City.

I have met many people who CS with plenty of resources and could stay in a proper hotel. To be honest, depending on the situation, I would rather sleep on someone’s couch than the queen size bed, full amenities, room service, etc. You just don’t get the same experience. When you “Couchsurf”, the place you stay varies greatly – it doesn’t really have to be a couch. I’ve had everything from a straw mat over concrete with a cold bucket shower across the street (in Xi’an, China) to my own private guest room with queen bed, A/C, hot shower, laundry, satellite TV, kitchen, etc. (in Delhi, India) – often being given the keys to a place when the host leaves, letting you have the place to yourself (of course within limits and respecting their home).

Regarding safety, this is something that should be a concern, as it is no matter where you stay. Is it a safe neighborhood? Are the owners/hosts trustworthy? What have other guests’ experiences been – positive/negative? For traditional accommodations, there are review sites, such as TripAdvisor. However, do you always read up on past opinions about a hotel? I suspect more often than not, you just stay based on the looks of a place, its location, and perhaps a few reviews.

For CouchSurfing, there are many ways to assess what the host/guest is like. You can read other CSers comments about their personal experiences (both about the person as a guest and a host), see if the person is verified (if they’ve confirmed their name and address), if they’ve been vouched for by other members (something that you can only start doing by being vouched for yourself multiple times), see how many and what type of friends they have (friendship type, met in person, or just online), what percentage of requests the host has replied to, how active on CS they are (e.g. when they last logged-in), generally how complete their profile is and the feeling you get about the person. Often people only think about trusting and feeling safe in the place they are going to stay. On the other hand, being a host you can have just as valid concerns about the person you are potentially going to host; importantly, there is never any obligation and you can always decline. You can see pretty quickly how much experience they have on CS and there are telltale signs to be aware of. If you follow CS safety guidelines and do the proper research/reading before you participate, you should be fine – arguably safer than you could be staying alone in an unknown hotel.

Why/when do I CS? Sure, budget comes into play and I wouldn't have been able to go to as many places as I have, or for as long. However, I do it because I love meeting the people that host me (or that I've hosted) - hearing what their lives are like, getting an insight that would be near impossible staying at any hostel/B&B/hotel. They also can give the best advice you'll ever get about the place you're visiting. While there are times when one visits a destination primarily for the “place” (architecture, monuments, nature, etc.) there are other segments of people that visit a destination for the unique culture and people that live there. It just depends on what your goals are, how much time you have, etc.

Why/when do I not CS? One drawback to CSing vs., say, staying in a hostel is that you don’t meet other travelers in the same way – sure you can and will still meet them sightseeing, at a restaurant/bar, or taking part in the same activity, but it’s not the same. Perhaps one of the travelers you meet in a hostel are going the same way and often they can become a travel buddy. Sometimes a CS host will take you around but not always and, by not staying in a hostel, you might not get the same opportunity to meet someone to go around with. Other reasons are perhaps you’re just passing through, don’t have a lot of time or just want to be free of any social obligations/interactions with a CS host. In those cases, you can opt for your own private room in a regular accommodation.

Lastly, one aspect of CSing that hasn’t been mentioned is how often the people participating aren’t even hosting – they are simply available to meet for a “coffee or a drink”. When I’m not CSing (or even when I am and my host is busy), I’ve met up with these locals who’ve given me valuable advice, shown me around, or just had unforgettable experiences in general.  Sometimes, I didn’t even get to meet them face-to-face, but our exchange was valuable for the information and hospitality they gave to a stranger (me). One time, while living in Panama City with my own apartment, I contacted the local CSers and had an instant group of friends – many of which are now my lifelong friends.

Essentially, this is what Couchsurfing is all about: meeting a total stranger - either staying with them, having them stay with you, or just meeting up for a “coffee or a drink”. One side is not necessarily benefiting more than the other. It is a symbiotic relationship where you learn from the other person and exchange ideas, values, and experiences. Both participants come away from the interaction richer – with greater understanding and empathy than they had before.

Where I've Been...