Saturday, June 05, 2010

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

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 in 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 all continents) and stayed in pretty much every “accommodation” imaginable from the 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, B&Bs in New Zealand, a holiday apartment in Buenos Aires to a 5 star hotel in New York City.

I have met many people who CS with plenty of resources to 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 like – positive/negative? For traditional accommodations there are sites like 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 and sometimes perhaps a few comments.

For CouchSurfing, there are many ways to assess what the host/guest is like. You can read other CSers comments about their direct 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 (i.e. when they last logged-in), generally how complete their profile is and the feeling you get about the person. Often people only think if they can trust and feel safe in the place they are going to stay but don’t forget, 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 on CS they have 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 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 place primarily for the “place” (architecture, monuments, nature, etc) there are other segments of people that visit a place for the unique culture and people that inhabit the place. It just depends what you’re 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 these travelers met in a hostel are going the same way and often 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 on it to host – they just are available to meet for “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 shown towards a stranger. 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 I am now a lifelong friend.

Essentially that 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...