Just as Wikipedia became an unfathomable feat by providing a global platform to share knowledge, couch surfing has become another such epic success story by providing a service for travellers across the globe to see the world through a local’s eyes. In my opinion, couch surfing (like Wikipedia) is one of those few endeavours which celebrate the purity of the human spirit.
The concept is simple: if you are able to find someone to allow you in their home for a night (or more) when you are travelling in an unknown place, then you become a couch surfer. And vice-versa, if you have some space to spare in your home and some kindness in your heart to allow a traveller to spend a night (or more) then you can become a host to a couch surfer. Yes, these are strangers who you will live with or let live just for a short period of time. Sounds absurd, right? With an ever growing distrust amongst us, how is this going to work? Well, it does and 2 million members in 237 countries, a part of the strong couch surfing community is the proof.
My experience has been only as a couch surfer not as a host yet. But as it works, most people first start surfing, meet other surfers and hosts, and then develop the courage to become a host. Yes, of course one needs to be courageous to let a stranger enter their house and let someone sleep the night. There are ways to ensure that the person you are hosting is authentic. The profiles on the couchsurfing.org have a good way of providing enough information about someone to be able to trust them. A personal website/blog is a definite plus and a few references from well connected couch surfers will go some way to helping you find a host. But what I found plays the most important role is writing a personalised request.
A personalised request means that you read the complete profile of the prospective host, understand what that person is like, find some commonalities (interests) that you could perhaps pursue with your host when you meet (cooking, talking about a book/experience/drinking) and then write the request. Also don’t forget to answer some hidden question, if any. Smart hosts put those in there just to make sure that a couch surfer has read the profile before making a request.
When you are hosted by a person living in the city, you come to know more about the city but from a different perspective. Of course, the lonely planet guide is a good place to look for information while travelling but what better than local knowledge that can help a traveller. Not all couch surfer hosts need to provide a place to stay for the night, you can volunteer to show the couch surfer around the city or just to meet the traveller for a coffee.
In return a couch surfer is not required to do anything special. He may buy the host a drink or go have dinner at nice place but that’s only if the surfer wishes to. There is no obligation on the surfer or the host to do anything special. But as it usually happens, you do end up doing lots of interesting things with your host. It can be cooking a meal together, watching a game or a movie, going to the host’s favourite places in the city or best of all spending hours talking about random things. Amongst other obvious things the surfer has to be courteous while using someone else’s house but if one is a little careful, couch surfing can only be a lot of fun.
I was taken aback by the success of couch surfing. From a traveler’s perspective, it couldn’t get better: a place to stay and local guidance, and both for free! Stay tuned for more on my experience of couch surfing in Munich, Zurich & Bern.