Asking a complete stranger to crash on his/her couch for a few nights can be experienced as an awkward question for some. Yet, there is a community who enjoy the adventure (I’m one of them). They’re all on a website that’s pretty well-known amongst travelers by now – www.couchsurfing.com.
There is such a thing as a free lunch…uhm couch
I absolutely love couchsurfing. I have hosted travelers and stayed at fellow couchsurfers numerous times. There is something about hosting a slumber party with a complete stranger that seems to connect travelers. From my experience, more often than not the people I’ve stayed with have travel experience themselves and enjoy the company of wanderlust adventure seekers. The deal with couchsurfing is very straightforward: usually the host simply suggests sharing stories and/or a meal made by the surfer. I enjoyed the stories my surfers told me, the crazy food they’d make, and I found it rewarding to give back to a community that has given me so much.
I think the absence of a money exchange makes the experience more genuine. When I stay at someone’s place, I like to bring a small gift from my country or make the memory last forever by taking a Polaroid and sticking it to their fridge door. So it is free? Yes, but be a respectful guest.
Finding your home away from home
Compared to hostels, AirBnB, and WWOOF finding a couch can be a challenge (note: I have actually never stayed on someone’s couch – they often have a spare mattress or bed). It all, of course, depends on numerous factors. You’ll find it easier to find a place in a big city versus a smaller one. In some cities (e.g. Montreal or Amsterdam) people are generally more open-minded to the idea of couchsurfing than other cities (think NYC or Rome). Also, whether you travel as a single guy, or as a couple has a great effect on your success rate. I find that for every twenty requests I send out I get five responses, one of which is usually positive. There have certainly been times where, for the life of me, I couldn’t find a place to stay. It happens sometimes, but not often. Every request is a shot in the dark. I try to request only from those whom I expect to get a reaction from. You can often judge from someone’s profile whether you want to stay with that person or whether they will even respond to your request. Did they add more than five pictures and write something substantial in their profile? Chances are they might be serious. Did they fill out the profile hastily and upload two wacky pictures that are not even in focus? Odds are you might be wasting your time. Use your common sense to figure whether the person seems reliable or not.
Approaching a host
Back when I hosted surfers in Amsterdam I’d get an average of 5-15 requests per day. I’ve seen some really great and some really, really terrible requests. Once I received a message saying, ‘hey, I arrive in Amsterdam at 11PM and have to catch a flight the next morning at 6AM. Can I stay with you?’ Another one read, ‘Me and my 3 friends are coming to Amsterdam to smoke and go out and are looking for a cheap place to stay. Do you have room for 4?’ Needless to say, I had to reject both.
The people I felt most compelled with to host had a few things in common. It all came down to the personal touch, in a message that roughly followed this order.
- Telling me excitedly they were going to Amsterdam and passed my profile.
- Asking or stating something about something they read on my profile.
- Explaining the reason they messaged me (usually something in my profile that got their attention, although one girl once admitted she just messaged me because ‘I looked cute’).
- Share their travel plans, what they do in life, or something that’s interesting about them.
- Ask humbly whether they could stay for a certain number of days.
I always found this structure to be very effective. When I send out requests myself, I follow the same structure. Below you’ll find an example of a script that I use to send requests.
Steal this script to get free stay:
Hi <insert name>,
How are you? I was looking for a cool place to stay in <insert location> and came across your profile. You seem like a well-traveled adventurer with cool stories. I’m curious about <mention something on their profile you’re genuinely interested in>.
As for me, I’m traveling to Boston <insert your destination> next week, after some time on Cape Cod. I wanted to stay a bit longer in the city to get a feel of the place.
I was wondering if you have a space for me to sleep for a few days. I can share quality cooking and hopefully make your day with some cool stories or teach you how to throw a frisbee <or just about any other skill or story you want to share/teach>.
I’m keeping a blog, so you can kind of see what I like to do (here is a link: http://www.savingonlife.com). <you can also just add a link to your Facebook profile>
Let me know what you think! You can email me on <email@example.com>, or message me on <insert cell number>.
Besties for the resties
Couchsurfing creates a strong bond between people. I’m still in touch with most people I stayed with and they have introduced me to their friends who are traveling the world. As a matter of fact, I’ve met one of my former couchsurfers when I visited Auckland. I just love this community of world travelers whose mutual trust not only offers free stay, but really friends for life – like these people!