The ups and downs of couch surfing by Pris Killingly: “So where will you be staying while you’re traveling? Hotel? Friends?” “Nah, I’m couch surfing.” “I see…”
When you tell someone that you’ll staying with complete strangers during your travels, you will instantly be met with a plethora of concerned looks that let you know your friends think you’re absolutely insane. And it is indeed possible that one has to be kind of insane to couch surfing – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
For those who don’t know what couch surfing is yet, it’s an online community of vagabonds like myself who give other vagabonds a place to crash for a night or more. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t just a free hotel service and many CS-ers frown upon being used solely for their couch (however, others are surprisingly cool with it). Couch surfing is completely free to use and anyone that visits the website can create a profile and begin their journey into sleeping with strangers, without necessarily sleeping with them – but that can happen too. And while asking to sleep on a strangers couch via Craigslist could lead to very mixed and likely undesirable results, couch surfing keeps itself legitimate by asking all CS-ers to leave reviews of their experiences with people.
Since early August, I have couch surfed alone in four different US cities with five very different hosts. Couch surfing has given me the opportunity to see how the locals (my hosts) live, do the things they do, and get an insider’s perspective on a new place. Of course, as with everything, there are certainly some downsides to couch surfing. Here are 3 reasons for and against couch surfing on your next journey. You make the educated decision about whether the bad trumps the good or vice versa!
An insider’s perspective
When I first got to St. Louis (a.k.a. the Gateway to the West), I immediately realized that I had no idea what to do while I was there. I’d had a few friends that went to Wash U, but they never really told me much about the city itself. Luckily, my hosts in STL were well-seasoned couch surfing veterans. Although they were all transplants, they all had a fantastic advice about what things I should do while I was in town. They each told me what they loved about the city and gave me fantastic advice about the touristy and not-so-touristy places to check out, what foods I absolutely had to try, the different neighborhoods to visit (and which ones to avoid), and how to get around. Had I simply stuck to a simple travel guide, I might not have found half of the things that I did. Worse, I might not have understood the importance of visiting the City Museum, which they all fortunately suggested to me as the #1 thing to do in St. Louis.
New friends, new memories
I don’t want to give the impression that you will instantly become best friends with all the people you meet while couch surfing, because that’s just not true. However, unlike staying at a hotel, couch surfing means you will automatically meet a new person that you might have a good connection with! Because CS attracts a certain type of person (one that is adventurous enough to enjoy travel and staying with strangers), there’s already a good chance you’ll get along at least on some level with your host. Unfortunately, most of my hosts were pretty busy while they hosted me, but I still got a chance to have good conversations and pleasant moments with all of them. My second host in Pittsburgh is a great example of this, with whom I discussed past travels and future travel ambitions (not to mention the latest Batman film) over well-priced drinks at the very fantastic Shadow Lounge in East Liberty.
Saving your pennies for other things
Let’s face it – traveling is expensive and we always need to find the best way to get around with as little as possible. While I did say couch surfing is not just a free hotel, the free aspect of it is very real. As a rule, hosts are never allowed to ask for money. However, us surfers are always welcome to contribute something in return if we’re able to. At times, I’ve washed dishes or bought beer for the household when I had some extra cash or left a small gift if I was able to. And of course, I was always very grateful and made sure they all knew they were always welcome on my couch and in my city anytime. Not paying for hotels or hostels allowed me to save enough money to explore for a much longer amount of time than would’ve been possible otherwise. Hell, one night alone of NOT staying in a hotel probably paid for most of my bar tabs on NOLA’s Frenchmen Street!
Because the majority of couch surfing is done on actual couches (sometimes you’ll be lucky and get a room), you have to realize that you will never have any real privacy. If you’re used to hanging out in your underwear or sleeping in late, you can most likely forget about it. Granted, every household is different, but good manners is what keeps your CS reviews from going sour so it’s a smart rule of thumb to keep yourself clothed at all times and to try and not laze about on the couch all day when your hosts are trying to get their day going. And as for bringing back that really cute guy from the bar? Yeah, that’s not going to fly with most hosts so either make sure cute guy (or girl!) has their own place or spring for a hotel for a few hours if necessary.
Control freaks should never couch surf
You never know what’s going to happen when it comes to couch surfing. Your hosts might give you a key, or they might not and you might have to abide by their schedule. Depending on the town you’re in, you might be able to get around on your own, or you might need transportation help from your host, meaning depending on their schedule again. Some hosts might not appreciate your coming in late nights, so once again, abide by their schedule. Basically, be prepared to be flexible with everything you do and to relinquish a fair amount of control to your hosts. It’s not really hard and you might luck out like I did and have hosts that gave me a key and didn’t mind my coming and going as I pleased, but just be prepared for the worst just in case.
Creature comforts? What’s that?
Couch surfing is definitely not for prima donnas. The homes and couches and bathrooms I encountered all ranged from absolutely wonderful to “I guess this is okay for now.” I, myself, did not end up anywhere that made my skin crawl, but I can imagine that does happen from time to time. Some couches were more comfortable than others, some people provided pillows while others could not, some homes had air conditioning and others caused me to wake up in a pool of sweat. Basically, it was never bad but I certainly wasn’t always as comfortable as I would’ve been back home. However, I like to think that sort of thing just builds character, so if you’re okay with spinning it that way, I think you should be fine.
There are even more reasons for and against couch surfing, ones that transcend the good and the bad. Like waking up to your host’s roommate’s friend throwing up in a shower, just two hours before your train ride leaves Memphis – which makes for an exhausted traveler but also an entertaining story about a Tennessee boy’s first drunken birthday. Or getting lost in a sketchy part of town to end up swing dancing the night away with elderly gentlemen who were very patient about my two left feet. No matter what you make of them, couch surfing experiences are guaranteed to be some of the most memorable from your travels and certainly some of your favorite ones as well; so shirk away the shyness and open yourself to the possibility that hanging out with strangers can actually be the greatest thing ever!