You save money and meet locals - but is couchsurfing right for everyone? Guest author and world traveler Claudia weighs in.
Internationally acclaimed as a must for travelers on a tight budget and as great way to get an insider's perspective of the country visited, I decided to give couchsurfing a try for the first time when I left for my big trip across Latin America.
I heard some great stories, and was ready to find out what it was all about. I was ready for some bad experiences too, and those were not missed. Indeed, I have had my share of good and bad experiences, where the bad was so bad that I have even wondered if couchsurfing was for me at all!
A bit of a bumpy start...
I decided to first try couchsurfing when I left for my big backpacking trip across Latin America. You see, I am from the island of Sardinia, and any time I need to cross the ocean I have to fly through Rome. Having to catch an early flight to Guatemala City meant I had to spend a night in Rome. I thus started scouting for a good host. That's when I crashed against the mentality of many male hosts, who sometimes use couchsurfing as a dating site.
So many replied to my requests not only offering a couch, but sleazily adding in a glass of wine, a romantic dinner, and even a massage. I ignored their offers and reported them to couchsurfing. (Note from Vanessa: Smart girl! Don't just ignore the sleazy things you see online - report them to the appropriate authorities.)
Two perfect hosts... and new friends.
I then came across Pino, whose place looked perfect for me. He had great recommendations, and he lived really close to the airport. I contacted him, but unfortunately he was also traveling during those days, actually going to one of my favorite countries in the world, Cuba! As soon as he told me so, I sent him a long list of tips for visiting the country, just because I wanted to make sure he had a great experience there. He appreciated my gesture so much that he actually made sure to leave the keys to his place with a friend, so I could use it even if he was not around. I found this very friendly and generous.
My good experience in Rome did not end there, though. The same night I arrived in Rome, I got caught in a huge thunderstorm. That's when Luca, another guy who had offered to host me, came to rescue me from the rain. I had a lovely chat with him, and we've been friends since, so much so that any time I go to Rome I make it a point to meet him.
Could couchsurfing be the perfect fit?
After my first great experience, I decided to try couchsurfing again, this time in South America, on another solo trip I did earlier this year, to get a bit more of a local perspective during my travels. As soon as I put a public trip announcement (big mistake, apparently!), offers starting coming through.
I would say a good 99% of them were from men who, again, thought of using couchsurfing as a dating site. I screened all the offers, and eventually accepted Francisco's one to stay at his place in Santiago. He seemed like a really nice person, we had chatted a few times and he had some really good reviews on couchsurfing.
It all goes downhill
I guess, however, that the way we experience things varies widely depending on our age, nationality, and culture. For as many good reviews Francisco had, I had a horrible time with him. It all started with my arrival in Santiago after 24 hours on a bus from San Pedro de Atacama. He had told me he'd come to the bus station. I waited for one hour there, I tried calling him several times, and he never showed up. I should have taken it as a sign I suppose.
I eventually made it to his place, and that's when he told me he did not wake up. I thought it was weird, but decided not to mind. It did not take me long to realize his place was a total disaster. Dirty dishes, garbage everywhere - it just looked like it had not been cleaned in months, and would have been a great fit for one of those reality TV shows such as "How Clean is Your Home?"
Francisco never gave any indication of where I would sleep. I was exhausted after the bus ride, but I took a shower in the filthy bathroom and went out. I got back home to find a fully blown party in the tiny apartment. I felt really at odds with the others, as it looked like the party would eventually lead to a night of sex. And I wasn't there for that! I came up with a lame excuse and decided to pick up my backpack and look for a hostel, in the middle of the night.
I decided there and then to cancel all my other committments with other hosts in other cities. Yet, I kept in touch with two of them, because they seemed to understand the problems I had encountered. Even though I did not stay at his place, I ended up meeting Guillermo, who was meant to be my host in Mendoza (Argentina), for a meal and some of the best wine in the region. And we became really good friends and are still in touch.
Then there was Julia, a single mother living in Montevideo, and I eventually decided to stay at her place, despite my initial reluctancy. Julia was the perfect host, so much so that I did not feel like a guest but more like an old friend. We had some interesting conversations that helped me understand the culture and way of life of Uruguay. We walked around with Helena, her adorable 3 year old daughter; I helped them planning their trip to Europe this coming summer (when I also hope to see her again); I showed a bit of my culture and cooking skills by preparing a lovely dinner, and I shared my bed with their cat Feli. Just like at home!
Is couchsurfing right for you?
With these experiences in mind, I don't think I am either in favour or against using couchsurfing. I suppose more than anything it depends on how one feels and how one can adapt and fit in the lives of others. I am sure that a younger, more rested traveller would have liked Francisco's place and his party attitude; while perhaps would have found Julia and her quite place boring.
With time, I have learned that it is important to set some really strict boundaries and present oneself in a clear way, leaving no possibility for misunderstanding, and I have learned how to use the system to find the perfect hosts. It takes a bit of experience to learn how to screen the various couchsurfing offers and read between the lines of each profile to find who can become a good host and a great friend. All in all, I think that used in the right way, couchsurfing is a great way to travel on a budget, to meet the locals and to live like a local.
Meet our guest writer!
Claudia is from Cagliari (Sardinia) and is obsessed with traveling. A former human rights lawyer and academic, after devoting her life to the protection of cultural identity, in November 2013 Claudia decided to give in to her biggest passion and started traveling around Latin America, and she has hardly stopped since. Blogging came as a natural consequence, for Claudia wanted to let her family and friends be updated with her adventures - read about them here.
TurnipseedTravel's top couchsurfing tips.
Curious about trying couchsurfing for the first time? It can be a fantastic way to save money and meet new people - something all value travelers love! But no kind of accommodation is right for everyone. Here are some key recommendations for a value traveler interested in couch surfing.
1.) Try couchsurfing for the first time in a city that you are already familiar with, just like Claudia did in Rome. Don't take on too much at once - it's hard to adjust to a new city, language, currency, AND a new system of accommodations all at once! Alternatively, spend night 1 in a familiar setting, like a chain hotel, while you get over jet lag and get oriented to the city, and then start couchsurfing on night 2.
2.) Chose a property that is on a public transportation route. Otherwise, the cost of commuting will negate the savings of your free bed. Plus, if you have to leave in the middle of the night, like Claudia once did, you'll have a way to get out.
3.) One of Claudia's best tips is to do your homework and be a clear communicator. Have comprehensive contact information for your host and don't rely on a casual arrangement to be picked up at the station.
4.) Sometimes things don't work out. Always have a back up plan, even if it's just enough space on your credit card so you can book yourself into hotel for the night while you come up with a new plan.
5.) Know that couchsurfing isn't an 'all or nothing' commitment. There's nothing wrong with couchsurfing for just a few nights and then using your savings for a travel splurge, like a deluxe hotel. It's all about finding the right balance between savings, comfort, and experiences.
Have you ever couchsurfed? What advice do you have for others?
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