How Does Couchsurfing Work? A Beginner’s Guide

how does couchsurfing work

Couchsurfing began as a way to see the world for free while connecting with locals. The concept existed previously through groups like Hospitality Club, but the Couchsurfing organization created an easy way to connect travelers with potential hosts in 2004. Couchsurfers love being a part of a community, whether that’s in their hometown or on the other end of the globe. Over 10 million members are found in 200,000 cities.

What is Couchsurfing?

Couchsurfing is a community website where you can create a profile to tell fellow members about yourself, and then use that to:

  • gain access to free accommodation in a local’s home (traveler),
  • host a traveler in your home (host), or,
  • meet-up with people from around the world (community member).

There are also groups with message boards where you can discuss local events.

As a traveler, you can meet locals and learn more about a destination in a way others won’t. As a host, you can learn about other cultures while staying in your home and showing new friends around town. And as a community member, you can attend meetups and events with like-minded individuals.

How does Couchsurfing work?

Create a Couchsurfing Profile

The first step to getting involved with Couchsurfing is creating a profile. You can login using your Facebook account if you have one. Enter details about yourself, specifically what you’re interested in, where you’ve been and why you’re on Couchsurfing. If you’re interested in hosting, there’s a separate page where you can list details about where guests will stay, like a guest room or couch. Add a photo for best results. You can also add photos of yourself.

Couchsurfing Profile
Caroline’s Couchsurfing profile.

Add friends on Couchsurfing, either through search or Facebook friends, to connect with. Ask them to leave you references because the more references you have, the more likely hosts are to approve your requests. You can also get references from people who host you. Also include an emergency contact into your profile just in case.

Another important aspect of your Couchsurfing profile is getting verified because it’s another layer of security for potential hosts. The website might send you a text message or post card to confirm your phone number and address. Make sure you take care of this while you’re in one location, as it’s difficult to do while on the road. While it’s not a requirement to get verified, you may find more willing hosts.

Read more about setting up your profile on the Couchsurfing website.

Interacting with Potential Hosts

When it comes to messaging potential hosts on Couchsurfing, treat it like you would a host on Airbnb. Your hosts aren’t offering just a place to stay for free, but also a way to connect with other cultures in their own home.

Tips for Interacting with Couchsurfing Hosts

  • Start contacting hosts early for special events like New Years or Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
  • In your message, tell them about yourself and why you’re interested in staying with them in particular. Blanket copy-and-paste emails aren’t usually appreciated.
  • Mention previous Couchsurfing and travel experiences to find common ground.
  • Discuss how long you’ll be staying. It might be inappropriate to stay with a host for two weeks.
  • Negotiate when you’ll meet and if you’ll have a key.
  • And most importantly, double check where you’ll be sleeping. Is there privacy? Are there roommates or pets? What part of town will you be in? Can they pick you up or will you need to get to their house on your own?

The Couchsurfing App

Find hosts on the go with the Couchsurfing app. Available for iPhone and Android, you’ll find all the features of the website, namely the search feature, without being tethered to your desktop. It also has the messaging feature so you can follow up with questions regarding check in times. The app makes last minute arrangements much easier when you’re already traveling and constantly on the move.

women couchsurfing

Is Couchsurfing Safe?

There’s a lot of talk about the safety of websites like Couchsurfing. Like everywhere in the world, there are the occasional bad seeds on Couchsurfing and other websites of this kind. Most offences are minor, like hosting multiple Couchsurfers at once and not letting you know or asking you for money, but some can be much more serious. Take a few early precautions for safety and if you feel uncomfortable, it’s totally okay to leave.

Read more in our post: Should Solo Females Couchsurf?

Tips for Couchsurfing Safety

1. Verify and Check Profiles

It’s important for both guests and hosts to be verified for mutual trust. Add as much information to your profile as possible, namely references from friends. When you search for a potential host, make sure that they do as well. It might make you more comfortable to surf with a woman or couple instead of a man. Check the reviews other travelers have left. Look at the photos they’ve uploaded and see that they’ve logged in recently.

2. Reconfirm Details

As mentioned earlier, go over the details of your stay. Ask for pictures of your room or couch. Confirm that you have a place to yourself and won’t be staying in the room with your host. Find out if you’ll be able to come and go as you please or will rely on the host’s schedule.

3. Meet Beforehand

If you’re anxious about it, stay elsewhere first and meet your host for coffee beforehand. Or you can have a Skype call to iron out details and confirm that the person in the profile is who you’ll actually be staying with.

4. Have a Backup Plan

If something happens and you feel uncomfortable, have the phone number of a taxi company and a hostel or hotel you can book in case of an emergency. Don’t use Couchsurfing as a way to stay for free because you don’t have money to sleep anywhere else. Keep a reserve of cash for this type of situation. If something does happen, immediately contact the local police and Couchsurfing.

How to Be a Respectful Couchsurfing Guest

Just like there are bad hosts, there are also bad guests, so don’t be one of them! Firstly, treat the host’s home like you would like your own home to be treated. Don’t trash or steal their stuff. Karma will get you. Clean up after yourself and keep your belongings organized in one part of the house. Keep reasonable hours and don’t expect your host to wait up for you all night to let you in.

Spend time with your host and learn about them. It’s all about the shared experience. Bring a host gift like a scented candle or alternatively use your talents. Cook dinner one night for your hosts to share a recipe from your home country. Share your travel stories and ask about theirs.

Caroline went to Santa Monica with her Couchsurfing host
Caroline went to Santa Monica with her Couchsurfing host.

Couchsurfing Reviews

Reviews are the backbone of the tourism industry and are no different on Couchsurfing. You wouldn’t stay at a hotel without reading a review, would you? They help build the community and make it better for other travelers.

Leave honest reviews about your experiences but don’t be rude. If you didn’t enjoy your stay or the host made you uncomfortable, say so, but personal attacks aren’t acceptable. Describe it in full, like where you slept, where the location was and how easy your host was to get in touch with. If you did have a good stay, though, ask your host to leave you a review as well.

Have you ever Couchsurfed or hosted a traveler? What was your experience?

Couchsurfing

Written by Caroline

Caroline Eubanks is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, but has also called Charleston, South Carolina and Sydney, Australia home. After college graduation and a series of useless part-time jobs, she went to Australia for a working holiday. In that time, she worked as a bartender, bungee jumped, scuba dived, pet kangaroos, held koalas and drank hundreds of cups of tea. You can find Caroline at Caroline in the City.

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Gear We Use

Organization

Packing Cubes – Organize your luggage with the lightweight, durable and compressible Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Compression Cubes.


Backpacks + Daypacks

Pacsafe – Since they come with extra theft-resisting features, Pacsafe bags make you a more confident traveler. We especially love this bag.

Sea to Summit – Of all the Sea to Summit products, our most recommended is the fits-in-your-palm, super packable Ultra-Sil Daypack.


Personal Care

Nalgene Toiletry Bottles – These leak-free toiletry bottles and tubs come in all sizes – even super tiny, helping minimalists pack it all without bulk.

Turkish Towels – They’re thinner than most travel towels, and they actually cover your body! We can’t get enough of Turkish towels for travel.


Clothing

Speakeasy Supply Co. – They make the awesome hidden pocket infinity scarves that are perfect for stashing secret cash, lip balms, and passports.

Anatomie – Anatomie travel pants come with luxury prices, but they offer many benefits for travelers. See our review of the famous Skyler pants.

Travel Resources

Booking Airfare

Dollar Flight Club – Get flight deal alerts for your preferred departure airport. There is both a free and premium version (recommended for more sweet deals). Members save on average $500 USD per flight!

Skyscanner – Skyscanner is our preferred site for searching flights. They offer unbiased search results and are free from hidden fees. You can also book your hotels and rental cars.


Accommodation

Airbnb – Airbnb is the best place to book out apartments around the world. Sign up using this link to get $37 USD off your first stay booking + $14 USD towards an experience booking!

Booking.com – Search for hotels, hostels, and apartments using this one resource. Use it for flights, car rentals, and airport taxis as well.

Hostelworld – For hostels, Hostelworld remains our number one source for booking stays. Choose from straight up hostels, budget hotels and bed and breakfasts.

Trusted Housesitters – Save money on travel accommodation by becoming a housesitter. Housesitters often have extra duties, like caring for pets and gardens.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Heather says

    I was part of an earlier group (pre-Couchsurfing) called Servas, which operated under much the same idea. I had a couple of great experiences, several awkward ones, and many strange ones. I finally stopped when the man I was staying with “accidentally” flashed me (really!). I finally decided it was better to just pay a bit to stay at a hostel — it just seemed easier. I’m sure 99% of the hosts on Couchsurfing are awesome people, but there’s probably gonna be that 1% that thinks you ‘owe’ them something because you’re staying for free. (In a non-sexual way too: some other friends traveling with Servas found that they were expected to ‘pay’ in other ways, by buying groceries, etc.) If you want to give it a shot, though, I would suggest only staying with other women or with couples/families and definitely not single men.

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