In 1999, Casey Fenton was planning a trip to Iceland. But accommodation there was incredibly costly and since he was on a budget, his options were limited. Casey used his initiative and sent an email to 1,500 students, asking if any of them could host him - either in a spare bedroom on or their couch. He was overwhelmed by the response and after a weekend in Reykjavik had found a whole new group of friends. More than that, he’d gained an “inside view” of the country - something he’d never have found, had he booked a hotel.
And that’s how Couchsurfing was born. Established as a non-profit, the idea was to connect people around the globe - between those who had a couch to spare (and were happy to host) and those who were looking for one. And this wasn’t just about affordable travel either - it was also a way of getting immersed in local culture. Today, it's beloved by millions, myself included.
“You have friends all over the world - you just haven’t met them yet” is their mantra (I really like it!) So how does it work? Well, firstly you’ll need a profile. This is a way to show the world who you are - your lifestyle, your values, why you want to be part of the community. In it, you can list the languages you speak, what kind of host you hope to be and what accommodation you’re offering (a couch, a mattress, a spare room etc). You can include photos and get verified (by faxing a copy of your passport to Couchsurfing).
If you’re staying put, set your profile to ‘accepting guests’ or ‘not accepting guests but I can hang out’ and wait to be contacted! If you’re hoping tohead off somewhere, start looking for hosts in the country you’re intent on exploring. Read through profiles - and references left by other guests - to get an idea of who you might want to stay with and then reach out to them with a message. Obviously, it’s best to give them some advance notice - and personalise the messages, so you don’t give the impression you're only looking for a free bed!
In terms of safety, use your common sense - if a profile seems unsafe, don’t pursue it. If you’re a single woman, and possibly uncomfortable about unwanted attention, consider staying with a family or a female member. Don’t hand out your cell phone number or email too quickly - firstly use the app to communicate. Obviously reading references is great - they often give an excellent idea of the person you’re going to be staying with.
My own experiences of Couchsurfing have only been fantastic. Wanting to see more of the south of Israel (I live in the centre) some years ago I reached out to several different people - four of them I now count as close friends and see regularly. I met a fantastic journalist in Delhi, who showed me the sights by car (we sang to Neil Sedaka on the radio, whilst we journeyed) and wandered Paris with a photographer who gave me tips on capturing scenes at dusk! I’ve also hosted a number of people myself in Israel - students, backpackers and a woman who’d quit her job at 51 to travel the world. I got a lot out of it personally - and I like to think I made their times in Tel Aviv better too (I introduced them to local cafes, funky bars and offbeat activities that you never read about in the Lonely Planet guidebook).
Couchsurfing is something I'd highly recommend and am always enthusiastic about. Do your bit for global travel and put up a profile. Oh, and when you make it to Tel Aviv, look me up...