5 Tips for First-time Couchsurfers
My eyes darted around the Krakow train station, searching for Maja. Oh no, what am I supposed to do if she doesn’t show up? I tried to recall the few pictures I’d seen on her Couchsurfing profile. Could that be her in front of the McDonald’s?
It was my first time traveling solo, and in the spirit of adventure, I’d decided to use Couchsurfing. Couchsurfing is a social networking website that primarily serves to connect travelers with hosts. Unlike Airbnb, there is no monetary exchange between hosts and guests.
Although we had never met, I planned to stay with Maja for two nights while I was in Krakow, Poland. I had enough money for a hostel, but I wanted the chance to discover the city from a local’s point of view and perhaps even make a new friend. But as I shuffled around the train station, I wondered if I had made a mistake. What was I thinking trusting a total stranger?!
“Alex?” asked a voice behind me. “Is that you?”
I turned around. Overwhelmed with relief, I nodded. It was Maja.
“I’m so happy you’re here,” she said, embracing me. “I know you’re going to love Krakow.”
Because of the incredible people I met while couch surfing, I did love Krakow. If you want to use Couchsurfing on your next trip, here are five tips for first-time surfers:
1. Listen to your gut
Whenever I talk about couch surfing, people inevitably bring up safety. It’s a major concern and for good reason! I always meet my hosts in a public place, usually at a cafe. Instead of heading for their house right away, I offer to buy them a coffee. This gives us a chance to sit and talk. I can get a general feeling about the person. Trust that feeling.It’s not foolproof, but it’s better than nothing. If anything (and I mean anything) feels off, there is no harm in parting ways. When it comes to safety, don’t worry about being rude.
2. Bring a gift
Opening your home to a stranger is no small thing. It’s nice to show your host how grateful you are with a little token of your appreciation. It doesn’t have to be anything big. Personally, I like to bring a bottle of wine to share. I also like to leave a thank you note written on the back of a postcard from my hometown. One surfer I had the pleasure of hosting cooked dinner for me. Her Vietnamese spring rolls were delicious!
3. Utilize the platform
Before you start sleeping on couches, you need to create a Couchsurfing account. Take time filling out your profile. Couch surfing is about more than a place to crash, so make an effort to find a host you genuinely think you’ll connect with. Before you send a potential host a personalized request, read their references. Of course, some hosts will just be starting out and won’t have any references. Some surfer will need to be their first, but that doesn’t mean it has to be you. I’ve only stayed with hosts who have multiple references, and when I’m traveling solo, I only stay with female hosts. That’s not to say guys can’t be great hosts, but it’s all about what you’re comfortable with.
4. Don’t be a slob
I cannot stress this enough: You are a guest! You aren’t staying at a hotel or a hostel or an Airbnb. I’d say treat your host’s home like you would your own, but I know too many people who leave dishes in the sink and hair in the drain to say that with much confidence. Be respectful. Clean up after yourself. It’s not that hard! Most hosts aren’t going to come right out and give you house rules, so just try and follow their lead. This includes curfew. If you and your host part ways in the evening, plan to be home around the same time. If you want to stay out on your own until 4 a.m., rent a room.
5. Have an open mind
Some travelers decide to use Couchsurfing because it gets them a free place to stay. But, it can be so much more than that if you let it be. It’s a unique opportunity to get to know a city through the people who live in it. Couch surfing enriched my time in Krakow. Not only did my host provide me with a place to stay and information about the city, but she also went out of her way to include me in her plans. My first night in Krakow, Maja took me to meet her friends at an old factory-turned-beer garden. We ate cow tongue sandwiches and traded travel stories until well after midnight. When I finally laid down on Maja’s couch, I reflected on how anxious I’d felt at the train station. Maja had been a stranger to me then. No, not a stranger, I thought. Just a friend I hadn’t met yet.