If someone had told me just a few years back that I’d be staying in the homes of strangers – and abroad at that – I would not have believed them. But today, I can’t imagine a trip without CouchSurfing, a hospitality exchange website that turns such crazy ideas into reality. Here’s how it works and why it’s the best alternative to hostels. It was three years ago, when my friends and I were planning our first trip to cold Scandinavia over the New Year break, that someone first suggested the website. All the hostels were fully booked and we really didn’t want to fork out all that money for a hotel. So we went with the CouchSurfing idea, admittedly not without hesitation, but my, were we glad we did! We each created an account and immediately started searching for that good soul willing to take us in.
Despite its deceptive name, this site has nothing at all to do with surfing. It’s in fact a community that boasts around three million members from all over the world, who are either willing to put you up in their own home for free, or who are themselves looking to benefit from such an offer. Everything is based on trust and, as the site’s mission statement puts it, the aim is to “create inspiring experiences”. You enter the desired search parameters into its handy search engine – the continent, country, city etc. When the results come up, you can choose from those who just want to meet and socialise (the ‘coffee or drink’ option) or those willing to accommodate you (the ‘has couch’ option). On each couch surfer’s profile there is a photo and list of friends along with other personal information, and reviews from all those who have stayed with that particular user. It helps to know how well a potential host/guest matches you and what you have in common, before making a request.
My first host was a Swede called Henrik. My friend and I arrived in Stockholm on the night ferry from Finland at 6 am. The plan was to take a walk around the city until noon and then head over to our host’s place. But in conditions of minus twenty and the absence of cafes open at that hour, we had no choice but to wake Henrik up. To our surprise, a cheery voice on the end of the phone announced that he was already up and waiting for us. And with that, all the doubts I’d been having of no one being there to meet us, or the person on the site not living in Sweden, evaporated. There at the bus stop was our kind host waiting for us. He had the fire going at his three-storey house and we could smell the welcoming aroma of fresh coffee. He put us in the attic and made up some mattresses and a bed, and I gave him some traditional souvenirs in return. Henrik is a neurosurgeon, who lives alone in a huge eco-friendly house. He had heard about CouchSurfing just two months earlier and decided to open his doors to the world in order to break up the monotony. In his first month he hosted more than 40 people. Besides us, there were also three Italians, two Japanese women, one Chinese woman, and Henrik’s Norwegian friend – another couch surfer – all staying at Henrik’s. Actually, we hardly ever saw any of them – everyone had their own room and bathroom. Henrik showed us genuine hospitality and, unlike the weather, was warm, and sincere. My only potential gripe was the Christmas lights at the windows in all the rooms, which were kept on all through the night. But you can’t complain; in Stockholm, they simply like to keep a festive atmosphere throughout the cold, winter days.
The next time I used the site was for a trip to the Canary Islands. In Santa Cruz de Tenerife, a very kind 30-year-old musician called Jose put me up. He was renting one room to a German student on a yearlong exchange programme and offering the others to guests. He himself slept in the hall. He often travelled, looking for inspiration and new friends all over the world, so he would ask his guests to pay for the utilities. That’s how this unemployed and carefree couch surfer got round paying the bills. I arrived on Tenerife just in time to catch one of the Canaries’ amazing carnivals. After a string of great parties, Jose took us to a local underground club, where all the island’s couch surfers had gathered. That’s when I learned that each area has its own so-called ambassador, who organises get-togethers with local surfers and brings in newcomers.
I started making travel films about countries in Europe. Throughout my travels, I would always try to stay at a couch surfer’s. They, more than anyone else, helped me to get to know a country, taking me to interesting places you just don’t find in the guidebooks. Many of them were even involved in the filming – some were interviewed, while others acted as guides. It is through couch surfing that I’ve come to realise just how small the world really is. On one stay with a guy called Greg in Malta, I heard a lot from him about some legendary guy called Mario on a neighbouring island, whom he had heard about from his guests. A few days later, I happened to meet this Mario on the island of Gozo. As it happened, he too knew of Greg only through the reviews of other surfers. In Iceland, I stayed with a guy called Olafur. It came up in conversation that he is friends with Björk. My host in Liechtenstein was a 60-year-old professor of Latin, who could quote Gogol and Dostoevsky from memory. He knew none other than the Prince of Liechtenstein himself!
Just this year, my boyfriend and I went all the way out to Kamchatka. I can honestly say that it wasn’t the tourist agencies that helped us to organise the trip, but the advice of fellow surfers. The same can be said for Cuba. Incidentally, over there, surfers are not allowed by law to accommodate foreigners. But they happily recommend the homes of their friends, the so-called casa particular (private accommodation). You could also stay in a hotel or similarly in official rented accommodation for tourists on the island of freedom. Its owners tend not to speak English or have Internet, which is why their surfer friends help them to get the word out. They don’t have a problem with meeting up and showing you around their city. They’ll teach you the main techniques of fending off any local riffraff, and may request a gift – nappies perhaps for the baby or chocolates for the wife.
I’ve only ever met great surfers – happy, open and genuine people. In three years I’ve become so accustomed to the hospitality exchange network that I don’t even want to know about hotels. After all, you can never truly see a country or city from a hotel room. You can only really get the true sense of a place through its people, by living with them under the same roof, even if it’s only for a few days. I know one thing for sure though and that’s regardless of age and nationality, couch surfers are a unique group of people, who help bring the world together.