Beginner’s Guide to Couchsurfing

Dinner with Couchsurfing Hosts
Dinner with our Couchsurfing hosts in Brazil

For those unfamiliar with Couchsurfing, it is a social network where people search for other hosts to stay with (on their couches or maybe even a spare bedroom) or to meet up with in a new city for a local experience. The site is free to use (although you can pay $20 to get your account verified). If you’re still having trouble grasping the concept, it can be compared to a “free Airbnb,” although many Couchsurfers frown upon that correlation. The idea behind CS is to foster community, build relationships, and for all members who are hosted to host others (how it works – you crash on someone’s couch, you let someone crash on your couch, what comes around goes around).

Why Couchsurf?

Girl Kickboxing
Kickboxing gym in Argentina, owned by our Couchsurfing host

Honestly, some of our most memorable experiences and greatest friendships on our trip have resulted from Couchsurfing.

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Couchsurfing has brought us moments that we could have never anticipated or planned for – like being in a kickboxing class riding hoverboards in Argentina, driving across the Brazilian border in our borrowed host’s car, staying in a yogi’s paradise in Costa Rica, or dancing on top of a bus in a DJ booth at a crazy beach party in Chile.

Obviously, the cost (free) is an awesome perk for backpackers on a budget (us). There’s no doubt that Couchsurfing has helped us save major moolah during our travels. Unlike Airbnb where you typically are just given the keys and a place to stay, or a hostel where travelers come and go so frequently that conversations normally don’t dive deeper than comparing travel routes, Couchsurfing is a great way to form relationships with people around the globe. We like to think of it as an adult slumber party, but with strangers ;).

Getting Started

Goal: Become a credible guest that Couchsurfers want to host

  • Completely fill out your profile (add multiple pictures, answer profile questions in detail, link your account with your Facebook to find and add your existing friends who use Couchsurfing – if any).
  • Have your Couchsurfing friends write personal reviews (to vouch that you’re not an ax murderer). Don’t have any friends on Couchsurfing? See below for other ways to get references:
    • If you are able to, host other Couchsurfers in your home before your trip! Be an awesome host and they will return the favor with a positive review, making you a great candidate for future hosts. Hosts respect that you have also hosted Couchsurfers in your home.
    • Attend a local Couchsurfing meetup in your area to meet cool people who can become new friends and also write you a review to vouch for you.
      Reach out to someone on Couchsurfing who “Wants to Meet Up” (a profile option) to do whatever it is you like to do (hiking, partying, etc.). It could be something as simple as getting coffee or a drink.
  • Get your profile verified, especially if you don’t have any or many reviews ($20 will go far in the long run).

Couchsurfing Profile

Requesting

Goal: Find a host and accompanying couch to surf for your trip

  • Fill out the “Explore” search bar with for your destination, then click click on “Find a Host” and fill out the search bar with the correct dates/number of people.
    The platform will first pop up with all existing hosts in the destination but adding the dates and number of people will narrow down it to available Couchsurfing hosts. You can also add advanced search for specific things (like similar interests, a private room, or a host who speaks your native language, but we think Couchsurfing is a great way to learn or practice another language).
  • Scan available profiles at a glance for active users to find ones who are more likely to host you.
    Couchsurfing assigns hosts a Response Rate (from 0-100%), how long since their last login (from minutes to hours to months to years, whichever is the least amount of time), and the number of reviews. The higher the response rate, the sooner the last login, and the more reviews, typically the more likely the user is to host you (although not true for Couchsurfers just starting out). A response rate of 90% doesn’t mean they host 90% of people who request to stay, it means they respond (either accept or decline, or just send a message) to 90% of the requests/messages they receive. 0% indicates you won’t likely hear from them, while 25% means it is a one in four chance they will respond (and so on, you get the picture). I typically put in a filter looking for hosts who have been active in the last month.
  • Read through profiles and reviews before you send a request. Things to look for in profiles:
    • In the “My Home” section, the host might list specific preferences to who they will host. For example, they might prefer a specific gender (“prefer female”), state “no couples,” only can host on certain days of the week, or have a limit for number of nights they will host per guest. Don’t waste your time requesting if you aren’t the right fit.
    • Check their language in the “Overview” section. Write your request in whatever language you have in common.
    • Read about their personality – maybe they like to party? If you’re looking to go out, this is a good thing, if you’re not, you might not want to stay there, and vice versa.
    • Some hosts put a phrase or a saying somewhere in their profile (like “start your request message by saying ‘Hello Bob!’ or use the word ‘wanderlust’ to know that you took the time to read my profile”), make sure you use this in your request.
  • Sending request – be honest in your stay (are you traveling with your significant other, friend, etc?) make it personal (like a cover letter for a job – maybe they say they have a dog and you love dogs and miss your dog at home – mention this! Maybe you both love yoga or the same type of music). Most hosts aren’t thrilled by the same copy/paste generic message that you send to all hosts in the area (and will likely ignore a generic message).
  • Send several requests to increase your odds of finding a host who accepts (you won’t always find one).Couchsurfing form for Buenos Aires

Accepting/declining an accepted request

Goal: Confirm your Couchsurfing stay

Confirm request – Once a host accepts your request, make sure you hit “yes” and confirm the reservation and write a message thanking the host for accepting. I always accept the first person to say yes, because I don’t request anyone that I wouldn’t actually want to stay with.

Decline request – I only decline (hit “no”) an accepted request if I have already found someone else to stay with. In that case, I will decline and let them know I found another host, but ask if I can stay with them as a back-up in case my host has to cancel. You might also decline if your plans have changed, make sure you send a message explaining this out of courtesy.

Making the most out of declined requests

Goal: Get recommendations or arrange an afternoon/night out on the town

The reality is more often than not, we find most of our requests are ignored or declined (for rational reasons – the host already accepted other Couchsurfers for our dates, will be out of town, has other plans, etc.).

Even so, the first thing we do while planning our upcoming destination is request Couchsurfing hosts. If we don’t have any luck, we move on to Airbnb or search for hostels for accommodation (whichever is cheaper).

If a declined Couchsurfing host took the time to respond to us about why they had to decline, we used to write back simply thanking the host for responding.

Now, we’ve learned it is a great opportunity to ask for any tips the local host has for visitors (favorite cheap eats, places to go out, things to see/do). It’s awesome to get a local’s perspective and we’ve had many helpful recommendations.

Other times, even though the Couchsurfer can’t host us, he/she might still be able to meet up to show us around for an afternoon or evening. One Couchsurfer in Lima who couldn’t host us still took us out with his friends for a night out clubbing in the city, and we had an amazing time. Locals know better than anyone where to party in their city and it’s helpful (and safer) to have a local with you to show you the ropes (plus it’s fun to party with a group of new friends).

Couple at Toro Club in Lima Peru
Declined Couchsurfing host invited us for a night out with his friends in Lima

Before your stay

Goal: Ensure a smooth arrival to your Couchsurfing destination

  • Let your host know when you will be arriving, and figure out the best way to get to the location & get inside (sometimes they will pick you up, tell you the best way to get there through public transportation, or recommend a taxi service – will they be home? Will a friend be there? Will you need to wait at a nearby location?).
  • Have a way to reach your host outside of CS (phone number, Whatsapp, Skype, FB messenger) before you arrive. We’ve found Whatsapp to be the most popular/helpful option during our travels.
  • Make sure you know what apartment/house number they live in before arriving (so you don’t have to knock on every door in the building asking “does X live here?” in Spanish! True story- read our first CS experience here).
  • Have a backup plan (hostel, Airbnb, another Couchsurfer) in case of a bailout, flakey host, emergency, etc. You don’t have to have anything booked, but it’s smart to know of another option just in case.
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Yogi paradise at our Couchsurfer’s house in Costa Rica

During your stay

Goal: Be a good guest and member of the Couchsurfing community

  • This is pretty much common sense (hopefully) for being a good guest anytime you stay with another person – be clean, kind, and respectful. Clean what you use, follow host rules for their home, etc.
  • Get to know your host – most people who host on Couchsurfing want to get to know and spend some time with their guests.
  • Offer to pay for shared meals, cook a meal (or help), or clean up if you are cooked for.
  • Communicate! Let your host know your plans – sometimes you have your own key, other times you don’t.
  • Be flexible! Be open to spending time with your host or occupying yourself if they are busy.
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With our Couchsurfing host in Vigo, Spain

After your stay

Goal: Be a good person and member of the Couchsurfing community

  • Leave a review! Help the Couchsurfer out with their Couchsurfing cred.
  • Leave a gift or thank you card. We packed thank you cards that we leave a personal thank you note for each of our hosts. If we were on a shorter trip or coming straight from home, I would have liked to bring a little gift for each of our hosts (ex. a magnet or something from home).

Thank you card and keys of Couchsurfing host

Places We’ve Couchsurfed (so far)

  • Valparaiso, Chile
  • Bahia Blanca, Argentina
  • Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • Foz do Iguacu, Brazil
  • San Jose, Costa Rica
  • Vigo, Spain
  • Edinburgh, Scotland
  • London, England
  • Patras, Greece
  • Frankfurt, Germany
Travel Couple at Iguazu Falls in Brazil
One of our favorite Couchsurfing locations (Foz do Iguacu, Brazil)

Go forth and Couchsurf!

Have you ever Couchsurfed before? Would you ever Couchsurf? Let us know in the comments below!


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