Contributed by Lyrenna Loh
Provocative title, isn't it? I bet you are thinking that this is going to be a sleazy post, but unfortunately, it is not. I realised that people are actually pretty fascinated by the concept of Couchsurfing and I've received mixed reactions when I write about it. Expanding on this topic, I have compiled a series of benefits based on my (limited) experiences as a surfer.
Also read: 7 Struggles of a Broke Traveller
First things first, let's get the terminology sorted out, in case you are not familiar with Couchsurfing.
Couches refer to the home of the host
Surfers are travellers who request for a couch
Hosts are those that offers their home to travellers
I started using Couchsurfing a year ago in Bangkok, and that place and location were amazing even though I slept on a couch. Think sky gym, a mini infinity pool and a metro rail station right at the door. But that's not the point, I'm digressing.
Here, I have compiled some of the interesting finds from my Couchsurfing experiences – some of which I still find surreal.
1. Personalised local tours and spontaneous adventures
Admittedly, I'm not very good at organising my itinerary so it usually doesn't have a clear sequence despite me knowing where I want to go. I tend to overlook admission charges that apply to various places, hence it's definitely a bonus that you have someone to guide you the places that have free entry; give you the green light on casually sneaking in; and maybe find some non-touristy places that locals, not tourists, go to. Being a local, they will be able to feed you history and fun facts about the place that is not found on Google.
At times, my host even provides me with a spare bicycle or take me on car rides, so I get some experience of being on the road, which is pretty cool. You get to live like a local, even if it's just a couple of days. Besides, when someone knows exactly where to take you, you don't have to fret over the nitty gritty, such as questioning if Google Maps is pointing you in the right direction or what to have for lunch. Chances are, your host will take care of those questions for you. That works for me.
My host in Manchester, Tim and Ben, also took me out bouldering a little out of Manchester city centre. It was definitely something that I wasn't expecting myself to do. If shivering counts as cardio, I owe some solid abs to my hosts.
2. Earn street cred by going on dates or hanging out with the locals
Since I have already gone through 13 gruelling hours of flying across the continent, I might as well make the most out of it.
On local experiences, such as drinking culture, food culture, language, accents: It still amaze me sometimes when I observe customs, like the Vikings festivals, the drinking games, college life and the local way of life. I learn something new every day through these first-hand experiences, and it's amazing. British people do generally use phrases that are a little foreign to me, despite having a good grasp of the English language. I'm still picking up the local lingos and applying them in conversations
On dating culture: Sometimes when you go out with someone, mutual attraction becomes apparent. Well, it inevitably becomes a date whether or not you deny it, since both of you gives each other undivided attention. Again, this depends on a case-by-case basis and context. Sometimes, I do receive some unexpected little sweet surprises – a rose maybe or a nice homemade candlelit dinner. It's not a bad thing or something that you should be ashamed of, and you get an insight into the dating culture in the different countries that you go to. Go on adventures and have the time of your life!
On university life: Students in the UK are generally granted student loans to be self-sufficient through their university education while in Singapore, many of us depend on our parents. Note that I used university, not college. It's another system to behold over there and I'm getting used to the different terms. The schedule is also more laid back as compared to the system in Singapore, which gives me time and space to take a breather.
3. Bedtime stories have never been so interesting
Usually, if your hosts are busy on weekdays with work, the only time available together is before bedtime or during the weekends. This requires a pot of English tea, or two. A nice cafe setting maybe or a kitchen counter. TAKK cafe at Manchester serves the best cup of coffee. I've always felt so drawn in by listening to people's adventures, watching the video that they filmed on go-pro, all the crazy stuff that I would have never thought of. It's insane how much ideas and connection you can draw from these conversations. Have you heard of freight hopping or a professional hobo? Neither have I.
I was hosted by a web designer named Brave Dave in York, UK and he was extremely well-versed in adventurous stunts. His life is definitely blessed considering he has done countless of stunts that could possibly have been deadly. Holy shit. I was rendered speechless the first time I watched his videos on YouTube. Ever heard of freight-hopping? I thought that only existed in Hollywood movies. Guess not. OMG.
4. If you are not scrolling for miles on your phone, you are living in the moment
I am guilty of whipping out my phone too often (you guys probably are as well) and my hosts have often mentioned how obsessed I am with my phone. These days, if I'm striking up a conversation, I tend to be more conscious about tucking my phone away or putting it face-down so that the notifications do not distract me. As much as I am in a committed relationship with my phone, I've realised that the best moments come about when I'm disconnected from my wifi/mobile data. I had a three-hour conversation with my host in York over beer, listening to his life stories, his experiences and just having a great time. Or being in a house that is filled with cheeky college students waiting for the next opportunity to prank you.
Here's a tip: talk about food. It's a sure-fire subtle way of having some home-cooked food whipped up onto your plate.
5. The housing conditions are always a surprise
I'm always looking forward to being acquainted with my make-shift bed for a night or two, and the conditions are as turbulent and unpredictable as the weather in the UK. It might be a camping bag, a sleeping bag, a couch or an inflatable air mattress. Surprise me.
Well, asking for more information before confirming your stay will be useful but sometimes, desperate times call for desperate measures. Be thankful to have a roof over your head, maybe breakfast with a majestic garden view in the morning if you are lucky, or wine before you whine (ok, pun intended).
Always keep in mind that your host is sharing their personal space with you, so don't ever abuse the privilege. Respect the house rules even if you don't agree with them. I've got to say that some apartments you stay in might not be splendid – I've slept on an inflatable air mattress with a pencil wedged in the hole where the air is leaking – but on the hindsight, the fact that I have a roof over my head and the warmest company for a night or two makes up for it.
Also read: Why Couchsurfing is Failing
6. On taking on first-timers (zero-references, unfinished profile, pictures that look dodgy)
All I have to say is that I once had a blank reference page as well. Start with a meetup – it's always a safer bet. Probe on their interests to fill in the gaps which are not reflected on their profile so that there are lesser risks of miscommunication. If you are comfortable with one another, ask if an overnight couch is possible. Take the chance, it might be worth it. First timers are more sensitive to your wants and needs. Trust me, they are equally as nervous as you are about sharing their personal space.
Be kind, do them a favour and write a stellar review (if you enjoyed their company) and vice versa. Definitely had one of the best times with this group of newbies; they are the sweetest people I've ever met, and we are still checking in on each other's lives. #BFFs Tim J. Kerry (picture above) was a first timer as well and he was such great host and he started meeting up with more people from CS after his experience as well.
PS. I took a decent profile picture for him.
7. Always have a contingency plan
I can't emphasise how important this is, having been bailed on instances when hosts back out last minute. Shit happens. I've always made sure that I keep in constant contact with my host(s) just in case. And yes, in cases where you are not comfortable with someone alone, at least you know that there will be a Plan B.
There are alternatives to Couchsurfing too, such as Facebook groups that allow students to trade campus rooms for the weekends. Dig deeper into the realms of social media or Reddit – those channels are actually something that you might want to leverage on.
8. Enjoying your own company and being okay with being alone
It almost seems like a taboo to be heading somewhere foreign by yourself. I have no idea why do people make such a huge fuss about it sometimes. I see it as an opportunity to get to know myself better and I am actually more than okay going solo.
It definitely has its pros and cons, and being well aware of the risks helps. Be vigilant about your surroundings, and don't be shy to ask for help or create conversations with random strangers. I met so many people on the trains/buses/streets and had some of the best times with them. People also feel more comfortable opening up to you when you are alone. Travelling by yourself allows you to focus on yourself and doing the things that you want to do without feeling bad about it and be flexible about changes. It might be out of your comfort zone, and I still get a little scared every time I travel solo.
Put on a brave front anyway, be spontaneous but don’t be naive. Trust yourself, a lot. I’ve realised that I became more confident wth my choices after I started travelling by myself.
9. Goodbyes: something that gets harder every single time
Having spent a significant amount of time with these people who have wholeheartedly invited me to live with them and be part of their life – even if it is just a couple of days – it always dawns on me that I have to part with them eventually. Every single one of them has been part of my journey and I've truly enjoyed spending time with them. I still keep in contact with many of them, but a part of me knows that we might never meet again. Which is why I've always requested to take pictures with them; those are the only memories that I can look back in my photo gallery and rewind the moment.
10. But hey , let's face it, the struggle is real
Don't assume that it's always easy and straightforward to get a host. Constantly sending/checking couch requests, creating public trips, checking notifications, doing background checks and receiving weird messages – it gets tiring after a while and it's common to get rejected. Don't take it too personally, they are busy people as well. Deal with it.
Frankly speaking, the reviews are highly dependent on social skills, so work it, people. Just know that you can't please everyone, so if it doesn't work out well, it doesn't mean that it's entirely your fault. It's a two-way street, like all relationships.
Make the most out of the experience by asking more, staying present, and reciprocating efforts. It's really not much to ask for.
*** BONUS TIP: In your request, use this “make it about them, offer value” approach, and you WILL be a more successful. I promise. In a nutshell, be very interested in what they do. People love talking about themselves. ***
Also read: 9 Ways to Get Free Accommodation While Travelling
Here are some of the reviews that I have received so far. 11 and counting.