If you have ever even as much as skimmed the surface of the online budget travel community, you have probably heard of Couchsurfing. It is by far one of the best ways to travel on a tight budget for a long period of time. Most people would actually be surprised how much longer they can travel by Couchsurfing rather than staying in hostels. If you aren’t familiar with Couchsurfing, here is a little background info.
Couchsurfing was conceived by Casey Fenton in 1999, and it arose from finding a cheap flight from Boston to Iceland. He randomly sent out 1,500 emails to University of Iceland students asking for a place to stay, and he received over 50 offers. On his flight home, he began brainstorming on the ideas that would ultimately create Couchsurfing. He registered the website the same year. After its inception, growth was slow. Not long after its privatization in 2011, membership began to surge, and in October of 2011 the website had reached 3 million members. Here is the main quote from their About us page.
We envision a world made better by travel and travel made richer by connection. Couchsurfers share their lives with the people they encounter, fostering cultural exchange and mutual respect.
Indeed, that is Couchsurfing’s intended purpose, but what I realized while searching for hosts in Oslo, Norway (my second destination after Iceland on my Eurotrip) was that Couchsurfing had been hijacked by none other than—freeloaders.
One of the various definitions of freeloader on Urban Dictionary is as follows;
Freeloader (noun) — Someone who takes advantage of food, clothing, and other necessities when visiting a friend’s house.
Notice the word “friend” as mentioned above, now imagine as a Couchsurfing host opening their home to a total stranger for free, and then discovering that person is a mooching, self-centered freeloader? Could you imagine? Especially since Couchsurfing is free. Yes, it’s free. There is no exchange of money for you staying at your host’s dwelling. This is one of the prime reasons Couchsurfing has been hijacked by freeloaders. My father always told me, “Nothing in life is free.”
Monetarily speaking, Couchsurfing is, but refer back to the main quote on the Couchsurfing “about us” section, “Couchsurfers share their lives with the people they encounter, fostering cultural exchange and mutual respect.” Fostering cultural exchange. That would insinuate there is some kind of mutual benefit that both host and surfer get out of the whole Couchsurfing process. For me, there was. I was extremely blessed to have been hosted by veteran Couchsurfing hosts who knew all about the “cultural exchange”, and the excellent experience I had Couchsurfing with my first host in Oslo, Norway ultimately led to my decision to continue using Couchsurfing for the remainder of my Eurotrip.
I reached out to my first ever host, Thomas, to help me comprise some of the “Don’ts” in this article. I still recall how nervous I was when requesting Thomas, because as a veteran CS host, he has seen it all, and at the time in his very lengthy profile he proudly stated that he declines over 3000 requests a year. Once I met Thomas, I realized I had nothing to worry about. His blunt and detailed profile was there for one purpose, and that is to weed out the freeloaders from the genuine surfers.
Here are some excerpts directly from Thomas’s CS profile detailing the changing tides of the Couchsurfing crowd.
“Since I started hosting back in 2012, Couchsurfing and the kind of people that uses the service has for a fact changed a lot. Back then, the people who requested to stay with me, and those who actually did stay with me were all genuine travelers. They brought local wine, food, or other gifts from their home country, and they were really interested in getting to know me and my country (which was, and still is the actual intention of Couchsurfing). These days, it is totally the other way around. The majority of Couchsurfing guests are now expecting me to give them gifts, A.K.A. free accommodation and unlimited amounts of food and drinks. Couchsurfing has never, and will never become a free hotel.”
“After hosting more than 200 surfers and declining a few thousand requests, I can say that things are not like they used to. While I these days mostly receive mass produced requests where they even got my name or the city that they intend to visit wrong, I in the beginning received requests that took forever to read. But the requests were genuine, they were personal, funny and interesting, and so were the people behind the requests.”
And most importantly, Thomas’s experiences with freeloaders.
“Freeloaders. I absolutely despise them! Freeloaders are people who only use CouchSurfing as a way to stay for free at someone’s house. These kind of people do not care that much about the people hosting them. The most important thing to them is saving money, rather then to respect what the Couchsurf community stands for. And I am really sick and tired of being taken advantage of. A typical freeloader at my house is a person who does not participate at all. Socially, or when buying in food ingredients when we are all sharing a meal, or more commonly, never purchases drinks when we are having a party. Some of them has also expected me to pay for their food or drinks when I have taken them to restaurants or bars. I usually do, to be nice, but it so is not right to take advantage of other people’s generosity like that.”
In the summertime (the high season in Oslo) Thomas can receive up to 50 requests a day, and 98% of those are mass-produced, making his job very easy. He now only hosts in the off season, and hosts on Airbnb during the high season. His apartment is literally in the center of Oslo, and I highly recommend it and him as a host of course. Here is a snapshot of one of the rude, demanding freeloaders that request Thomas.
Thomas has hosted over 256 surfers from 43 different countries. He has definitely seen it all, and his share of the bad experiences range from an Asian guest sneaking into his room and trying to masturbate him, a sexually liberated Brazilian who left 10 dirty condoms scattered around his apartment, to another Brazilian who accused Thomas of drugging him, and once he offered to take him to the ER at his expense, the man declined, and he apologized for his actions six months later.
I was delighted to say the least when Thomas accepted my request, because not only was his location steps away from the Oslo S Central Station, I could tell by the reviews from the surfers that stayed with him that Thomas was a genuinely good person. I can confirm that this is true, and everything about Thomas and the way he treats his guests when they are in his home made all the difference.
So with his help, I have created the Do’s and Don’ts of Couchsurfing.
1. Don’t mass-produce requests.
You aren’t fooling anyone, trust me. The seasoned veterans of Couchsurfing receive so many requests a day, especially ones that live in major tourist destinations, they can tell that you have literally copied and pasted your paragraph and mass-requested many other hosts in their cities. They, like Thomas, will deny your request immediately, no questions asked. If you haven’t already realized why this don’t is by far the most important, it’s because mass-produced requests are the telltale red-flag sign of a freeloader. The hosts can smell it a mile away, and the people who mass-produce are the worst type of Couchsurfers—the ones who just want a free place to stay and couldn’t care less about the cultural exchange aspect of CS. You need to be writing very personalized, heartfelt requests to be hosted by the veteran Couchsurfing hosts.
2. Don’t come empty-handed.
And if you do, be quick to offer to buy your host a meal, pay for their drinks, or buy some drinks at the liquor store. Many hosts, like Thomas at the time I stayed with him, require you to pick up some alcohol before you arrive at their doorsteps. This isn’t because your host is an alcoholic. It’s because they are trying to weed out the freeloaders. Since I was coming from Iceland when I landed in Oslo, and not North America (Thomas had a “what to bring” section based on region of origin) I purchased him a six pack of his favorite beer. Needless to say he has an entire cabinet full of unopened Smirnoff Vodka and loads of other types (which came in handy for us when we played never-have-I-ever).
3. Don’t assume things.
There is nothing that can make you look like a bad person in the eyes of your host faster than this don’t. Just because you are staying at their residence for free, does not mean you have instant access to the fridge, the shower, and whatever else is in their home. To avoid this, just ask before you want to use something. Although many hosts, like Thomas, disclose beforehand in their profile what is acceptable and what is not. Thomas, like the rest of my hosts, were extremely trusting of me. I had my own set of keys, could shower whatever time I felt, cook when I liked, wake up at whatever time I chose, and so on. I only slipped up once with my host in Sevilla, Spain, and it was partly due to the fact so many of my hosts made me feel like family. I had purchased a bottle of ketchup (that ultimately I left because I left all of my perishable foods with my hosts to keep) and instead of using the bottle I purchased, I used a bit of the cold ketchup in the fridge (because I’m a weirdo and prefer ketchup to be cold). My host, unbeknownst to him that I had purchased a bottle of ketchup, quickly scolded me for using the ketchup without asking because it could have been one of his roommates. I explained to him I bought an entire bottle and used it only because it was cold. We both assumed, and it caused a momentary tension between us. So to avoid instances like that, always ask. Unless they ask you to please stop asking and be comfortable (like Thomas did).
4. Don’t arrive late.
This is the one reason Thomas will not accept hitchhikers, because many do not have mobile phone service in Norway, are terrible at communicating, and arrive at odd hours of the night. When it comes to arriving and departing, be clear about your flight number, what time you will arrive, and so on. This leads to smooth transition into your host’s home and also, can be to your benefit, because if you get lost using the public transit, your host will be able to assist you because they are already free and expecting your arrival. Luckily, I was only late once, and that was to my host in Nice, France. I missed my 08:00 train from Barcelona to Montpelier and the next one wasn’t until 13:00. The subsequent trains in France were all delayed, and that caused me to arrive in Nice around 23:00. Thankfully, since I have T-Mobile’s Global Plan, I was able to communicate with my host the entire time. I am very grateful he was understanding, and since the buses to his stop ended somewhere around 21:00, he had to pick me up in his car at the train station. Simply put, don’t be late.
5. Don’t expect your host to be your tour guide.
Remember, your host isn’t a tour guide. They are giving you a free place to stay, and they have lives too. Many veteran hosts like Thomas try to show their surfers the best of their city. Our first night there, he took myself and Kate, the other Couchsurfer he hosted while I was there, to the upper deck of the Oslo Opera House. The following day, he took us to the Holmenkollen National Arena where we got some gorgeous panoramic views high above Oslo. The majority of my hosts tried their best to show me around their cities, but don’t automatically expect it. My hosts in Madrid were all studying for their university exams, and I was extremely lucky that my host even agreed to accept my request. Taking his suggestions of things to see, I explored Madrid alone for my first three days, and my hosts on my last night took me out for a night of drinking till sunrise, and I was able to experience true Madrid nightlife at a discoteca, and it was amazing.
1. Do read their entire Couchsurfing profile.
Or don’t, if you want to get immediately declined from the veteran hosts. Many good hosts, like Thomas, will hide code words within their profiles or about me sections to help weed out freeloaders and people who are not genuinely interested in getting to know them. This helps them only host people who seriously want to make new friends, exchange stories and cultural quirks, and all around have a good time together. It also is important for language barriers, people allergic to pets, cultural differences, and people with certain dietary restrictions. All very important things to know before you arrive to see if your host is the right fit for you. I forgot to read the “my home” section for my host in London, and I did not see that the sleeping arrangements were a shared bed. The location was good, and luckily I was okay with sharing a bed in the tiny studio, but for some people they would be shocked and most likely have to find other accommodations.
2. Do read the reviews from other surfers.
This is an absolute must, especially for females traveling alone. As a guy, I wasn’t too worried, but I’m pretty certain all of my hosts had no negative reviews. If you are a female and considering using Couchsurfing as a means to travel, make sure the host’s reviews are balanced between male and female guests, or if all their reviews are from females (many are) that they have no negative reviews saying they are perverts or were sexually suggestive in seemingly casual conversation. This is another phenomenon with Couchsurfing. Most of the hosts are men, which wasn’t a problem for me, but can be problematic for women who are trying to avoid men hitting on them. Sadly some men use Couchsurfing as a way to meet women and/or make passes at them, so this is why reading reviews are paramount to a good Couchsurfing experience.
3. Do bring a gift & be generous.
Remember, people, you are staying at their place FOR FREE. You are saving hundreds of dollars on accommodation, the least you can do is offer to buy your host drinks at the bar, or pay for their meal when you eat out. Many times they will try to decline, but be adamant about it. They will appreciate it. I arrived with a bottle of wine or a six pack of beer at almost every one of my host’s homes. They really appreciated the gesture. That is what sets apart the best surfers from the average ones, and keeps you out of the dreaded category of freeloader.
4. Do buy your own groceries.
Once again, you are staying at their place for free. Just because they opened their home up to you, does not mean their fridge is an all-you-can-eat buffet. The first thing you should do not long after you arrive is to ask where the nearest supermarket is and go shopping. Most hosts will be glad to join you on the walk. Nearly all of mine did, and it was a nice way to break the ice with casual conversation while shopping. Your hosts almost always know the place to shop with the best prices. Trust me, they know you are trying to save money, or else you would be staying at fancy hotels and not Couchsurfing. Also, leave your perishables with them. They will appreciate the gesture, and so will the other airline passengers if you are flying. No one wants to smell the lukewarm hotdogs and deli meats in your carry-on bag.
5. Do keep in touch!
Last but not least, don’t be a stranger once you’ve left! Get their mobile numbers and add each other on Facebook or other social media sites. If you are on a longer trip like I was in Europe, send them updates throughout your trip. They will definitely appreciate the occasional, “How have you been?” You may even get invited to special trips. Thomas holds a yearly get together in a random city as a reunion with his favorite Couchsurfers (if you were wondering, myself and Kate were invited). When I departed from all of my host’s homes, they told me I was welcome to come back and visit whenever, and that I’d always have a place to stay. It is an amazing thing to have friends all over the world. It gives you local insight and opens doors to new experiences.
Thomas definitely spurred my love for Couchsurfing, and his kindness made all the difference. My experience surfing with him set the bar high for all the subsequent hosts I had in Europe. I would argue that he was the best, but nearly all of my other hosts met the same level of care and genuine interest in their surfers. To have a better global understanding and making travel friends is what it is all about, and the more you travel, the more you realize the connections you make with people are the most valuable things of all.
If you’d like to stay with Thomas in Oslo, here is his Airbnb Profile. Or if you think you are up to the challenge, here is his Couchsurfing Profile. He also owns and operates Estonia’s largest LGBTQ dating website, http://www.glxy.eu/, which is expanding to Lithuania and Latvia this summer. Along with being a university student, an art dealer, and a part-time youth counselor, he is a very busy guy. I am just thankful for the opportunity to stay with him, becoming friends with him and Kate, and having an awesome three days in Oslo. Without him, I would have never known what the proper Couchsurfing experience should be like. See you in Oslo one day again, Thomas!