Couchsurfing can be tricky, but it’s really worth it. I was an active host and surfer for 8 years before becoming too busy to be a good host anymore. But I still stay in touch with people I met on my first couchsurfing experience in Nashville, TN all the way back in 2008. During those years I hosted dozens of people and found great pleasure in helping travelers in need.
But I also learned a lot.
The biggest thing was that when it comes to couchsurfing: when it’s great, it’s just amazing. When it goes wrong, it can be rough. Fortunately though, these 10 tips will help you navigate the community and ensure you have a great experience on your next trip.
1. Start with your profile
Before you surf or host for the first time, you’ve got to start here. This is the first place you’ll generally interact with someone through couchsurfing (unless you’re attending meetups, more on that later).
Every single thing mentioned in this article is easier when you and your host have extremely clear profiles which explain who you are, what brings you to couchsurfing, and what kind of experience you expect as a guest or host. Having this pre-filter and a clear place to reference at any time will make sure you end up matched with the right people for both of you to have a fantastic experience.
Try to find a balance between listing your preferences around things like smoking, drinking, partying, bringing towels, having key access, cooking, languages, etc. and the more lighthearted things about you and your passions. Too much of the latter and you might come across as cold and strict, while too much of the former means you’re more likely to end up with misunderstandings with hosts or guests.
Couchsurfing’s site has a good breakdown of everything a great profile needs.
2. Don’t treat sending requests like a chore
Listen, I know writing request after request is mentally exhausting. There’s always a temptation to just copy-paste something and be done with it. But, just as with your profile, a great couchsurfing experience begins with a great request.
Obviously, a request should be customized. There’s no need to write a short novel about why you’d like them to host you. But you should aim to be genuine and upfront about who you are, why you’d like to stay with them, and what your plans are. Try and get your personality across alongside the essential bits of information.
If you need more tips and ideas, there are great articles out there with solid advice.
3. Make yourself useful
At the bare minimum, you’re a guest and should make sure you’re not a burden to your host. Your aim, however, should be to be friendly and useful. That could mean cooking a meal (always my preferred method of saying thanks), helping to clean, fixing something, etc. Think of it like the campsite rule: always leave a place better than you found it.
This doesn’t begin and end with a single act, it’s more like a way of acting. Always be on the lookout for some ways you can help out and you’ll be fine.
4. Have the right attitude
Tying into making yourself useful is just having the right attitude. Whether you’re a guest or a host, it’s essential to be patient, give people the benefit of the doubt, and approach the entire experience with openness. If you come across as someone who thinks they already know everything and aren’t interested in new ideas or experiences, you’re not likely to fit well into the couchsurfing community or enjoy your time.
If you get frustrated or end up in a bad mood, try and remember why you chose Couchsurfing and what else it’s done for you. It’s like a friendship and will probably have its ups and downs. Sometimes, you just need to be reminded of that.
5. Let the host lead
You should be pre-screening your hosts to find the right one to match what you’d like to do anyways. But besides that, once you’re actually at their place, let them take the lead in what your experience will be like. If they want a quiet night in while you’re in the mood for some hard partying, it’s usually best to go with their preference.
True, this may mean occasionally having to change your own plans, but that is a part of the couchsurfing experience. If you want complete freedom to do whatever you want, you can always rent a hostel or hotel room.
6. Be upfront and clear about leaving and arriving
I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I worry about my guests if they’re late. I worry like someone’s mother. “What if something happened, surely they would have written…” I’ve spent hours fretting like this when guests arrived late without letting me know. Sure, sometimes it genuinely wasn’t their fault, but oftentimes it was simple carelessness.
In other words, do not be that guest. Be clear about when you expect to arrive and how. If you can, mention your flight number, the bus company, etc. so that if needed a host can check with a company whether your mode of transport has caused a delay. I made this mistake in Paris once and ended up spending a very cold winter night wandering the city streets without a place to stay after my flight was 4 hours late and I couldn’t contact my host.
But overall, just be honest and consider how your actions will affect your host. Leaving and arriving are generally the most stressful times of any trip, so be considerate and you’ll be fine.
7. Gifts are okay, but do them right
There are disagreements here within the couchsurfing community. Some people say you should bring a gift to a host while others don’t like the practice because it makes the experience feel too much like an exchange of goods for a service.
There are exceptions but most hosts don’t really want or need a fridge magnet. A beer or bottle of wine can be nice, assuming your host drinks alcohol. Cooking for a host is always a nice gesture, especially if you can make something unique.
Honestly, the best gifts I’ve gotten have been simple thank you cards with a heartfelt hand-written message on them. Some I kept for years just because they brought me a smile every time I looked at them.
Overall, just don’t focus too much on a gift. Constantly worrying about your obligations kind of ruins the couchsurfing experience. If what you’re doing comes from a place of good intentions and a genuine love for what couchsurfing represents, you should be fine.
8. Go to meetups
Even if you can’t host for a while, you can always get involved in your local couchsurfing community through meetups. These can be anything from communal trips to volunteering or just a simple gathering at a local bar. These can be a great place to meet local hosts, swap stories, and make friends.
Several of my best friends are people I met through couchsurfing meetups. I never hosted them, they were simply other community members. All that is to say, if you’re missing out on meetups then you’re missing out on one of the best aspects of Couchsurfing.
9. Know what Couchsurfing is not
You don’t formally owe your host anything. Perhaps the only thing worse than a guest who treats the host like nothing more than a free hotel room is a host who pressures or coerces a guest. In particular, Couchsurfing is not a dating service. The power dynamic of having a host who is in control of the guest having a place to sleep is a terrible recipe.
That said, it’s always best for guests to have a plan B. You don’t need to book anything, but have the address, phone number, and hours of an affordable hotel or hostel near your host’s home just in case things go south. This doesn’t happen often, but on the rare occasion it does you’ll feel much safer and more secure knowing you already have a plan B in place.
10. In the end, just get out there and enjoy yourself!
All of the rules and tricky bits aside, being a part of the Couchsurfing community can be incredibly rewarding and bring lifelong friendships (just ask me!) Now that you know all the basics about being a fantastic guest and host, you’re ready to get out and enjoy it. But first you need to get there. For couchsurfers within Europe, InterCity buses offer one of the most convenient and affordable ways to get out and start exploring.