Couchsurfing allows travelers to sleep on the couches of strangers around the world--it can be incredible and it can go wrong.
“Couch surfing” (two words) is the informal practice of crashing on someone’s couch, as in sleeping on a friend’s couch until you find a new apartment or during a fight with a live-in partner. “Couchsurfing” (one word) is a homestay and social networking platform that allows users to meet up, swap stories, share cultural experiences, and offer their couch for a stay (or private room, occasionally).
According to Couchsurfing.com, the site connects 14 million people in more than 200,000 cities with “a global network of people willing to share in profound and meaningful ways, making travel a truly social experience.” Users can also host events (holiday picnics, pub crawls, movie nights, etc.), and sub-groups exist to connect travelers with specific interests (salsa dancing in Italy, cycling in New York City, carpooling in Iceland, etc.). Airbnb kind of took the idea of Couchsurfing, cleaned it up, formalized it, and monetized it (which, if you ask me, has had a very negative impact on Couchsurfing, but that’s another story).
I joined the platform in 2009 and have hosted dozens of interesting people, from Dutch families making round-the-world trips with their kids to backpackers from Azerbaijan to a violinist/dentist from Iraq who was in town to accept a peace prize from the United Nations. Couchsurfing has changed how I travel and it has changed my life. Some adventures have been incredible, some have been awful. Here’s a handful of experiences that have stuck with me over the years.
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The Turkish Guy That Got Naked
After hosting two Turkish best friends over New Year’s Eve (they hit the jackpot: a free place to stay in New York City during a crazy expensive travel season), I went to visit one of them in Istanbul. He put me up in his apartment and showed me around over the weekend, but otherwise, I was on my own while he was working. I decided to meet up with a guy that had a couple of positive references from surfers who had hung out with him (they had not stayed overnight at his home).
INSIDER TIPSafety note (ladies, especially): Never stay with someone without references.
We met at a café and explored the city on foot for a few hours. He mentioned before we met up that he would have to return to his office later to work. I was tired, so he said he could work from home instead of from his office if I wanted to take a nap at his place. He seemed nice so I agreed.
He sat next to me on the bed and asked if I wanted a massage. Of course, I declined and reminded him he had work to do. He asked if I minded if he changed into his pajamas. We were in his house so I told him to wear what he wanted. Apparently, he wanted to strip down to his boxers (in front of me), place his hand on my shoulder, and offer another massage. He was a scrawny 19-year-old, nearly 15 years younger than me, so it was a bit laughable that he thought I’d be attracted to him and his pathetic game. That said, this situation could have gone much differently. His roommate was in the next room and I had no back up. I told him my friend was done working so I was ready to meet him. The creep let me use his phone to call my friend, who sent a taxi for me. After hearing what happened, my outraged friend created lengthy posts on all Istanbul Couchsurfing groups (some with over 8,000 members), linking to this guy’s profile and explaining why nobody should trust him.
The Girl That Locked Me in Her Apartment in Mexico
During my first Couchsurfing attempt in Mexico, my host didn’t tell me that her apartment locked from the outside so when she left for work in the morning (without waking me up), I couldn’t get out. This was nearly 10 years ago, before global data phone plans, so I had to sit there until she got home. I asked her to wake me up the next morning so I could leave with her. She forgot. She also forgot to turn on the home’s Internet so I wasted another day sitting on her couch. That night, I left and crashed with another surfer I met in a salsa dancing group.
The Time I Slept in the Smelly Room to End All Smelly Rooms
During another trip to Mexico, my friend Pedro (who I also met in the above-mentioned Mexico City salsa dancing group) and I road tripped it to San Luis Potosí, where a lovely young woman offered to host us. We were surprised there were hosts in her tiny town and were grateful that she met us at the gas station to show us to her place. We had our own room but the stained mattress was about an inch thick, covered in hair, and had wires poking out everywhere. Mosquitos devoured our blood while roaches crawled around the floor and bed. The entire home smelled like sewage, as did the rest of the town, which must have lacked a proper sewage treatment facility. Our host, so kind and happy to receive us, was likely accustomed to the smell; we didn’t want to hurt her feelings by leaving. We said goodbye as soon as the sun rose.
The Driver Who Actually Became a Business Partner
Pedro, my Couchsurfing buddy in the previous story, is actually a professional taxi driver in Mexico City. I met him when he offered to pick me up from the airport (for free) and drop me off at the host who locked me in her apartment. Over several years, we wound up taking his taxi on road trips to Oaxaca, Puebla, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, and to San Luis Potosí (a lush and gorgeous state). We became good friends and when I started my travel company, EscapingNY, I hired him to be the driver for my Day of the Dead trips in Mexico City. All my tour participants love him and he’s become an irreplaceable member of my team.
The Helpful, Inviting Jungle Resident
Kota Tinggi is a small Malaysian town that most travelers have no reason to visit. Matin, a Couchsurfer living in a small village 25 minutes from Kota Tinggi, posts on the Singapore Couchsurfing group to recruit potential visitors. In an effort to draw travelers to his city, where he was building an eco-lodge to promote tourism in his community, he wrote every single person that posted on the Singapore group, inviting them to his home and giving instructions on how to cross the border. With the help of Matin’s instructions, I arrived safely in Kota Tinggi on a small, crowded minibus and found the city’s only McDonald’s, our designated meeting point. Matin picked me up and drove us to his bohemian home in the jungle, where I even had my own room. We went for hikes during the day and he prepared jackfruit and tempeh for dinner. He’s since moved to Kuala Lumpur and we still stay in touch.
Go Sleep on a Couch!
I’ve had my share of Couchsurfing experiences good and bad, all of them memorable. While it is not always the easiest platform to navigate and it definitely isn’t the most efficient way to plan a trip, Couchsurfers are a unique bunch. Most are in it not to profit off tourists, but rather, to share their culture and learn about the rest of the world. Couchsurfing re-defined travel for me, and I encourage anyone and everyone to join the platform.