CouchSurfing in the States
Liz de Fegely gave CouchSurfing a shot for the first time this year. The verdict? Everyone should give it a go.
CouchSurfing promotes a different way of travelling. It is one of the few sites on the internet that extends a good old fashioned sense of trust and hospitality to strangers and poor (in the monetary sense), lonely travellers. CouchSurfing is a network that connects travellers with potential hosts to stay with when you’re travelling away from home. Even more than free accommodation though, CouchSurfing is about meeting new people, locals from the area that you’re visiting and introducing you to their way of life. A host may have a spare couch, a guest room, or simply space to pull up a sleeping bag on the floor. Even if you don’t end up staying with someone, CouchSurfers may be able to show you their favourite local coffee joint, invite you along to a house party or supply you with top notch tips on experiencing their hometown.
It’s an internet phenomenon that encourages the experience of a place with the help of an insider’s perspective – instead of through a guide book or hotel concierge – and of course promoting the connection of like-minded travellers. Sure, hostels are great places to meet a bunch of tourists, but you can’t beat hanging out with the locals. It’s a refreshing alternative to organised pub crawls and following carefully drawn out maps pointing out the tourist routes. With CouchSurfing you can end up anywhere: warehouse parties, local theatre, gigs, hidden cafes, picnics in the park and all sorts of special events that you may otherwise have skipped over.
I tried out CouchSurfing with a friend while we travelled down the west coast of North America, starting in Vancouver, Canada. We stayed with a lovely Frenchman, Fabian, who was such a generous host. He let us stay with hardly any notice (maybe a day, tops), and took us out to his favourite Japanese restaurant, Vancouver bars and was a general tour guide of the city sights. He had been living there for two years and when he first arrived he used CouchSurfing as a way to break into the community and meet people. There’s a group of Vancouver CouchSurfers who met up for drinks every few months, who he still manages to catch up with every once in a while.
After Vancouver we went down to Seattle to stay with Ben in his gorgeous apartment on Capitol Hill (prime position!). In true and trusting CouchSurfer spirit he gave us a set of keys to his apartment. We actually only saw him for a drink that night and then missed him the next morning when he snuck out for work. But he was happy for us to stay – he deserves some good karma heading his way.
From Seattle we got a lift to Portland where we stayed with another Ben in his cosy apartment in the centre of town. He took us along to a friend’s pizza night and then we went to an eighties disco night in an old ballroom. It was brilliant. The next day we went to the local farmer’s market and hunted down some delicious Portland coffee to soothe our heads. He did his own thing that day and we headed off to do our own sightseeing.
The great thing about the individuals on CouchSurfing is that you can generally suss out the types of people they are by their profile. Most are happy to show you around, but also give you space to do your own thing while they do theirs – a perfect balance. Each profile has a list of reviews from previous surfers and hosts, so you can be fairly ruthless with whom you contact (whether that be staying with them or hosting). The system works through reciprocation; if your share house could do with some spruiking up with additional international characters this is a perfect way to do so. Or if you’re just sick of the same old routine and hanging out with the same people, it may be time to extend your couch/floor space to a friendly backpacker or two. You can dictate how long guests stay for, and the extensive profiles allow you to steer clear of anyone that seems a bit dodgy.
Try it out – www.couchsurfing.org – and share the experiences of your city with a visitor, or get good insight to a stranger’s hometown. The stranger will quickly become a friend and you’ll leave that place will a better connection than a few tourist snaps and a handful of brochures.