Travel to a distant country, meet a stranger, and… stay at their home for free? It sounds dangerous and risky. Who knows, they may be good people, or… perverts! However, hundreds of thousands of people do this everyday, through the Couchsurfing community. Life is always full of adventures, isn’t it? During a solo trip to Europe last year, I decided to overcome my fear to gain new experiences on my journey.
MEET PEOPLE FROM EVERY WHERE
In the middle of ancient Rome’s Piazza Venezia, I waited for Daniele. We had an appointment to meet each other in Rome, after our first meeting through Couchsurfing when he was in Vietnam two years ago. He took me to eat pasta and said that it was just one of the hundreds of Italian noodles that they could eat each day. Then, he told me about his latest trip to Cuba, where he had made new friends through Couchsurfing.
Couchsurfing is a community offering free accommodation. Travellers will sleep on the couch in the living room for a few days, which is why it is called “Couchsurfing”. For most backpackers, a warm, safe place to rest is enough. Because it is free, no one expects warm blankets or soft cushions. If they need those, they have to spend money to rent hotel rooms. The best things about Couchsurfing are meeting locals, chatting, discovering cultural differences, living together, and becoming friends. Couchsurfing does not mean people must stay together. If you cannot provide accommodation or do not have a need for free accommodation like me and Daniele, you can still meet, exchange culture, and become friends after chatting on the Couchsurfing forum.
After Rome, I met Emili in Barcelona. I had met her before, through Couchsurfing in Hanoi. She took me for a stroll by a beach in Barcelona, then we went to a bar in the centre of the old city – the Gothic Quarter – to drink Sangria, a Spanish fruit cocktail.
Meeting Daniel and Emili in distant countries as old friends was joyful and made everything less strange to me. They were very enthusiastic to introduce things to me; maybe they wanted to reciprocate the days in Vietnam that I took them around the city.
SELECTING THE HOST: LUCK OF THE DRAW
For the most part, on your journey, you will stay at the homes of strangers, people you will meet for the first time. Some surfers meet enthusiastic hosts who not only pick them up at the airport, but also cook for them or take them around. You are lucky if you get to meet up with enthusiastic people. On the other hand, during the times you have to manage your own trip, you will become more mature and more dynamic. For example, I read maps better after finding my way to the host’s house and going out by myself. This is a real challenge because Western streets look very similar, so it is easy to get lost, and the host’s timetable is also a matter. Once I found the house on time, but the door was locked and I could not call my host. Fortunately, a moment later, her housemate came back home; if not, I would have had to wait for a long time.
However, this is a “fifty – fifty game” and sometimes you will have bad luck. For example, another time, I arrived at 3pm but we were not meeting until 9pm. It is an unforgettable experience to carry a backpack on your shoulders, pulling a suitcase with one hand on the brick pavement of Brussels, holding an umbrella, and going to tourist attractions. The irony was, the host took me for a dinner but then told me she could not let me stay at her house because of an unexpected work trip. At 11:30pm in a strange place, I was wandering around with luggage on the street.
Fortunately, another friend on Couchsurfing knew I was in Brussels, so he invited me and my host to have a beer with a group of friends. After hearing my story, he said that night he would stay at his friend’s house so he could not accommodate me, but he would ask if I could stay one night. I felt like a poor homeless wanderer, waiting for the kindness of others. Going home with two strange boys is also risky. But, staying in a stranger’s house is risky from the beginning, so I decided to “take the risk.” Through Couchsurfing, I learned how to open up and trust strangers.
My intuition was right. For me, Belgium is the most friendly, enthusiastic country in Europe. I just had to wait a bit long because the host was busy… flirting. At around 1am, he convinced the girl he just made acquaintance to come home with us. He invited each of us for a glass of gin & tonic and showed his friend and me two couches,before going back to the bedroom with the girl. I was not sure if the two of them had “good sleep” but I “passed out” after a long day.
Despite some difficulties, I still find myself quite lucky. My hosts were all friendly. We did not spend a lot of time together, but I had a few interesting hours over meals, chatting with them. For example, lunchtime in Spain is at 3pm or 5pm because they need time for a siesta (a nap). Amsterdam often has costume festivals, where you can wear anything you like or nothing at all. It is Dutch!
Sometimes, I have been fortunate to have hosts with free time, and they would take me around. The most memorable time was when I stayed with a young director in Paris. After watching a French film, Amelie, he took me to the café and the canal in that film. It was wonderful.
COUCHSURFING OR SEXSURFING?
Many people say that Couchsurfing is different now than when it was launched in 2004. Some people will agree to let you stay in their house but then for money or sex. This is why some people call Couchsurfing “Sexsurfing.” If you just want to “surf on the couch” rather than “surf on the bed with stranger” then choose your host carefully. But even so, sometimes it’s hard to resist handsome Western guys. My first host in Madrid was a bodybuilding teacher. Lord, I only knew that when I met him in person. He did not wear a top after leaving the bathroom, and then he asked me if I was cold, and that his room was ready for me. I glanced at his six-pack, tried my best to refuse. I want to explore the country and the people here, but not this way. But maybe some people think this is the best way to discover?
Continuing the story in Brussels, on the second night, I moved to another host’s house. He was five years younger than me, French, and living in Brussels. I preferred to stay with locals, but he was very willing to help when I was in trouble, so I did not refuse. He took me to eat French Fries; the famous Belgium fried potato, and told me why he decided to come here.
He also introduced me to some must-see museums. Things were very fun and pleasant until we returned home. Suddenly he asked me if he could kiss me. When I reminded him that he had a girlfriend, he said that’s okay, because he is French.
I hope not every French person is like this. It also seems like there are weird people everywhere. The 45-year-old host in Amsterdam was very confusing when he showed me some of her and her friend’s costumes: female tight-fitting leather outfitsthat look like swimsuits with a hole at the bottom (!?) and… handcuffs. She wanted to cosplay as Christian Gray in a female version, with a 50 Shades of Gray theme, but I am not a fan of 50 Shades so I just said, “No, thank you, I must go to bed now.” Istill wonder, why did I only refuse them and not run away from these strange people? Maybe I was too reckless. Even so, I think they are still nice people. Although they suggested some “strange” things, after I turned them down, they still behaved well, did not force me, or kick me out of the house.
So far, I have been a lucky traveller. To be honest, a little bit of adventure while travelling makes the trip more exciting. The feeling of facing a challenge, overcoming your fears, and gaining new experiences on your own are priceless. Of course, pray that the god of luck is always with you!’
♦ Create an account
Visit www.couchsurfing.com or download the app for your smartphone to create an account using your email or Facebook account.Your profile is the first thing people will see about you. When you apply for accommodation, the host will certainly read your profile. So, do not leave your account blank or provide too little information. Everyone wants to meet someone interesting. Write an introduction about yourself. The available hints will help you complete this easily.
If you want to get more reviews from other members to gain more credibility and increase your chances of being chosen, let some people stay in your house or meet up with people travelling to Vietnam.
♦ Host selection
It’s recommended to read the profile carefully, choose ones you find interesting and have many reviews. These are the only two things that help you “know a little bit” about them. In addition, most profiles will describe the space they provide to the surfer, usually the couch or a private room with a bed.
If you are female, choose a female host. However, many female hosts prefer to accept male offer for accommodation, so you may be rejected.
You can choose people with 70 to 100 reviews. But in my experience, do not expect much of them. Most of them do not answer. It is easy to understand, as they have dozens of people asking them, so they are very selective or maybe the place is full.
Those with around 20-30 reviews are the best option. The number of reviews is relative and the chance you receive a response is bigger.
In particular, new members are often very enthusiastic and the chance you are accepted is 80-90%. However, they may only have 3-5 reviews, which is quite risky. If you have no other choice and still want to try Couchsurfing then bravely choose them and pray for yourself.
♦ Send letters to the host
After reading their profile, write a letter with the specific check-in date, check-out date, and reason why you chose them. Be sure to customise the letters; no one likes a letter with the same content (even including the previous host’s name).
You should ask about 10-15 days in advance because their plans may change in one or two months.
♦ When in Home, do as the Romans do
Read about the cultural differences of the country or city you are going to visit to avoid taboos or being considered disrespectful.Talk politely about the things you should and should not do in their home, and if you want to use anything, ask for permission. Always believe in your intuition and presentiment.
If you feel any unusual signs, ask questions directly to the host (before the meeting) or leave immediately (if you have arrived). It is recommended to have a backup plan in case you cannot stay or leave the host home.
♦ Say goodbye
Couchsurfing requires that hosts do not ask for money. In fact, the goal is to meet people from different regions to exchange and learn about each other’s cultures, so they do not ask for “reciprocity”. But if you invite them to a cup of coffee, a meal, or give them a small gift from your country to show your gratitude, they will be happy to receive it.
Write a review about the host after the trip. Write down your true experiences, and express your gratitude if you have a good experience. Do not hesitate to raise your voice if there is a bad experience, and be sure to report a violation because the safety of other members will be based on your rating.
Le Diem | Wanderlust Tips | Cinet