One-of-a-Kind Travels You Get With Couchsurfing
Just like the very first time I heard about Couchsurfing.org (CS), you probably had raised your eyebrows in skepticism as well. For those (very few) who haven’t a clue what CS is, it is an online community that helps travellers find free accommodation. The platform allows hosts with an extra ‘couch’ or room to put up for strangers, with the belief that “You have friends all over the world, you just haven’t met them yet.”
Although there have been no short of CS horror stories around, I’m lucky to have had only pleasant experiences in my 10+ times of couchsurfing – at times alone, other times with a friend. My worst was probably when a host couldn’t meet me in time to pass his house keys, because my train had arrived late. I ended up sleeping in a public park, but that was kinda my fault anyway. There are always risks involved with an open platform like this, but there are also ways to ensure your safety (more of that later).
Meanwhile, I want to share some of my personal favourite CS experiences – unforgettable travels I would never have had otherwise. CS has allowed me to connect with people from all over the world who readily let me in on the locals’ best kept secrets. Each experience is unique in its own way and I feel everyone should try it at least once – so I hope my list at least inspires you to do so:
1. Monte Carlo, Monaco
Monaco was my first time couchsurfing alone and I had a lot of time to interact with my host. I had wanted to visit a friend in South of France but had a couple of days on my own before that. However, all affordable accommodations were full since that week coincided with the 2010 Monaco Grand Prix. Thankfully, Fred decided to accept my CS request for his extra bed at a Nice apartment (which was nice indeed, haha).
“Tu veux aller au Grand Prix?” Fred had asked nonchalently when he got hold of two extra tickets for the F1 season (probably a norm for someone living in Nice). I, on the other hand, jumped excitedly at the chance. I had been prepared to walk around Monte Carlo just to soak in the atmosphere and perhaps sneak a view of the race cars.
It was really fun walking down the crowded streets of Monte Carlo with Fred, listening to the deafening buzz of race cars, watching tourists waive their national flags and posing with F1 Grid Girls beside fancy Ferraris. Our tickets were actually for an open area on the city’s slopes so we had to squeeze quite a bit to get a good view. Me having a bit of a vertical challenge, Fred was game enough to push me up a tree before he climbed the next tree (although I think I stepped onto some annoyed heads in the process). We probably got the best view ever though.
Merci à Fred for being the most generous and spontaneous host ever!
2. Černošice, Czech Republic
Czech was KT’s first CS experience. I remember we had two options – an apartment in the heart of Prague city or some wooden hut tucked away in the forests of Černošice (about 45 min train ride from Prague Central Station). As expected, our sense of adventure drove us to choose the latter. It wasn’t easy to find Jan’s house at all though. We had to take a 45 min train from Prague and then continue to walk 30 min through farmhouses and tall grasses.
The place was so off the beaten path that on one of the days we came back after nightfall, we had to use a torch to navigate back in pitch darkness, shining our paths as we walk through the grasses. We even spotted fireflies on the way (yes, it was that remote). Thankfully, we had managed to hitchhike on our way out the next day (but that’s another story).
When we first arrived at Jan’s place – all sweaty and asking where the shower was – his response was “Anywhere, you can shower anywhere you like: the balcony, the backyard, in the forest…” And shower in the forest we did. I also got to set up a fire with firewood for the first time, throwing dried acorns into the stove to boil hot water – so we could drink hot tea over deep conversations about the meaning of life.
And that was my closest encounter with nature on CS!
3. Vienna, Austria
It had been the start of World Cup 2010 and Germany was playing Australia when we were in Vienna. Our host, Manfred, was such great fun to bring us out for a tour around his city and the Danube river in his convertible, before we headed to a bar to watch the match. Of course, we assumed the role of Germany supporters (since Austrians speak German, haha).
Manfred is one of my coolest hosts ever. When we had visited his Vienna apartment back then, he was still prepping for his pub’s grand opening just downstairs. He would point out the pipes of draft beers-to-be as he walked us through his half-renovated bar. The sense of pride and anticipation in his voice was apparent.
“You must be so excited!” I had exclaimed.
“I think I’m past that,” he replied. “It’s become kinda scary now”.
Today, Manfred’s MMX bar is up and doing extremely well He’s sucha great person and definitely deserves every bit of it.
4. New York, United States
I was alone in NYC for a couple of days and had stayed at Trev’s apartment in Upper East Manhattan. I had been super excited to participate in the World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) on Brooklyn Bridge, a worldwide clothing-optional bike ride to protest against pollution from motorized vehicles and promote cycling culture.
Unfortunately, the event was postponed to a month later (after I left NYC, damn) due to rain Trev had managed to find the WNBR after-party though. It was an eye-opening experience, literally – and there was no dress code, of course (pun intended).
5. Lisbon, Portugal
I was visiting Lisbon with YK, a good friend and our experience at Lisbon would have been very different without Jorge’s recommendations. He had shared with us the best-kept secret of Sintra (which I am sharing with you now). Besides the famous Cabo da Roca Monument marking the spot as Europe’s westernmost point – or the lighthouse overlooking the endless Atlantic Ocean – there is a gorgeous beach hidden further down, accessible via a steep descend of the majestic sea cliffs.
Jorge had shared that he would camp here with his partner for days, with no one but the vast Atlantic Ocean in sight. As we sat on the sand with the sound of crashing waves and howling winds, I promised myself to come back for one night.
Besides telling us about Praia da Urso, Jorge had also brought us to his favourite Fado House (Esquina de Alfama). Fado is traditional folk music which involves guitars and mandolins with a Fadista’s soulful singing. It was extremely enjoyable and we could feel the melancholy cutting through the lyrics despite a language barrier. Everyone visiting Lisbon should experience it.
As we stayed up the night to exchange stories, Jorge even opened his 16-year-old bottle of Pot Wine for us – something he had been keeping in the cellar all these while because he doesn’t drink due to medical conditions.
“It’s for you, my friends”, Jorge had so generously and sincerely offered.
6. Porto, Portugal
We continued our trip to Porto – still in Portugal and with the same YK – but our CS experience couldn’t have been more different. Fernando… is what you’d call, a CS enthusiast or ambassador. He thrives in bringing people together purely out of goodwill. His apartment was cramped with couchsurfers; there were at least 4 other travellers who overlapped with our stay.
Fernando is also super in touch with a strong community of CS hosts. During our first night, we had an ‘International Dinner’ of sorts, where visiting couchsurfers would eat together on a long table. There were even mini flags representing each of the nationalities present!
Fernando even went to the extent of showing us the best spots around Porto.
Thankfully, we hit it off pretty well (despite such wide-ranging nationalities and cultures). We ended up exploring Porto’s night scene together and I remember staying up all the way till morning to catch my AM flight and crashing on the plane.
Obrigado, Fernando! It was really cool to explore Porto from a local’s perspective, yet alongside friends from all over the world.
Of course, these are only a few of my personal CS experiences. Each stay will always be unique and it’s up to you to make the best out of it. Like I mentioned, there are risks involved but it also lets you explore a place differently and experience one-of-a-kind travels you would never get otherwise. Here are some tips if you are thinking of joining the CS community:
Tips and Tricks
1. Go with an open mind. Interact with your host, have at least one meal together and make an effort to know them better. For me, I buy trinkets or postcards from Singapore in advance as an appreciative gesture; if not, cook a meal (if they allow you to use the kitchen) or buy them drinks. Remember – it’s not a hotel or guesthouse but a hospitable host who’s willing to put up an extra room or couch for a complete stranger like you.
2. However, if your host ever makes you feel uncomfortable, feel free to leave without a good excuse. Report them if they ask for money or anything else in return (you are just protecting the community).
3. Read all the reviews of your potential host. Find out what are their hobbies, personality, whether they have any restrictions (no smoking, curfews etc.) The popular ones sometimes leave a ‘password’ hidden in their description and expect you to quote it in your message title to show that you have really read their profile. For those with negative or no reviews at all, it may be better to just give it a pass (especially if you are a girl travelling alone).
4. Similarly, make sure your own profile is complete to increase your chances of being accepted. Upload your photo; share your passions, trade and preferred type of travel.
5. If you’re afraid, you can always go in pairs or choose to couchsurf with a host of the same gender. My first couchsurfing was with a friend.
6. Set a specific meeting place in advance (e.g. train station west entrance at 7am). Get their phone number in case you get lost/you’re late and you don’t have WiFi to access your CS inbox.
7. Take down their exact address beforehand and let your friends/family know where, when and who you are staying with.
8. Be grateful! Leave a review and thank you note on their profile if you had a good time.