Apart from being able to move from point A to point B for free, while traveling you can use alternatives with accommodation as well.
The one I have the most experience is – CouchSurfing, so I will explain what it is, how to use it, and give some suggestions and my experiences.
Before you start, be aware that there are no rules as such (same as with hitchhiking), but since people ask me about travel advices, I hope this article will help them.
WHAT IS COUCHSURFING AND HOW DOES IT WORK?
Basically, CS is a free online hospitality network. You make your own profile on their web site, and you have two basic options: offer some traveler(s) a couch in your city, or try to surf on someone’s couch, somewhere in the world.
Looks pretty simple, right?
1. FILL OUT THAT PROFILE!
Interestingly enough, most of the people get stuck on their first step on CS – filling out their profile.
They don’t want to spend 30-60 minutes on filling out their profiles, and because of that they have small chances to find a host or a surfer. Think of your profile as a CV – if you make it good and attractive, chances of getting a job, or a couch, are much better.
Try to fill out every category, upload at least a dozen of pictures and present yourself through those things. When people look at your profile before hosting/surfing, they want to know who you are, what are your interests and similar, so they can anticipate the success of two of you „clicking“.
Don’t have a short and boring profile, but also don’t go in other extreme and write too much. Short and interesting, just as your CV. If you don’t know what to put in some category, find some profile you like and see what they have there, maybe you will think of something then.
2. START SMALL
I know it would be cool if you make your profile, send couple of requests in a city you are flying to in couple of days, and have someone replying that you can definitely come and spend a week at his/her apartment.
Nothing happens overnight on CS. Especially these days, when there are A LOT of CSers out there. So – be patient.
The fact is – if you have a profile with no (or just a few) friends and positive references, people won’t be excited to come to your place or to let you come to theirs, they want to feel safe (I wrote about safety on CS at the end of this article) and know who are they going to spend few days with.
So you have to build that trust. With more friends and positive references.
To do that, you have to meet other CSers. And to do that, you have couple of options – you can attend local CS meetings/gatherings in your own city (or wherever you are), or invite someone from CS on a drink, maybe they will be your CS friend and give you a positive reference.
On my travels people were really eager to host me – because I had A LOT of friends and positive references. How I got them? By hosting people in my city, for almost two years. My flatmate and I hosted over 100 people before I started traveling and looking for other hosts. Even though you don’t HAVE TO host before surfing, it is desirable.
3. BE PERSONAL
When asking someone for a couch, apart from having your CS profile as a CV, your request to surf is your application letter, in which you should tell your potential host why they should pick you to surf at their place.
Put yourself in their position. These days, there are a lot of CSers around and maybe the person that you are writing to has another 10 requests for that same day, so why should they pick you? Its up to you to convince them they are doing the right thing.
Basically this means – don’t send copy/paste requests. Be picky, send a personal request (or couple of them) to people you really like and think you have things in common sufficient to spend some quality time together.
CS is not only about free accommodation. Remember that. You are there to make new friends, to see the destination through eyes of a local, to experience whatever there is to experience. Make sure you do that with the right people.
You can send requests few weeks before arrival, but there are last minute requests as well. As with most of the things here, there are no rules.
4. BE A GOOD HOST/SURFER
First rule: CS is not a dating site.
Yes, sometimes things happen between CSers, but if you join the community just because of that possibility, you are on the wrong path.
Second rule: CS is not a hotel.
Some people use CS as a free couch, nothing more. And CS is all about everything else. Make friends, get rid of prejudices, cook together, go out together, observe and learn. That is exactly why CS exists – so you can learn from people that come from a different environment than you.
Third rule: behave towards other like you would like others to behave towards you.
Except if you are a rapist.
5. CARPE DIEM
Apart from a obvious advantages CS brings to surfers, hosts can also profit from the exchange.
TRAVEL WITHOUT TRAVELING – even though you’re in your own city and you’re hosting people in your home, you have a feeling that you’re on the road as well. You meet new people, talk foreign language, you even get to know your own city from a different perspective.
LEARN NEW THINGS – CS is an excellent school; if you have some talent you want to share with others, or if you want to learn something – CS and CSers are a good (and free) way to get to it.
LISTEN TO INSPIRING STORIES – listening to stories of your guests will be fun, but also inspiring. You will hear all sort of ways you can get on your own adventure, if you feel like it. I’m not sure would I ever start traveling like this if I haven’t heard so many stories from my guests for two years.
MAKE FRIENDS ALL OVER THE WORLD – you never know, maybe you will one day end up in their homes in some country on the other side of the world.
And this is how an average day looks like:
FIRST phase is agreeing on meeting one another – on the train/bus station, center of the city, your home address…everything is an option.
SECOND phase is coming to the apartment where you can leave your backpacks, wash away a long trip and be ready to head out to explore the city.
THIRD thing to do is to break the ice with a cold beer or two. If you host regularly, don’t become a drunk
FOURTH, if you have extra time and will, and if your guests want to, take them to a short tour around the city or your neighborhood, just to let them see where are they and to learn something about the city they are visiting. It’s actually one of the best things about CS – you get to know the destination from a local perspective, not as a tourist. Take them to your favorite place in the city, show them where to buy the cheapest beer, where you can eat for free as a student. Or enjoy when your host does these things when you are visiting them.
FIFTH – when you have guests from foreign countries, they will probably want to try some local specialties. If you can cook, it’s a perfect opportunity to make some local meal, but also a good chance for your guests to make their local food for you. Don’t go to Mexican restaurant when you have a Mexican in your kitchen.
SIXTH – when the night falls down, some people like to go out, some like to stay at home. If together with your guests you feel like going out, take them to your favorite place, and if you feel like staying inside (like me), invite your friends and have fun playing games, talking about adventures, watching movies, etc. Getting to know somebody is more easy when its quiet.
SEVENTH – some extracurricular activities can also come to your mind, like going on a picnic, visiting a nearby city – if you „click“ with your guests, you wont have a problem taking them to some places where you have been already, just to show them around.
EIGHT – at the end of the day, people sleep. Even though the name of the whole thing says that your guests will sleep on a couch, there are alternatives such as floors, beds, gardens, and similar. CSers are not picky, but let them know where will they sleep before they come to your place.
6. BE SAFE
Even though safety is one of the first things to come up when talking about CS, I saved it for the last, only for the reason that it should be positive things people should focus on with things like this, not to start with some horror stories.
Generally speaking, if you use common sense and be a little careful, chances of something bad to happen are minimal. There is a reference system on CS so everyone that meets you thru CS can write few sentences about you so people coming afterwards can have a slight impression in the character of a person that one will visit. References can be positive, neutral or negative. If you like to play safe, host/surf with people that have many friends and a lot of positive references.
Aaaaaaaand, I think that’s it.
What are you waiting for?