What is Couch-Surfing?

A quick guide to low-cost overnight accommodations that are truly one-of-a-kind

Flickr/Dave Austria

Couch-surfing is a slang term for staying overnight in someone else’s home while traveling. Contrary to its name, travelers might sleep on a floor or an air mattress, or they might have a private room to themselves.

It’s likely one of the best known ways to stay for free, because hosts don’t usually charge guests. It is considered polite, however, to bring a small gift or cook dinner. So, you might be spending some money on your stay, just not directly. Cleaning up after yourself is also standard practice.

Thanks to the internet, you can either couch-surf with people you already know or people you haven’t met yet. In the past decade websites have been founded and flourished, linking travelers and hosts and announcing events in cities around the globe. Couchsurfing.org is the largest and best-known couch-surfing website, with nearly 7 million members. Hospitalityclub.org is also widely known, but has fewer members.

The true purpose of couch-surfing, according to these sites, is the exchange of ideas and experiences. It’s not all about landing a free place to stay, but it’s about meeting new people and learning about the world. Couch-surfing works by reciprocity, so when you can offer up your place to another traveler, you should.

The most common concern about couch-surfing is safety, but according to Couchsurfing.org the community and site administrators do everything they can to keep users safe.

We are a tight-knit community whose participants educate themselves and share knowledge to help everyone stay safer. Members are asked to fill out a detailed profile page in order to display who they are, how they think and what their life is like. They can also choose to become a verified member, which means their name and location have been confirmed, to help the community see that they're being honest about who they are.

The other three security measures include the option to link your Facebook account, report on-site abuse and the many user reviews—which many have said are most helpful. The site lists tips on safety, be sure to read them and do your own checks (video chatting is a great idea).

Aside from safety concerns, users have said that finding a place to stay and keeping in constant contact with their host was difficult at times and a bit of a drawback. People who need their own space might be happier in a hotel or hostel and those who aren’t particularly social might find the arrangement difficult as well.

But if you happen to be a social butterfly, looking to intimately explore the world and meet new people, couch-surfing could be a great choice. Cheap lodging, the potential to make lifelong friends and an unprecedented look at daily life in other cultures are benefits said to vastly outweigh the challenges.

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