How I Stayed with Strangers and Lived to Tell About It

I am among the more than 4 million users who are a member of the hospitality exchange website couchsurfing.org.

I will admit that I was initially tempted by the allure of free accommodation but when I started to actually fill out my profile I realized that CouchSurfing was really about interactive cultural exchanges. CouchSurfing is not just something you do on a whim when you have run out of money, for many people it is a way of life and travel. If individuals are going to open their homes to strangers, it is only courtesy for those surfing to embrace the opportunity to learn first hand about another culture through the eyes of a local. Therefore, I wrote my profile carefully so that I would present a genuine view of myself as a traveler and guest.

My CouchSurfing Profile

How did this all come about, you say? I am a 20-year-old university student who somehow was fortunate enough to study abroad. I surfed in Europe while I was studying in Prague. I have surfed with chefs and social workers, free spirits and conservative types, university students and retirees, young and old, and men and women of all nationalities and ethnicities. I have slept on couches, mattresses, floors (some more comfortable than others), and even the host’s own bed (they gave it up when space was crowded).

I began my couchsurfing venture in Paris. I somehow convinced several of my other travel companions to CouchSurf with me as well. There were 5 girls in total and we stayed at a flat with 5 French chefs.   They were gracious and willing enough to host all of us even though none of us had ever surfed before. Later I learned that our hosts have hosted more than one thousand individuals since they started hosting a year and a half ago.  At our host’s home I met a Brazilian flight attendant and a German Uni student; we formed fast friendships.  We swapped travel stories, life anecdotes, and even at times got lost in translation. Our hosts made us feel completely at home. They even showed us their culinary skills by cooking us a lovely meal on our last night in their home. Needless to say after the overwhelming positive first experience, I was hooked.

CS in Paris

New CouchSurfing Friends in Paris.

I started spreading the notion of CouchSurfing to my friends and suddenly I had created a trend amongst my study abroad group.  All of a sudden students in my classes would ask me for advice in filling out their profiles, finding good hosts, and other miscellaneous information as if I was a CouchSurfing expert. While I humbly told them my reasoning for CouchSurfing, I politely encouraged others to do so as well as long as their intentions were pure and about getting to know individuals from other cultures.

When I tell people that I CouchSurf, I hear the usual, “You are brave to be staying with strangers,” or “Aren’t you worried about safety?”  Yes, CouchSurfing involves everything your parents told you to avoid during childhood. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t meet people you talk to online. And certainly, do not stay with those strangers.  However, I have found that the nature of successful travel in general requires one to step outside their comfort zone. Instead of simply stepping outside the box, why not simply banish it?  This is what CouchSurfing does. It expands traditional travel to create more unique and genuine cultural experiences. It redefines travel.

In response to safety concerns, I simply respond it is as much of a risk to those who open their homes to strangers as it is for those staying. Thus, in the manner of friendly international relations it is both parties best interest to be cordial and polite.  (On a personal note, I am not reckless and am aware that a traveler needs to be smart, but I do think that Americans can be more paranoid than the average person. I simply chose to be a practical traveler who believes that there are good people in the world who are not automatically out to get you).

To those not fully convinced yet, the website itself enables a few methods that allow more concrete standards for safety. First, there is the vouch feature, which allows someone who has been vouched for three times to vouch for other members who they know or met through couchsurfing and trust. Secondly, an individual can pay 25 USD to have their address identified by receiving a letter in the mail with a code that can be entered online to secure their identity and location. Lastly and more importantly, references are the best way to gage a possible host or surfer. It is customary after a CouchSurfing encounter to leave a reference either negative or positive to let others know about the individual as a guest or host. It is exactly like reviewing a hostel on hostelbooker.com or leaving any feedback on trip advisor. When scouting for a possible host I would examine the reviews and make a judgment call based on the reviews.  Every time I surfed, my hosts have completely lived up to their positive reviews and I have found this feature to be the most reliable and best tool in choosing a prospective host.

If you think of it, CouchSurfing is simply a modified version of the old practice of crashing with a friend of a friend.  Social networking has clearly enhanced this tested and true method of accommodation by allowing it to be all on online and with a greater network of friends.

When I finally get back to the States I plan on opening my apartment to CouchSurfers. Since I am not traveling it will be a great way to get a taste of the world in my own home while my wings are temporarily clipped.  People and culture is what travel is all about. These are the pillars of CouchSurfing and I cannot stress enough the positive effects of this unique way to travel.

I close this piece with a brief list of some of the lessons that I have learned while CouchSurfing and a few handy tips. They may seem simple and obvious to some, but you would be surprised that this unassuming advice is not always heeded.

1.)Politeness still matters.

In many situations, it seems that manners have become a lost art and informality has taken their place. I am not suggesting acting like you are dining with the Queen at teatime; however, it is better to be overly polite. Customs around the world differ and while it is impossible to know the ways in every host country, acting in a polite manner will often benefit you until you learn the local customs.  Also, I always like to give my host a small thank you gift as a token of my gratitude for letting me stay.

2.) Be OPEN Minded

You will meet all walks of life when you CouchSurf. You will hit it off with some of the people you meet and some will rub you the wrong way. However, it is necessary to remain open minded in order to get the full experience.  If you are open minded, you will never be disappointed.

3.) You don’t have to agree on everything but respect others and all opinions.

This goes hand in hand with the 2nd one, but again it is important enough to be stressed. In Porto, Portugal, my host took me to dinner with one of his buddies who also had CouchSurfers. These surfers happened to be an older French couple and two twenty something French drifters. My host was an older former businessman who had worked and lived all over the world. While he was very polite and respectful of others’ opinions, his friend’s surfers decided to embroil him in a heated political debate about the Middle East.  While I am the first to revel in a good political debate, this went out of hand and the debate began a battle of religious ideology. Needless to say, it damaged relationships and really was unnecessary. Remember, you don’t have to see eye on everything, but you should respect the differences.

4.) Food is an important way to break the ice.

Yes, the cliché that food brings people together remains true especially when you CouchSurf. A nice way to get to know your host on your first day is to make a dinner for them. While it is not a rule of Couchsurfing, it often clues your host that you really are grateful for them hosting and allows good discussion over something that all people do: eat.  If your host cooks for you, offer to help. (This may seem like simple manners but believe me I have seen people awkwardly stand there while the host does all the cooking when all he really wanted was a hand chopping up some vegetables).  If your host takes you out to a local restaurant, try the cuisine. It may not be your cup of team but by making the effort to try the local dish you are making a statement that you appreciate their culture. No one says you have to enjoy everything you try, but trying new things is important.

5.) Keep in touch.

You never know who you will meet when you Couchsurf.  Some individuals you meet may be your friends for life and some may be merely acquaintances.  By putting the extra effort to keep in touch, it can lead to an amazing global network that may surprise you in the future. For instance, one of my hosts has multiple residences and has offered me to stay with him in Brazil and Morocco simply because I maintained in contact with him.  I have been invited to my first French hosts’ birthday parties time and time again and hopefully one day I will be able tot take him up on their offer.

6.) Leave the place better than you found it.

It is someone’s home after all.  Unlike a hotel or even a hostel, there is not cleaning service or maid to clean up after you. Treat the space with care and even better perhaps clean up a bit for the next guests. In Paris, one of the other surfers had a bit too much to drink and was sick all over the bathroom one night. Our host was then forced to clean up the entire mess. It was not only awkward for the surfer, but also for the host. Please clean up after yourself, and take care of the space.

7.) Let your host show you around.

I know that often you have your own plans when you stop in a new city. I know that I always had a short must see list written down. However, if your host takes the time to show you around, take advantage of it.  In Brussels, on my first night after a long bus ride my host took me to a bar to meet other local surfers and hosts. I was reluctant to go at first because I simply wasn’t in the mood. However, out of politeness I went, thankfully I did. Not only did the bar have a groovy attitude and splendid cider, but I also met so many wonderful people from all over Europe, two who were were official translators for the European Union headquarters.  In Portugal, my host gave me a tour of the entire city, and he even took me to free Port wine tastings. Talk about a night out!! Trust your hosts and their advice of their hometowns. At the same time if there is something you are dying to see or do, simply tell your host and I am sure they will be more than happy to take you there.

8.) At the same time, your hosts are not travel guides.

As great as it is to have a host that can show you around, not all hosts have flexible schedules that allow them to do so. Hosts are after all everyday individuals who have to work just like the rest of us. They cannot simply drop their responsibilities to show you around. Don’t get bent out of shape if you were expecting the grand tour of the city. Ask your host for a few places to see and head out on your own.  I had a few friends who tried CouchSurfing and when I asked them how it went they shared their disappointment with how their host was unable to show them around like they initially thought.  Each CouchSurfing experience is unique.  Some hosts may be able to show you around and some may not, but both are sill valuable experiences–just in different ways.

9.) Communication is key.

The most important thing you can do to avoid any unpleasant encounters is really just to communicate. The worst thing that a surfer can do is to just tiptoe around an issue.  If there is something really bothering you, bring it up tactfully. More often than not, your host will be glad that you communicated the issue and move past it.  There is nothing worse than the elephant in the room. Communicate with your host as best you can language barrier and all.

10.) Make the best of your situation.

I can go on and on about the benefits of CouchSurfing until the cows come home, but whether you like it or not is completely up to you. I encourage all to try it, but I cannot guarantee that it is necessarily the way to travel for you.  Thus, if it is fantastic, if not that’s fine too. Either way make the best of any situations, because for everything that is going wrong on your trip there will be a millions things that will go right and completely erase any small mishap you may have encountered. And in the off chance that your CouchSurfing experience isn’t everything you thought it would be, you at least have an entertaining story to tell your friends. After all even when things go to hell, they end up being the best stories. 

To this day, some of my best memories are from the places where I CouchSurfed during my months living in Europe.  So if you have a wandering soul like me and love travel because it opens your world to new people and culture, I whole-heartedly suggest giving CouchSurfing a chance.  I cannot promise you that every experience will be perfect and that all your hosts will be courteous and welcoming. You may have that one awkward or uncomfortable encounter.  However, I also cannot promise you that every hostel will be clean and bed bug free or that every hotel will be worth the pretty penny that you pay for it Couchsurfing may not necessarily be your thing, but you won’t know until you give it a chance. Travel is all about taking risks, and with a little bit of luck and an open mind you can enhance your travel by being bolder than the rest.

Land of Sangria, Tapas, and Port Wine

Truth is, that as much as I love writing in my blog, I am horrible at actually uploading it.  I have done so much since the last time I posted. I hope these posts will fill you in.

I had the most fantastic fall break. The amazing thing about fall break while studying abroad, is that it is a full week which allows you to go on a long trip and see multiple countries. I spent time in Spain in high school with a host family and loved it. I knew I wanted to go back as well as see other places I didn’t get the chance to.

My friend Lindsay and I flew into Barcelona. The first night was a bit of an adventure. We got to the hostel that we were supposed to stay in and they said they were full. Bummer. So we tried to find another one, but that was full as well. The metros closed at midnight and my watch read 11:55 pm. We quickly took the metro to the train station beacause we were hoping that we could stay there. Unfortunately, they kicked us out and we set out to try to find a hotel. We found a large group of hotels and prepared ourselves to drop a lot of euros. Our luck was really running out because they were full too, as well as the surrounding hotels. Luckily, the receptionist offered to keep our bags for us behind the front desk and gave us a map and told us where we could find areas that were open 24 hours. We set off towards the ocean. After making friends with  two professional water polo players, hanging out with the owner of a local bar, walking until our feet fell off and finally crashing in a McDonald’s where we slept, the night was over.  The next couple of days were much more relaxing and filled with the beach, tapas, sangria, Gaudi architecture and shopping.  Barcelona was everything I hoped for and more. The Catalan capital is filled with vibrant people and culture.  My favorite place in the city was Park Guell which was designed entirely by the Catalan architect Gaudi.  * Side note, for those of you America’s Next Top Model viewers, the Season 7 finale fashion show was in this park. It was built overlooking the city.* There are mosaic sculptures scattered around the trees and it is a very eclectic little spot.  This combined with the squawking parrots really transports you to a tropical paradise. We went back twice we loved it so much. The second time we saw a catalogue photo shoot.  It apparently is a fashion hotspot.  Everyone is friendly and there is so much to do and see. Barcelona has such an energy to it, is is almost impossible to put into words. The shopping is amazing, the food quite tasty, and the sun and the sand are heavenly.
Our next stop was Porto, Portugal. The most well known city in Portugal is its capital Lisbon, but we decided upon the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Porto. We took Ryan Air,which had tickets as inexpensive as 20 US Dollars (definitely look into using this airline).   The city was the most picturesque one I have seen besides Prague.  It hugs the Duoro River and is minutes away from the ocean. The old city is teaming with small crooked cobblestone streets that weave along the river. There are hundreds of cafes, restaurants, bars, pubs, and houses all from different centuries spanning as old as the 13th century to the mid 19th century. Along with the amazing history, Porto is also known for Port Wine. We went on several wine tasting tours and saw how the wines were made and stored. It was delicious!  We couchsurfed here. For those of you who do not know about the wonder of couch surfing I will take this time to give a brief intro into the backpacking community.  Couchsurfing is a backpacking community that allows individuals to stay at someone’s house on either their couch, bed, floor, or any space that is available for the sake of building new friendships and learning about new locations from a native’s perspective. I had heard about the CS community before in the States and knew that when I had the opportunity in Europe I would try it. I first couchsurfed in Paris with 4 of my other friends, then again in Brussels and this was my third time. I highly recommend couchsurfing and dipping your feet into this unique and exciting travel experience. In Porto, we had the priviledge of staying with this gentleman who hosts people constantly and  literally becomes your tour guide. He took us all over the city, told us the history of every important landmark, and showed us spots even other Porto residents do not know. We could not ask for a better place to stay.The 2 days we were in Porto were blissful and not enough. This is honestly one of my favorite cities that I have traveled to in Europe. I would jump at the opportunity to visit again.

Lastly, we headed to Madrid. I love Madrid. I loved it when I first visited as a mere sixteen-year-old and if I had forgotten why I loved the city, I quickly remembered the minute I stepped into the Plaza Mayor. The city has such a colorful energy to it. It is fast-paced and relaxing at the same time. Spaniards truly know how to have a good time, and it is so clear in this city that never sleeps. We toured the Palacio Real or Royal Palace, watched flamenco in the Plaza Mayor, shopped in all the little local tiendas that sell handcrafted pieces made in Spain, visited El Parque Retiro, ate amazing tapas,and met my Spanish friend from the university.  Spanish hot chocolate is something that everyone must have before they die, I swear. It is fantastic, with a consistency like pudding, it is so thick and creamy. There so many bistros and cafes filled with locals and tourists alike with their hot chocolate. I was able to practice my Spanish and I was even able to help some other tourists who were a little lost in translation. One of the funnier moments, was that when I was helping an Asian woman understand the Spanish at a little cafe, she told me that I spoke really good English. I guess my Spanish appeared to be so good, that she thought English was my second language. It made my day for sure, and although I know that my Spanish is far from being fluent, it motivates me to practice more at home. Overall, It was a jam packed 3 days and so worth it. I was so sad to leave because honestly I could live there.

Few Notes and Handy Advice

1.) Note to the wise, be careful when arriving into new cities at night. Even if you book a hostel online, sometimes things happen. Have a backup plan. Also, if you are forced to stay up all night, try to find a place for your luggage. You are a much lesser target for any sort of pickpockets without your luggage that screams tourist. Try the lockers in the train station, or ask at a hotel. Chances are if you ask, they will let you.

2.) Try cities off the beaten path. I would have never had gone to Porto if I had not found incredibly inexpensive tickets on Ryan Air and if I had not researched best places that tourists have not found yet in Portugal. Porto is now one of my favorite European cities and I cannot wait to go back. Often, the lesser known places are the best. They are often clear of teams of tourists, and the local people are overwhelming happy to escort you around.

3.) Go to Spain and Portugal. This is all I can say. I have gone to Spain twice and I can not get enough of that country. So pull out that middle school Spanish dictionary and visit. I promise, you won’t regret it.

My departure date is nearing.  It’s not enough time here. I better get going. I have places to go and people to meet.

Happy Reading!