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Francis Tapon Headshot

How to Couch Surf

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Whenever people come to my events or read my books, they ask me, "How do you manage to get invited to so many people's homes when you travel?"

First, I am super social when I travel. I talk with whomever I'm sitting next to on the bus. I chat with vendors. I banter with people while waiting for a train. I ask for directions even when I'm pretty sure I know where I'm going. The more people you talk to, the more people learn about your journey, the more likely that someone will say, "Hey, if you don't have a place to stay, why don't you stay at my home?"

Second, I meet potential hosts on Couchsurfing.org (see my couchsurfing profile). I adore couchsurfing because it gives me insight into a culture that would be hard to get when you're staying at a hotel or hostel. Such insight was essential for writing my latest book, The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us.

It's important that people don't think of couchsurfing as a free roof. Technically, it is; however, the reality is that a guest should always give back economically to the host. If he doesn't, then he's just a leech/freeloader, which is totally uncool. Therefore, it's important that you learn...

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How to be a great couchsurfing guest

The worst couchsurfing guest is extremely selfish. The best ones are super generous. Here are several ways you can give back economically to your host:

  • Buy food for you AND your host
  • Cook for your host and clean up afterwards
  • Treat them to a movie and entertainment
  • Fill up their car with gasoline
  • Bring a useful, practical gift: food is best, but once I brought 20 rolls of toilet paper for my host! They loved it, saying, "Finally a gift I can use!")
  • Clean their house, bathroom, car and/or yard*
  • Help them repair their house, garden, run errands, babysit*

*These are ways to give economically without spending money.

If you're unwilling to do things like that, then you probably shouldn't couchsurf. I don't know of any culture in the world that doesn't encourage guests to bring a gift for their host, so follow the worldwide practice.

If you're so cheap that you can't treat your host, then stay home or camp.

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A couchsurfing story in Atlanta

Here's a real life example. Last month I was couchsurfing in Atlanta for a couple of days. I was staying with a nice host (see pic on the above), who was hosting three random couchsurfers: a Texan, a German, and me. Besides, giving each of us a separate bedroom, he got us into a community swimming pool for free. It was a 20 minute drive. When he filled up the gas tank, nobody offered to contribute to the gas. So when we went shopping for food together, I secretly told the other two guests, "Let's split the food bill between the three of us so that the host doesn't pay anything."

The German was cool with the idea, but the Texan was reluctant because he had already gifted the host two tiny plants and some homemade sweets. He felt he had done his good deed and didn't need to do more. "Besides," he said, "When I host, I'm pretty generous myself."

The food bill was $46. It contained all the ingredients to make pizza plus various other items that the host needed. I put it all on my credit card. The German, who was a 19-year-old student, contributed $20. The 32-year-old Texan gave $6 "because that's what I would pay for a pizza."

The host made pizza for all of us. I was basically the only one who helped the host cook and clean up. The other guests just waited in the dining room to be served.

The Texan would stay for two nights. Is two nights in a house with your own bedroom, warm showers, and wifi connection worth a bit more than two tiny plants and sweets? Like most couchsurfers, the Texan was tight on cash, yet he did have a Macbook Air computer, so he wasn't utterly destitute. This raises the question...

How much should you give?
There are two ways of thinking about it:

  1. Consider what you are costing the host in water, electricity and food, and make sure you give him back at least that much. That usually translates to 5-10 per day, depending on the cost of living where the host lives. Be generous.
  2. Perhaps an even better way to look at it is to consider the value of what the host is delivering to you. You're often getting shelter, shower, clean sheets, towel, a concierge, laundry, and computer/wifi. Sometimes you also get food, transportation, and a tour guide. To get all that from a cheap hostel, you would have to spend at least 20/night and probably much more. Therefore, spending 5-10 per night on your couchsurfing host is a good deal for you and will make your host feel appreciated. If you're short on cash, give them your free labor for one hour.

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Although this is all common sense, it amazes me how many couchsurfers just take, take, take and don't give back economically. I almost never host (because I'm usually traveling), but my hosts tell me about selfish couchsurfers. These couchsurfers think, "But I give back by sharing my amazing travel stories about my awesome and wonderful life!"

Sorry, but stories, "thank yous," and smiles don't pay the bills. Some hosts receive so many CSers (several per week) that it would cost them $50-300 per month if nobody considered their costs. The hosts are often just as poor as the couchsurfers and are trying to save pennies for their own travels too. Help them like they are helping you. If you don't, then your host may feel like he's just being used. The disappointed host might leave the Couchsurfing Community, which would be a loss to all.

Remember, couchsurfing isn't like staying with an old friend or family member, who may roll out the red carpet, feed you, and not expect anything in return. Never expect such treatment from a CS host. All you should expect is a place to crash.

By the way, if you treat your a close friend/relative like a couchsurfing host, s/he will appreciate your thoughtfulness and generosity too It's because the law of reciprocity is something humans all share: give back to those who give.

Moreover, don't think, "But I'll give back to my host when s/he visits me!" That may never happen, so give back today.

Similarly, don't think, "But dude, it's about karma, man. You get something when you're a guest, and you give when you're a host. I give selflessly when I host." That might work if everyone acted like that AND if everyone hosted and traveled equally, but that doesn't happen. For example, I'm the guest 95 percent of the time; other couchsurfing members are hosts 95 percent of the time. Focus on rewarding and giving to the person who is helping you right now: your host.

Lastly, after couchsurfing, the guest should always leave a reference as soon as possible. Sometimes I write it on my last day with the host, so that they get it as soon as I leave. A positive reference is like a thank-you note. It feels good for the host to receive it and it's rude to not do it quickly. The worst is when the host has to remind/beg the guest to write a reference.

Why the long rant? Because too many CS hosts have told me that some of their CS guests just take, take, take. Although they may not be aware of it, they're moochers and freeloaders. They may be friendly, interesting and honest, but they're selfish and inconsiderate guests.

By the way, the Texan I mentioned above was a nice guy and a good guest. He not only gave the host a gift (plant + sweets), but he also offered to drop me off in downtown Atlanta for a meeting and then later came by in picked me (neither the drop off nor the pick up was that much out of his way, but it's still a kind thing to do). He also socialized well with the host. So he's not an example of a selfish guest, but I do think he could have been a bit more generous. When in doubt, err toward generosity.

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How do you find long term places to stay?

For long stays, I have been lucky. If you do these nice things with all your CS hosts, then once in a while, if you are lucky, one of them will offer to let you stay for several weeks/months. I have had at least three hosts (Moldova, Montenegro and Slovenia) make me such an offer. They make such offers because they can see that you're a considerate guest and that you won't abuse their generosity. With long term stays, the same principle applies: at the very least, cover their costs. The more generous you are, the more likely they will let you stay with them even longer.

Other "normal" friends I have (outside of CS) have also offered me similar long term stays. So I could, thanks to my generous friends and CS hosts, do extended stays all over the world. However, that's only because I am lucky and because I try to give back to my hosts. If you do the same, extended stay options will start popping up. It is a bit harder when you are a couple than when you are a single traveler, but it is still possible.

How to a good couchsurfing host

Whenever I host I remind myself how a guest feels and what s/he needs. Right when the guest walks into the door, I ask him if he needs:

  1. Shower
  2. Drink (water/tea)
  3. Food (fruit/crackers minimum)
  4. Laundry
  5. Internet
  6. Nap/sleep

Some well-meaning couchsurfing hosts want to take their guests out on the town as soon as they arrive. Or they want to talk with them until 2 a.m. This is understandable. If you're hosting a stranger in your house, you'd like to know more about them.

On the other hand, it's important to understand how guests feel when they arrive. After you've spent all day walking all over Paris, seeing museums and exploring, do you really want to go dancing and drinking until 1 a.m.? Perhaps. How about when you've been traveling on buses or cars for eight hours? There's a good chance you just want to chill out.

Therefore, when you're a host, be sensitive to guest's state of mind. Ask what s/he's been doing and give them a range of options from cooking a meal at home (go shopping for ingredients together and hope, but don't expect, that the guest pays for at least half of the food bill) to something more active.

Moreover, give your guest space and time alone. It's possible that the guest wants to:

  • Talk with loved ones over the Skype or on Facebook.
  • Update their blog or post photos/videos on social media sites.
  • Do some real work (because they can do their job remotely).
  • Read a book and relax.
  • Research/plan for the next leg of their journey, which may require sending out couchsurfing requests and/or booking lodging.
  • Sleep extra long -- traveling can be exhausting, especially in places where you don't speak the language or if you're crossing time zones, so a guest may need to sleep 10 hours to catch up on their sleep and feel well-rested.

All these activities can easily take several hours. If you monopolize your guest's time, he may have to stay up extremely late to do all the things he wants to do. This may leave him sleep deprived, unless he's willing to fall behind on all his other goals (which is no fun either).

Some couchsurfing hosts don't like to host during the week, "because they don't have time to spend with their guests." That's fine. But don't feel guilty about not entertaining your guests. They may secretly love that you give them space to do their own thing.

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My confessions

Because couchsurfing is about having a cultural exchange, I confess that sometimes I prefer to camp. For example, when I was traveling Latvia in February, I was so utterly exhausted at 6 p.m. that I just wanted to sleep. I didn't want to put on a happy, energetic face for my Latvian host. I would have felt guilty walking in her house and saying, "Nice to meet you. Where's the bed? Good night." So I canceled and decided to camp outside, even though it was snowing. I slept for 12 hours. I just didn't want to socialize since I had been traveling hard for several days.

I also confess that some of my favorite hosts were the ones who just gave me the key to the place and said, "I'm busy, so come and go as you wish. If you need something, ask. Otherwise, make yourself at home."

I loved these hosts. I happily cooked for them and showered them with gifts.

I also confess that I'm no saint. There's been a few times that I've received much more than I've given. Some hosts are just incredibly stubborn and absolutely refuse all your gifts and generosity. It's rare, but it sometimes happens. Other times, I arrived at my host's house empty-handed and left in a rush without giving much to my host. I felt bad, but long-term travel can be a bit chaotic at times and we're not in our best behavior.

In conclusion, couchsurfing is not free, but it is cheaper and often more culturally interesting than hostels. Be a generous guest. Be a compassionate host.

Still curious? Read some more couchsurfing tips.