In March of 2012, I read How to Travel the World for Free by Michael Wigge. The author left his home in Germany and traveled (in a very roundabout way) to Antartica utilizing almost no money except what he could make along the way. While it’s not necessarily my style of travel, it was a very interesting read. The biggest takeaway for me was learning about couchsurfing.com. As I describe it below, I think you’ll see why it is one of my favorite new things!
I immediately went to the site and created a profile. Here is where the first safety measure kicks in. In order to verify that you are at least sort of who you say you are, they mail you (caveman style) a postcard with a code that you then have to enter on the website. This way, they at least know that someone with your name lives at the address where you say you live. I know, I know – a sadistic killer could probably find some way to fake this. But – Why would a sadistic psychopath go to all that trouble? There are 300 million people in the USA alone that he could just go kill without having to create a fake log in and then spend a week watching someone’s mailbox to swipe a post card and then fake register. Also, you have the option to be “payment verified” which is where they charge a small amount to your credit card again to make sure the name you registered with matches your credit card name.
In your profile, you tell a little about yourself and, if you are planning to host travelers, you tell what the accommodations are like – will the travelers have their own bedroom, own bathroom, do you allow smoking, will you host people with pets, will you host people with kids, and where (generally) is your house located. This helps travelers know if you are open to hosting them. Then you tell other things that help them decide if they want to stay with you – are you a nudist, do you like Nickelback, do you have pet pythons, are you an amateur drummer – you know just regular things you’d want to know about someone before you crashed at their house! At my place, the travelers will have a twin size Ikea mattress on the floor in the living room and will have to share a bathroom.
Soon, you begin to get messages from the site listing travelers who are coming to your area who are looking for places to stay and if you want to you can offer to host. You are never obligated to host anyone (or even communicate with anyone) if you don’t want to. And many people on the site have guidelines on their profile as to who they will host – for instance, many female hosts clearly state that they will only host other females. When you get a request to host someone, you can read their profile and any reviews that other hosters or surfers have left for them. You can also confirm that they have been verified as described above. If you want to host, you send a message and then the surfer and the host work out details and you formally accept their request on the site This way, couchsurfing.com knows who is staying with who, when they arrive and leave, etc. – another safety measure.
Another aspect of the site is community groups. You can become part of groups based on your local and get group communications. I found a bookclub that I was part of for a while that read only books about traveling. I joined the “Houston Last Minute” group so travelers to Houston can see on the site that I might be able to host with very little warning if they find themselves stuck in Houston unexpectedly. There’s a Houston multilingual group that meets up so people can practice different languages. There’s all kinds of subgroups. There are people who participate in group stuff and never host anyone.
Once you join, you can also immediately use the site to request that someone host you if you are visiting somewhere. You can search by local and get a list of couchsurfing.co, members in that area and then message them to ask if they will host you. I got quite a few requests and hosted quite a few folks who were trying couchsurfing for the first time. I won’t list them all, but here are some short descriptions of folks I’ve hosted. I am just using first initials since I did not ask permission of any of my surfers to mention them here.
1. My first guest – not typical of the way couchsurfing usually works, but it worked great. Her name was C and she was a college student from California. She posted a request a few days before she was to arrive in Houston. She and a friend had worked and saved all fall to come see a band that she loved. The friend bailed on her and she did not have money to pay for a hotel by herself. Her plane ticket was non-refundable. She was just trying to make her trip still work. I was actually not going to be in town while she was here, but I was living in a highrise apartment, with a security guard, and I thought maybe I could help. I also lived about 10 blocks from the concert venue. I messaged her and said I could leave her a key and instructions with security that she was my guest and she could just stay in my apartment for the weekend. She couldn’t believe I was offering that, but after a few questions, she accepted and we worked out the details. I also gave her my cell number in case she had any problems. I heard from her once just to tell me how she couldn’t believe I let a stranger stay in my apartment. When I got back, my bed was made nicer than I ever make it, the place was spotless, and she had left me some chocolate and a very sweet thank you note – which included an offer to host me if I ever needed a place to stay in San Francisco!
Most people I have told about this have said “that’s the dumbest thing ever, dude. She could have trashed your place and stolen all your stuff.” Well, yeah, I guess. But I am not attached to my stuff and it’s all insured. And she didn’t do either of those things and my gut told me she wouldn’t. And I made a new friend and helped out someone like me – someone who likes to go visit new places and trust in the kindness of strangers.
2. The first person I really hosted – D was a 5th degree black belt in Taekw0ndo who had sold her Taekwondo school in NYC and wanted to get out of the big city and open up a new school in a place with a little different pace of life. She was hitting 15 or so cities around the country to evaluate them for a possible new school and as a place to live. I accepted her request and hosted her in Houston for two nights. She’s fascinating – and it’s not often I get to go to dinner with someone who I would hide behind if we got in a bar fight. Here’s what she wrote about her time in Houston on her blog (I tried to warn her about the water in Galveston):
“I drove from NOLA to Houston on Tuesday and met up with my CS host, Springer. Again, I’m amazed by people’s generosity. Springer brought me out for Texas BBQ the night I arrived and since it was mid-week, he was working during my stay. (He’s a lawyer.) He gave me keys to his place and let me come and go as I pleased. Amazing.
After a leisurely start, I headed to Galveston, Tx. Springer had told me about the beach there, and I was considering that Houston might be a place I could live. Not so much after I visited the “beach” at Galveston. It’s a charming little beach town with lots of old Victorian architecture, but the water was disgusting. It was brown even from a distance, and when I went in up to my ankles, I couldn’t see my toes! There’s also an amusement park similar to the Santa Monica Pier in CA, called The Pleasure Pier. I have to say, that was not what I thought of when I saw the signs for it along side the road!”
3. Somewhere in the mix I loaned my bike to a guy from Spain named D. He was in Houston for a month for training on super specialized type of x-ray technology/machine. He was staying with another couchsurfing host, and had expected to be able to use public transportation to get to training each day. That wasn’t working out so he put up a message in the Houston couchsurfing group and asked if anyone could loan him a bike. I said I could and he came over to get it. He was in a rush so we only got to talk for a few minutes. He told me he would bring my bike back in a month, just before he left town. I heard from him a month later and he said he was running out of time to get packed and get to his flight but he’d made arrangements for someone else to bring my bike to me that night. His couchsurfing host brought the bike to me and told me that D was actually pretty mechanical, had worked in a bike shop while in school in Spain, borrowed some tools and did a full tune up of my bike that morning so he could return it to me in perfect condition. Nice guy.
4. T’s profile listed her occupation as “Burlesque dancer and cat wrangler.” There were some other funny things on her profile so I figured she just had a fun sense of humor. She was going to ride a bus to Houston, get in late, and then catch another bus to NOLA early the next day. I live close to the bus station so I said I could host. She took me up on my offer and said she’d get in around 10. I then got a text from her saying she had decided to hitchhike instead and might be a little later. She texted me around 11 and said “my ride just dropped me off outside your building.” I went down to let her in. She’s got a huge smile and is about 5’2″. I’d guess her backpack is about 5’1″. She gives me a hug and we head up, have a beer and talk. She’s hitchhiked solo across the country several times and is heading back from San Francisco (where she really was a burlesque dancer) to NY (where she grew up). I learned a lot about hitchhiking. She says she’s stayed with tons and tons of couchsurfing hosts. She was tired so I showed her where she would be sleeping and headed to bed. The next morning, I made us some coffee and she went on her way. We’ve stayed in touch online a little. She has never stopped traveling and has now couchsurfed and hitchhiked alone all over the world. She’s fearless.
5. B was on a cross country motorcycle trip. He stayed with me for one night and went out and had a few beers with me and some friends. B grew up in a small town in the south and just wasn’t ready to settle down when he finished high school so he struck out. The motorcycle trip was his third around-the-country trip. His first, he hitchhiked – literally all over the country. The next trip – he train hopped. There is apparently an entire culture of folks who travel like this. They have manuals you can find online and that other train hoppers share with you that tell you where trains slow down so it’s easier to jump on and off, which rails are going where, and which cities are lenient and which aren’t as far as penalties for train hopping. You meet up with other hoppers and travel together for a while, swap stories, share food, etc. He told me that at times you are on a train for hours and hours and explained the best kind of train car for riding and how you tie yourself to it with your belt so that if you fall asleep you don’t roll the wrong way and become railroad mush. He estimates that any given time there are 5000 or so people hopping trains around the US. B was a really nice guy. We are still friends on FB. He’s a day trader now. You can’t make this stuff up.
6. I hosted L & T, a young French couple who were on a multi-week US tour. They were so cool and I definitely plan to visit them in France someday. Such nice people – and funny! They had planned their trip by finding where people could host them and then just joining in for whatever their hosts had going on. While they were in Houston, I showed them around, and of course took them to Flying Saucer!
I’ve hosted people from Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria and all over the US. I have had no bad experiences. I’ve hosted couples, single men and women, and a few sets of friends traveling together. Somehow my name became known among the au pair crowd (who usually travel for a month after they finish their work here) so I had several groups of traveling au pairs stay with me. They’d send a request that said “you hosted my friend __ and __ and they said we should try and stay with you while in Houston.”
All in all, I think I’ve hosted around 30 people. Sure, some of them I have stayed in touch with and some I haven’t, but while they were with me, I took pride in hosting them and providing a nice safe place for them to stay. I loved every minute of hearing their stories, their thoughts about America, descriptions of their hometowns, and their plans. With only one very minor exception (a young woman who was just kind of messy as far as how she left the bathroom and kitchen), every single person I have hosted has been beyond gracious as guests and I would host them again any time. Two friends I hosted were in the middle of volunteering on an organic farm and were in Houston to see a concert near my house. She and her friend brought me fresh organic produce (picked that day) and beer!
As you can probably tell, I love couchsurfing and look forward to hosting many more folks and to being hosted when traveling. It’s a great way to meet open and friendly people!