With all of my traveling through the extremely budget friendly SE Asia I had forgotten about the magical land of couch-surfing. Not only do I love to us CS for accommodation but it is also an amazing way to meet locals and other travelers, instant friendship for a solo backpacker. Once back home in Wisconsin and itching to travel [domestically] I began to wonder how I was to afford it all, until I remembered couch-surfing! I planned to stay with friends in San Francisco but due to some date changes and confusion those plans fell through which led me to the plethora of couches at my disposal. Aside from San Francisco I was also searching for hosts in Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. Within days of sending requests I had arrangements made for a few cities with maybe's lined up for the rest, gotta love efficiency.
I won't bore you with going into the details of each couch (bed, floor or massage table) I slept on during this trip but I will say that it made my tour of California much more memorable than I had anticipated. The hosts I met through couch-surfing provided me with insight into their cities (and their lives) that I otherwise may have missed. In San Francisco I was able to blend in with the locals by scoring a free bike from a secret bikeshare program, Santa Cruz I was taken to a private beach where I practiced a blissful hour and a half of yoga, and in San Luis Obispo I sampled local flavor and fitness in the form of fresh eats, yoga classes and AM hikes.
From my very first experience with Couch-surfing back in Taiwan I was easily convinced that it was a method of budget travel I'd continue to use. Unfortunately I fell away from it a little bit over the past year but thankfully this trip reminded me what a great asset it is. I've heard CS criticized as being the new 'hook-up' tool, and there are the occasional horror stories, but usually their just plain interesting. So why are there such different opinions on a simple sight and how can you get the most out of it, as a surfer.
1. Do your research - Read multiple profiles before accepting a host (or surfer) don't just settle for the first thing that comes along. As a standard I set my search criteria that each member must have a photo and be verified, age and gender limitations are also easy to set. Aside from that I look over each members profile and of course read the reviews. I probably wouldn't stay with someone that had 0 reviews, personally I like to know that someone has stayed there before me and at least come out alive.
2. Know what you're looking for - Are you simply looking for a place to sleep? A local to provide tips on the city? Someone to hang out with? Know what you want from this person and read their profile with that in mind.
3. Think friend - Even if it's only for a day this is a person that you're going to be sharing close quarters and a lot of time with. Read profiles with a thought of "would I be a friend with this person", if the answer is no then you probably don't want to stay there. On this last trip I finally took advantage of the 'keyword search' function that CS provides and typed in 'Yoga'. Immediately I was given a list of people with at least one interest in common with mine which definitely helped narrow down the options and resulted in some awesome people.
4. Have a backup plan - Even if I've made arrangements with a host that seems to be the perfect match I keep a backup plan. It doesn't hurt to stay in contact with a few people from the city your visiting, maybe offer one or two people a coffee date or dinner meet up, anything that will give you more contacts in the area your traveling, should you run into a problem. Outside of couch-surfing it also doesn't hurt to have the names, address and phone numbers of hostels or hotels in the area.
5. Be honest - Just as you're looking for a good host, those opening their homes are looking for quality guests. Be honest both on your profile and in correspondence with your potential host. Take the time to fill out your profile and make sure to be honest, this isn't a job interview you don't have to jazz up your resume to get a good host because more often than not if you come across as something different than what you laid out, your review will reflect it. Same goes for the CS request you send, if you're simply looking for a place to sleep then say that, if you want to make friends, address that as well. Like real life many problems stem from a lack of communication, the same is true with CS, if you're not open and honest with your host you may run into some problems once you arrive.
These are the simple ways I've found great hosts throughout my CS experience, they aren't surefire tips to avoiding bad hosts or awkward moments but they tend to help. It's amazing to me how many people ask if I'm scared or tell me I'm crazy when I talk about couchsurfing but for me it's been nothing but a positive experience. Sure there are potential dangers involved but isn't that true about everything in life? Like the rest of traveling goes, be smart, use your head and you should be fine. One more important thing to consider is how to be a good surfer, I've yet to host so I can't tell you personal experiences but there are some common sense guidelines to follow. You're a guest in their home this is not a hotel, clean up after yourself, ask before using things, accommodate to their schedule, bring a small gift (something from your hometown), cook a meal, buy a dinner and at the very least say Thank You!