Since its inception in 2004, thousands of people have “couch surfed” their way around the world, enjoying the hospitality of their hosts and staying for free on a spare bed, couch, or mat on the floor. CouchSurfing is an international non-profit network that connects travelers with locals in over 230 countries worldwide, for friendship, cultural exchange, and learning experiences. Close to 2 million members around the world are currently registered as “CouchSurfers.” CouchSurfing’s initial focus was on hosting and “surfing” (staying with a local as a guest in their home), but they have expanded into facilitating activities and events designed to provide opportunities for cross-cultural exchanges and meaningful connections.
I recently spoke with Barbara Miller-Elegbede, who has been involved with CouchSurfing for about 2-1/2 years, both as a host and a visitor (aka surfer). Two years ago, after 6 months as a member, she became a city ambassador in New Delhi, India, where she hosted over 125 travelers. She recently moved to Seattle, and now serves as a nomadic ambassador, meaning that she isn’t specifically tied to one area. Ambassadors typically help travelers learn about the area they’re visiting, and set up local couch surfing activities and gatherings. There are several types of ambassadors, including country, city, family, and nomadic.
Barbara also moderates one of the many couch surfing on-line discussion groups. These groups are a great way to meet people, get information about cities you plan to visit, and meet up with other couch surfers.
I’ve been curious to know more about couch surfing, so I asked Barbara if she’d be willing to answer some of my questions, and she very graciously agreed.
Can you describe the typical CouchSurfer? Surfers are generally in their 20s or 30s and are very open, communicative, and ready for anything. They’re ready to acclimate to any type of situation, and they usually want to talk about themselves, their lives, their vision. They’re very excited about traveling and seeing new things. Most of them don’t have a lot of money, so CouchSurfing is a great way to see the world inexpensively.
Are there more male or female CouchSurfers? In my experience, it’s been about even, but that may be because I’m a woman offering a room. CouchSurfing women traveling alone are more likely to approach a single woman for a spot, so I may see more woman than others do.
Can you briefly describe how a potential CouchSurfer would find a place to stay? The first step is to go to the website and join. Membership is free. You’ll need to complete your profile, with a picture and description. When you want to go somewhere and are hoping to find a place to stay, you read through the profiles and see if there’s a person you’d like to stay with, if they have the type of accommodation you need, etc. Then you send your official CouchSurfing request to a few potential hosts, answer some questions, and figure out if it’s going to work for both of you.
How long is the typical stay and what are the accommodations like? How long a member is willing to host is listed in their profile on the website. A stay would usually be 2-3 nights, but it can be longer if they’re willing to host you longer. On the website, they’ll also describe what they have to offer, that is, if you’ll have a separate bedroom, a couch, a spot on the floor, if you’ll need a sleeping bag, etc. There may or may not be meals involved, it depends partly on the culture. In India, for example, you’ll usually get 3 meals a day. In the US, that’s not as likely. Most CouchSurfers don’t expect anything in terms of meals, but sometimes it’s offered. Sometimes your visitors may ask to use your kitchen and possibly even cook for you. That can be negotiated, for example, it’s fine as long as they clean up.
Have you ever had a bad experience couch surfing? Out of 125+ couch surfers who have stayed with me, I’ve only had two who weren’t that great, but that was just in terms of them not being that communicative, they were more reclusive. Couch surfing is a cultural exchange, so it’s unusual to have that type of experience – most people love to talk and share information. But no, I haven’t had any bad experiences, or heard of anyone experiencing theft or anything like that.
I know several solo-traveling women who are interested in couch surfing, but a bit nervous at the prospect. Any advice for them? To start, you may be more comfortable staying with couples, single women, or families. As a woman couch surfing alone, you need to be careful about staying with a single guy. You should make sure there’s a separate bedroom, not a couch in the living room, where you’re going to be more vulnerable. Make sure the person has a lot of references.
You mentioned that there are organized activities for CouchSurfers – can you tell me more about that? Local country and city hosts sometimes organize activities for CouchSurfers – both hosts and visitors. In London, there’s a very active group, so when I was there visiting my daughters, I attended several activities, including a free hugs campaign and a pub crawl. It’s a great way to meet people, especially if you’re in a city alone. I also attended a dinner where we all cooked together. In New York we met at a coffee house and talked. Whereever you go you can usually find couch surfers who are open and friendly who love to meet other travelers and talk about travel. They’re usually very proud about where they live, so they love to help you find your way around. Next week there’s a big activity called “Seattle Invasion” where people from around the Pacific Northwest will gather to meet and sightsee around Seattle, with several planned activities. I’ve never participated in an invasion before, so I’m looking forward to it.