Monday, February 28, 2011

Travel Tip: How to Couchsurf

So you're ready to make like this puppy and crash somewhere new? We all need a place to sleep, and if you've followed the last couple of posts, you'll know why I think couchsurfing is a great travel tool. This post will help you surf your first couch.

First things first, go to, and set up your profile. Fill it out as completely as you're willing to, and go ahead and be a little quirky about it if you like. Memorable and interesting people have a much easier time finding hosts. Make sure you upload a recent picture.

Next, get your profile verified. This means locking your address into the system, getting your postcard, and entering in the validation code. I also suggest donating to complete the verification process, but that's a personal decision.

You're almost ready. Here's the most involved step. It will take a little time and help to do, but I highly recommended it if you want' to find a host: get another couch surfer to write you a reference. The best way to do this is to find a friend who already knows you and is on (Seriously, if you're someone who I know well, and you want a reference, email me with your profile address and I'll write one for you). Post a status on Twitter or Facebook saying you've just joined and want to know if anyone else you know is involved. You'd be surprised which of your friends and family might respond. If it's an especially close friend or family member who has more than three vouches, they might vouch for you (don't ask for this though, it's not polite).

If you really don't know any other couchsurfers, it's time to go out and meet a few. Go to the community tab of the website, and search both events and group for your hometown. Then go out and meet the surfers. You'll have a good time, and you'll make some friends on the site, who can then, if you hit it off, write a reference for you.

Once you've got a completed profile with picture, verification, a good positive reference, you're ready to start looking for a couches.

A good time in advance (a week or more before your arrival date, if possible), start searching for a host. Hit the Surf/Host Tab and hit Couchsearch. Enter in the location you're going to surf (and if you feel like it, some qualifications about gender, age, interests etc) and you'll get a list of hosts. from this list, you are going to choose several to message, asking to stay on their couch.

One trick, before reading profiles: I like to sort the search results by "last login date." The surfers who appear at the top are probably the most active hosts who log in the most often and check their messages. They're often sent fewer couch requests than the people who show up at the top by default, and are more likely to respond to you.

Here are the things to look for:
-Do they appear trustworthy? What do their references say? Do they have a picture on their profile? Have they been vouched for/verified?
-Do they like where they live? After safety, I consider this the most important thing to look for. A host who is passionate about their home can make your stay absolutely incredible. A host that hates where they live will not.
-Do they speak your language? All users list the language(s) they speak and rank them in terms of proficiency. Their grasp of English of course is usually evident from what they've written on their profile.
-Where in town do they live? Is it somewhere you want to stay? Is it safe? Convenient?
-What's their "couch" like? Do they smoke? Have pets? Are you going to be on the floor or in a spare bedroom of your own? Most profiles will have pictures and all will have a description of their "couch" and their house rules (if any).
-Does this look like someone you would want to spend time with? Do you have interests in common? Do like to party as much/little as you? Did you study the same things, or are you pursuing similar careers?

Once you've picked out a few of your favorites, it's time to start sending them request. As a surfer, nobody minds if you message more than one person. I usually send requests to 5-10 people every time I want to couchsurf. However, quality of request is far more likely to get you a place than quantity. Here's how:

Read your potential host's profile carefully, and then in your first message to them write something that makes it obvious that you read their profile.

This is the most important thing you can do when requesting a couch. Hosts like knowing that a surfer has chosen to write to them for a reason. Even if I copy/paste a request message to several people, I always include at least one sentence specific to each host showing that I read their profile, know who they are, and actually want to meet them.

After that... just wait. You should get responses soon.

Or not. There's one other trick you can use for major cities. Under the community tab, click search group, and then search for your destination city. You'll find a message board for surfers in that city. Go to their group's message board and look for something along the lines of "emergency/last minute couch request group." Drop them a message there. If you're lucky and have a good profile, you might find a host that way. But make sure you read your potential host's profile carefully before accepting.

And that should get you on your way to surfing your first couch. Best of luck! Stay tuned for tips on getting started as a couchsurfing host.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Travel Tips: Couchsurfing Safety

The very first question most Americans, especially American women, ask me when I tell them about couchsurfing, is "How can you know if you're going to be safe?" It makes some sense, you're staying with someone you don't know. How do you know that this isn't an axe murderer whose couch you're sleeping on? How do you know you're not hosting a kleptomaniac? How do you know that couchsurfing is safe?

The answer is in three pieces of security provided by the website's structure: References, Vouching, and Verification. Together, these things make couchsurfing just as safe as (or safer than) any other method of travel. These items are all listed on every couchsurfer's profile. The goal of listing them is to make couchsurfing more like staying with a friend of a friend than a complete stranger. Every surfer has an online profile much like they do on Facebook-- pictures, listed interests, a bio, lists of other couchsurfing friends they've connected with. So before you meet the person, you know a little about them. But it also has these three items that you won't find on any other site.

References- Anyone who meets, stays with, or hosts any couchsurfer can write a reference on that person's profile, listed as either positive, neutral, or negative, categorized as to whether they were a guest, host, and/or travel buddy, along with comments. When someone writes you a reference, it appears permanently on your profile-- you can't edit or delete it, only the writer can do that. If someone was a great guest or host, they'll have a lot of positive references. If they steal and break things, or put people in uncomfortable positions, they will have negative references. If you see someone who has a negative reference, it will be featured prominently on their profile. When you have negative references, it becomes hard to surf anywhere or host people, so you always want to do you best to get positive references. Conversely, if you find someone who has a negative reference, always read the comment section to see the reason. Sometimes people leave negative references for reasons that might not affect you (miscommunication, personality clashes, etc). and it is up to you to decide whether it is really a red flag or not.

Vouching- A vouch is an icon you see at the top of someone's profile, once some other user has "Vouched" for them, saying they have complete and utter trust in that person. Here's the thing that makes it special: you can only vouch for someone once you yourself have been vouched for by three different people on Each of those people in turn must have been vouched for by three different people, etc, etc. Anyone who has been vouched for has made deep connections in the couchsurfing community, and is known and trusted by those around them. Ideally you should only vouch for someone who you have both hosted and been hosted by, but failing that, just make sure it is someone you trust-- once you vouch for them, anything they do is reflected back on you.

Verification- It's the first and easiest step you can do, because you can do it by yourself. It's a three step process that leads to yet another prominent icon on your profile. The first step is locking in your name and physical address. Once you've done this, the couchsurfing team will mail you a postcard with a code on it. When you get it, you will enter in the code to verify you live (or at least get mail) at this address. This is the bare minimum of verification. The functionality of it is that in the unlikely event that any sort of legal complaint is lodged against a user, the local authorities can at least track them down by physical address. The last step to Verification is optional and only really shows dedication to the concept of couchsurfing- a monetary donation.

Now I know some surfers who object to this donation on principle-- they say that every other aspect of couchsurfing is 100% free of charge and always should be. But creating and maintaining a community that has more users than Facebook had just a few years ago costs an enormous amount of time and money. Since has no advertising anywhere on its site, donations are its only source of revenue. I say they've earned it. It's a different amount depending on the country you came from, but it's almost always about the price of one night in a hostel dorm bed in your country (Americans for example pay US$25). It's well worth it.

Together, with the fact that all messages through couch surfing are recorded, these safeguards make the backbone of couchsurfing security and should be the first things you look for when considering any potential host or surfer.

Speaking of looking for surfers, here's a special concern for those wondering "is couch surfing safe for women alone?" First of all, yes, it is. More than a million women are on the site and have had no problems. But if you're still worried, I would like to point out that you can be very specific in your search by gender, age, keywords (good way to find common interests), and specific location. A lot of women tell me they wouldn't feel comfortable staying with a strange man they don't know. Simple answer: restrict your search of hosts to women only.

If you want to read further, I recommend what has to say on the subject themselves.

Up next, Tips for surfers, followed by tips for hosts.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Travel Tip: Couchsurf

If you don't know what "couchsurf" means, you are missing out. has begun to revolutionize world travel. It is a social network of over 2.5 million people across more than 200 countries worldwide. And just about all of them are willing to let you sleep at their place for no charge.

It's a simple concept. You let travelers crash at your place, and other travelers will let you crash at theirs. Not just any travelers of course-- people can only come stay once you invite them, there is a sophisticated reference and vouching system to determine if they're trustworthy (and how to hold them legally accountable if they aren't). But as accommodation is typically a huge chunk of any traveler's budget, this method can be a huge boon to those trying to see the world for less.

However, couchsurfing is about more than just a free place to stay. It's about all the things you can learn by being the guest of a different culture. A real guest, not just a lone customer in a hotel room. If you are a thoughtful and conscientious guest, you can learn far more from your host in an hour than you might have learned in a day with your guidebook. Finding a couchsurfing host who loves their home is the best and fastest way to get to the exciting, authentic travel experiences that the people on the tour buses can only dream of.

Likewise, as a host, this is very cheesy, but it's true: you're opening your door to the world. Not only are you meeting people from other countries, but you're meeting travelers from other countries. People with stories from literally anywhere. And from a personal perspective, it's a great way to deal with travel withdrawal, comparing notes.

The majority of couchsurfers are single travelers in their twenties. But I've hosted teens, stayed with 70-year-olds, and met entire families surfing couches together. There are added challenges to these things of course, but they can be done.

If you're curious about couchsurfing, go to the website's community page, and search for the place where you currently live. You'll find a forum of couchsurfers near you. If you're in a major city, they probably have one or several weekly gatherings-- usually just hanging out at a bar or coffee shop. For example, If you're in Seattle, the group usually hits happy hours in various bars around 5pm (rotates every week, check their board for details). In New York there's a Thursday evening event at Affair on Eighth in Greenwich Village that usually gets going around 8:30. Go join them, they're probably the friendliest crowd you'll ever meet.

If you want to learn more about this site and community, stay tuned. I'll have more posts coming soon-- first about what makes the site so safe to use, second about the basics of surfing for couches, and finally a little bit about hosting.