I truly believe it’s important to travel with a purpose rather than wander aimlessly from place to place. And I have put this belief into practice. Whether it was motorbiking across Vietnam, trekking the Himalayas, hitchhiking in Thailand, cycling across Tasmania, or CouchSurfing North America, I’ve always tried to add meaning to my travels and create challenges that push me beyond my comfort zone.
As I adventured, it always crossed my mind what it’d be like to travel through people rather than bobbing from one destination to the next.
CouchSurfing had been on my mind for several months before I tried it. I was set to attend a wedding on the West Coast of USA, so decided that I would fly to the East Coast of Canada and CouchSurf my way to the wedding.
Little did I know that this trip would turn into a 20,000km hitchhike and CouchSurfing adventure across the ENTIRE continent of North America. I started in Montreal, Canada and headed West to Vancouver. Once I hit the West Coast, I headed down to Los Angeles and then cut back East, finishing my trip in New York City.
In just 6 months, I CouchSurfed with over 50 hosts of different ages, backgrounds, sexualities, hobbies, religions and life views. It’s been the most enriching travel experience to date. The following three-part article shares my insights and lessons learned so that YOU can do the same.
For all those CouchSurfing rookies out there, what’s all the fuss about?
CouchSurfing is an online community of about 7 million people spanning 97,000 cities across 217 countries. The basic premise of CouchSurfing is to connect locals (Hosts) with travellers (Surfers). After creating a profile, a surfer can send requests to stay on a host’s couch for a specified amount of days. Surfers gets to experience life like a local for a few days, while hosts get to experience different cultures from the comfort of his or her own home – it’s really that simple!
Part 2: 5 Downfalls of CouchSurfing
When you’re adventuring across a continent, more often than not, you’re not quite sure where you’ll end up next. As a result, it can be a significant logistical challenge to organise a CouchSurf. In my experience, lots of hosts wanted precise dates for arrival/departure, and considering I didn’t know when I was going to arrive, this kind of information was very difficult to anticipate. Things would pop up; I’d meet cool people and my plans would change just like that. This meant that I had to be very clear and efficient in communication, which sadly meant I was also glued to my phone. This often resulted in me neglecting the moment, which I’ve come to realise is a big “No No” for me.
Also, for popular cities like San Francisco, Vancouver, LA and NYC, it can take sending out 15 requests to get 1 host. In this instance, you really need to stand out amongst the crowd, and portray the best parts of your personality while focusing on what you can offer your potential host.
- Your Own Chilling Time
When you decide to CouchSurf an entire continent it becomes your daily reality. You’re constantly moving and you’re always meeting new people – and it’s GO GO GO. It sometimes got difficult to find my own “down time” because I felt inclined to always be “on” and entertain each of my hosts. Of course, some hosts are very laid back and encourage independence, but on the flip side, I’ve also stayed with some hosts who enjoyed following tight schedules. Nonethless, if you don’t feel like socialising or doing things with your host then it’s probably better to find a quiet hotel to stay in.
- Disguised Intentions
Some people use CouchSurfing for different motives. These unspoken intentions exist on both sides of the table – host and surfer. In my experience, and from what other CouchSurfers have told me, disguised intentions relate to money, sex, and freeriding. I’ve heard of times when hosts have hit on their guests, surfers taking advantage of Hosts for a free place to stay, and hosts who have charged their surfers for a bed. CouchSurfing is all about transparent cultural exchange, not disguising intentions with unspoken motives.
- The Nature of Interaction and Difficulty Growing a Community
CouchSurfing works on many singular interactions between hosts and surfers. This separation and fragmented nature makes nurturing a community very difficult indeed. CouchSurfing have tried to address this issue by growing CS Communities that run regular events in major cities such as Berlin, New York, and Vancouver. The problem here though is that the communities operate independently and don’t support each other in any shape or form. This causes an element of separation that inhibits rather than supports the growth of the overall CouchSurfing community.
- CouchSurfing Platform
Even though CouchSurfing have tried to address this issue recently by introducing a new website, the platform is still very user-unfriendly. It’s very difficult to navigate through the site, takes a lot of effort to send out a thoughtful personalised request, and is also difficult to communicate and organise multiple hosts. To get around this issue, I usually communicate with my hosts on more real-time social media platforms such as Facebook.
It’s clear from my CouchSurfing experience that the benefits of this amazing initiative definitely outweigh the negatives. The purpose of this post was to show an accurate portrayal of CouchSurfing, which also accounts for the less glamorous side of things. I have no doubt that CouchSurfing will come to address some of the issues that I’ve outlined above in the not too distant future.