“Advanced CouchSurfing Tips.” Sounds like I’m full of myself, doesn’t it? I have yet to write Beginning CouchSurfing Tips (1. Fluff your pillow.), but I am going to assume you have a general understanding of it. I have a CouchSurfing and Servas overview on my website, but CouchSurfing can be an unwieldy and buggy thing to navigate, and its powers aren’t fully utilized by most. While a lot of this is focused on strategies in finding hosts, it’s really only one aspect of CouchSurfing, which is invaluable in bringing travelers in contact with local people whether you stay with them or not. There are several overlooked tools I will explain, though the real lessons are to be proactive and, as always, don’t forget that life is too short to be shy.
Nobody loves me, it’s true
A traveler over 40 lamented to me that CouchSurfing is a tough way to go as they felt marginalized, that CouchSurfing was a young man’s game. It may be so. When I was in my 20s, I wasn’t keen on hanging out with people in their 40s and I’m sure I muttered under my breath that I hope I’m not backpacking when I become 40. As you can see, I’m in total denial about my age and I don’t think anything of asking to visit someone half as old as I am. We’re travelers first! Age schmage! However, sometimes I need a dose of reality.
The answer is you need to raise your game. You can’t rely on things coming to you as they might have in the past. You have to create your own luck. There are a few ways to do this whatever your “handicap”: age, being new to CouchSurfing, not having a lot of time to examine hundreds of profiles, etc.
On the CouchSurfing surf page it states, “We recommend sending thoughtful CouchRequests to at least 5 hosts per location”. That’s a lot. (I guess it is in keeping with how CouchSurfing began, when on a trip to Iceland the founder randomly e-mailed 1,500 students from the University of Iceland asking if he could stay.) The problem is I hear of hosts who don’t get the “Thanks, but no thanks” email when the surfer choses to go with someone else, which is incredibly rude but not uncommon, unfortunately. I also don’t like it because as a host I would feel I am being juggled or leveraged to see if the surfer can get a better situation. If I agree to host someone and they tell me two days later that they are going to stay with someone else, will I be so eager to say yes to the next request I get?
I never send five requests at once. What I do is try to pinpoint two or three people who seem interesting and also look like they might host me. I send one request one day and then one to another person the next day. If the second person agrees to host me, I email the first person before I’ve heard back from them to say that I’ve found someone.
I will search for the unusual: hosts in Japan who speak Hungarian or hosts in Hungary who speak Japanese–something I can point out that we have in common. In the “Tell your host why you’d like to meet them” part, I give that some thought. Are there books or movies we both like? Usually my big selling point is that I have been to most of the countries on their “Wants to Go” travel list and am happy to talk about it if they are interested. I have the feeling most of the time that the person is impressed that I bothered to read their whole profile.
I do a lot of filtering. If they haven’t logged on in a long time, I ignore them. If they have logged in from another country, I make a mental note of where that place is because often in developing countries proxy servers will be used or there is some CouchSurfing glitch where, for example (and for reasons I haven’t figured out) hundreds of people show that their last log-in was Potwin, Kansas, USA. Otherwise, I ignore them. If I am looking for a host and there isn’t much time before my arrival, sometimes I also use the filters to show only male hosts older than 30. It’s just the odds. That said, the last few hosts have been women because they found me and offered to host. How did this happen?
One way was in Berlin a few months ago when a woman emailed to ask if I was still in town and wanted to meet to talk travel. She knew I was in town because she simply logged in to her CS homepage. In the “Locations Traveled” part of your profile, when you edit it by going to “Create a new destination” and then “Places I will be going”, if you fill that out completely, then the next time someone from that place logs in to their account, on the CS homepage your profile will appear as “Surfers looking for a host”. If you just fill in the country you are going to without the city, it won’t appear. I was leaving town when I got the email, but she offered to host me when I returned the next time, which I gladly accepted. The same thing happened in several places in Indonesia when I was there earlier this year.
If you do a general search of a big, popular city, you will see a zillion hosts, almost all of them sick of guests. You can always tell by the caps and exclamation points in their 5000-word manifesto for the “Couch Information” section of their listing, often in the first sentence: “ATTENTION: READ THIS COMPLETELY BEFORE YOU CONTACT ME!!!” Stay in the suburbs. If you think this is hardly a novel tip, then why are the people in the middle of the cities inundated with guest requests? Suburban hosts are more enthusiastic to have a guest, more likely to have time for you and more amenable to you staying longer or returning.
Take San Francisco, the city I was born. Instead of wasting a lot of time whittling down the hundreds of listings, try the nearby towns with excellent transit connections into the city like South San Francisco, San Leandro, or Daly City. Those of us who grew up in the Bay Area snicker at the mention of these places, but that’s just our local prejudice. In other parts of the world I’ve had the best times visiting people in unsexy suburbs or in non-touristic towns.
Going about it is a little problematic because of the difficulty in searching the suburbs. The “search by map” feature is OK, but it doesn’t work as precisely as one would like and the “browse locations” feature on the surf page will take a long time to use since there are many suburbs to check. Compounding this is the always-mystifying search results shown by “relevance”, the website is often down or overloaded, I don’t receive all my CS emails, etc, etc. No one said it would be easy.
The Power of CouchSurfing Groups
How would I go about finding a place to stay in Istanbul for a couple of months? Where could I buy a second-hand bike in Bogota? Meet someone to hitchhike with me in Norway? CouchSurfing groups! Don’t just search through the ads, put one up. You never know who is looking. Someone might know someone who knows someone whose uncle’s cousin’s sister’s mailman can help. Your timing might be good. You simply never know until you try. There’s a surprising amount of activity with thousands of members in a wide variety of groups such as Vegans and Vegetarians, Cyclists, and Language Exchanges and hundreds of members for more alternative groups like Nudist Lifestyle and Polyamory—Wait! I’m not finished yet! Come back!—but I’m still crushed the Fans of Visiting Jails group never got going.
The power of CouchSurfing groups is that no one owns them. Anyone can create a meeting, propose an excursion, ask for advice—the possibilities are endless. When I was in Jakarta I slapped up a post on the local CouchSurfing group seeing if anyone wanted to get together the next evening at a cafe. To my surprise we became a group of 12 or 13, which I call a great success since it was less than 24 hours notice, I’m a man, and traffic in Jakarta is horrendous. (Indonesians are taking to CouchSurfing with gusto; it’s a fantastic place to visit anyway, but being able to meet locals in more remote parts of the country through CouchSurfing is a big benefit.)
You don’t even have to be a traveler. If I moved to Tokyo (and I’m thinking about it) the first thing I would do is sign up for the CS Tokyo group to meet people, get acclimated and get inspiration of what my possibilities are.
I try to join the CS groups for the next two or three places I am visiting a few weeks early to get clued in as to what is going on. If you aren’t going to be in town very long, you don’t want to wait until after you arrive to join the group because some things take time to arrange and some opportunities may have passed. I joined the Rio de Janeiro (“January River” never sounded so alluring) CS group well before I arrived and I saw a notice someone had placed an ad where they were looking for North Americans without strong accents to do voiceover work for a children’s educational CD. I made $75 in less than two hours on a fun project and believe me when I say that earning $75 on the road feels like a lot more than saving $75 at home.
Earlier this year I was headed to Semarang, Indonesia, a big city where very few travelers go. I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay one night or two, so I didn’t look for a host because I never feel comfortable asking to stay one night. It’s too short and screams of insincerity (“I arrive in the evening and leave in the morning—looking forward to meeting you!”). What I did do was post an ad in the Semarang group asking if there were some new hostels that the Lonely Planet book doesn’t show. One girl responded to say that she had a friend who rents a cheap spare room in his family home, and I arranged a stay with him, easily and perfectly.
What I think is a waste of time—if you aren’t a girl—is to join CouchSurfing Last Minute Request groups for the particular city you are going to. I don’t think anyone is trolling there looking to host guys. That said, it doesn’t take much time to make a posting and you have nothing to lose. The Facebook CouchSurfing group is almost completely useless, full of people investing no effort by writing half-sentences like “Anyone from Buenos Aires?” though I like the guy who asked, “Do you have some informations about interesting events in USA (22 August – 1 September 2012)?”
CouchSurfing can open up a world of possibilities, I love it to death, but I feel compelled to repeat something I wrote on my website: the main reason people stop hosting or drop out of CouchSurfing altogether is because of inconsiderate guests. I hear the stories: guests that hardly say two words and hide out in their room to listen to their iPod, guests who never arrive and never call to cancel, guests who make demands, guests who make bold assumptions about their plans fitting in with their hosts plans, etc. I’m not saying I’m a model guest—I can hardly keep track of all the restraining orders against me these days—but I try to be conscientious of the fact that I have been granted an enormous privilege to be a guest in someone’s home.
What do you think of CouchSurfing? Do you have different ways of using it? Have you had good or bad experiences? Conversely, is it not your thing and you prefer something like airbnb.com? I’m interested to hear your opinions, as always.