Advanced CouchSurfing Tips

     “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.

     Raphael, my CS host in Aracaju, Brazil (looking stunned that I am wearing such short shorts) and his family

     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.

     CouchSurfing in Mombasa, Kenya. The good life. Sometimes.

     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.

     Some of the gang at a last-minute Jakarta CouchSurfing gathering

     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)?”

     About half of a big group at a Bangkok CouchSurfing meeting.

     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 I’m interested to hear your opinions, as always.

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Advanced CouchSurfing Tips — 30 Comments

  1. Wow, Kent. I feel bad now that I didn’t come to that last minute dinner with you when you were in Jakarta because of my work. Wish I did, and wish that I’ve hosted you.

    Hope we’ll meet someday, somewhere…

  2. Kent….you nailed it this time….been a CS for years, read lots of articles and blog entries but your description captures things best.

    For me, the greatest CS value is to contact LOCALS for knowing the off the beaten path stuff in NO travel guide….best, inexpensive, tapas in Barcelona; weekly Zapatista social group in Chiapas, Mexico, serious local weightlifting gym in basement of Budapest housing project, etc.

    During last world cup, while traveling through Europoe, used CS to find Argentine expats to watch games with….just like being in a working class barrio outside Buenos Aires for every game!

    Keep up the great work!

  3. well, I’m currently in a tent on the side of a quiet road with 2 people I met less than 24hrs ago with another girl I met 31hrs ago sleeping in my car, were road tripping in Wales! check out the awesome local, that’s me btw.

  4. I have a questio: in your “advances couchsurfing” experience, how many times have you found yourself being hosted by someone who expected you to spend most of your time with them? I mean, is it frequent that couchsurfer hosts expect to plan your stay for you?
    I ask this because I am very happy to spend some time and get to know my hosts, but when I’m travelling I normally have a set number of days in any given place and want to visit places/sightseeing, so I am afraid I might find myself in the host’s grandmother’s living room (which might be nice as well, if it’s not for a whole day!!) eating cookies and hearing about old times’ stories. It is not that I don’t appreciate these things, only I wouldn’t like not to be able to master my time when travelling. Do you get that a lot with couchsurfing?

  5. Kent, you did a great job summarizing what it took me a year or so to pick up on. The only thing I can add is that as an over-50 couchsurfer, I have been rather surprised a few times that after having walked around, touring ALL DAY LONG, that my host thinks it’s a treat for me to do an evening walking tour. LOL. Yes, it’s happened to me more than once!

  6. Lucilla, that’s a great question. You never know how it is going to go. Sometimes the host will want to show you everything, sometimes they leave you alone and say something vague about meeting you again in the evening sometime. Part of it is a cultural thing where in some countries they can’t imagine you want to do anything alone. I think you can always make the daytime yours by saying you want to see the sights and get to know the town and they should understand that. You can phrase it that way, too, by saying that you are going to have a look around town and you look forward to meeting them when you get back and is there a best time. Some hosts say in their profiles that they have time on the weekend if you want to be shown around, so if you visited during the week, there’s less likelihood of extended visits at Grandma’s.

  7. Great tips. There is a lot of couchsurfing tips out there, but I like the feel and connection of this article to the couchsurfing experience. Practical.

    CS has made some great inroads on the functionality of the website. There is a lot of tools out there that I think even experienced users do not fully utilize or know about. (Travel Itineraries) Hoping that CS will be working to push out more information/comprehensive overview of the system, which it seems they are.

    I think they are doing good work for open sourcing the travel world.

  8. Totally agree with the staying in the suburbs part. Its amazing, you look up a place like SF and see thousands of hosts and are like “sweet, this will be easy” and it ends up seeming like everyone in the dam city is already hosting or ignores you. I once sent out 32 requests in Mumbai and after failing on every account I got invited by someone and it was the best cs experience ive had yet.

    San Bruno Kent, come on! haha. Yet another example of anti east bay sentiment. J/K. Come to Oakland its freaking awesome!!

  9. I wish I could say deep and thoughtful things about cs, but all I could think from a certain point on was how amainzingly you look like Danny Devito’s penguin in the jakarta’s gathering photo.

    anyway, you’re definitely right about looking for a host in the suburbs: more than once during our europe trip we found ourselves sending tons of request without getting any reply or a lot of “no, sorry” -in particular, of course, in big cities- and on the other hand being invited in small suburban places where we had the most fantastic experiences: in eskilstuna we saw the biggest recording studio in europe, just saying the first I remember.

  10. Danny Devito’s penguin?! I don’t know what it looks like, but that can’t be good.
    Eskilstuna? Isn’t that the place that Swedes always make jokes about?

  11. it doesn’t take much to add a personal touch to a request and as a host that makes all the difference to me. Show me you at least skim read my profile and selected me for some reason by mabye addressing the request to me by name and/or mentioning a common interest or you’ll get a ‘sorry, no’ from me. in a big city the easy way to do that is to search for a term that applies to you as a common ground such as ‘vegan’ or ‘reggae’ or ‘christian’ or whatever.

  12. You are right about searching outside the city centers, but as you also indicate, the search function does not work very well for that.

    The problem is that when you register with couchsurfing, you can not enter where you live, but only the closest town. If it was possible for people to enter where they actually live, more detailed then that, then it would also be easier to search villages and suburbs for big towns, and to use the search by map function.

  13. Even in dense Netherlands that’s true? CS just got a bunch of investment money. Maybe they will improve that, though I think it isn’t a priority for them!

  14. I am so jealous of you…I hope to one day be on your path. If you ever come through Houston or surrounding area (Gee, Why would you???) you have a couch!

    Keep up the information!


  15. We have hosted a bunch of people this summer and hope to surf ourselves later this year when we travel – but as you say, popular destinations are overrun with travelers (I personally get requests almost every day!) and I do wonder how much luck we’ll have. The search by map function doesn’t seem to work at all for me – nothing happens when I click on it! I’m working on a post about our CS hosting experiences, which have been overwhelmingly awesome and positive.

    Thanks for the tip about adding cities to your Locations Traveled section – will have to remember that for when we’re on the road!

  16. I think if you can stay in the suburbs of where you’re going you might be OK, depending on where it is. Also, being a couple probably helps, too, or at least a lot better than a single guy.
    The unfortunate thing is that it all takes a lot of time. I
    sometimes will check profiles when i am home and save them as an email
    draft so I don’t waste too much time on the road on the internet
    searching for hosts–but I am a single guy, so it’s tougher!

    Have you tried search-by-map with other browsers?

  17. Once i stayed in commune in New Mexico. Some people in the house were members of CS although i didn’t apply through CS to stay there. i met them through mutual friend,we had good time and i did stay there several days. however one fat chick wanted sex with me. i refused and she wrote negative comment of me on my profile. her first comment was ridiculous but the hnew”revised”one
    was more acceptable

  18. Great tips! I’ve been on CS for many years, but I learned a lot from your article.

    One question about filling out the locations part to increase odds of receiving an invite:
    You suggested filling out “Locations Traveled”/”Places I have visited” and NOT “Is going to”/”Places I will be going”? I imagine it would be the latter, and I wanted to check with you.

    You also said “If you just fill in the country you are going to, [your profile won’t appear in Surfers Looking for a Host].” Did you mean if you just fill in the country you want to visit?
    That doesn’t make sense to me, but then again, CS is a buggy site.
    Thanks in advance for the clarification!

  19. I am also confused by my own wording. Thanks for pointing that out. I made the change on the page.
    Yes, you are right, it is the “Places I will be going” part when you edit “Locations Traveled”. So when I was going to Berlin, I created an itinerary that said I was going to “Germany” and then Berlin under that. If I had left it as just “Germany”, Berliners wouldn’t see my profile.
    Does that make sense?

  20. As a host in NYC, I can attest to all you write. When receiving 5+ requests daily, it rapidly reaches a point where you’re saying no for any reason at all. You must appeal personally to the host to stand a chance. Common countries or interests are a great start. Some experience or references also go a long way, though the reference system is broken. It is hard to leave someone a negative review, especially when they might reciprocate just to “get even”.

    As for being considerate, it’s amazing how some guests don’t have any appreciation for being in someone’s home. I’ve had people return days after leaving unannounced, bang like rabbits in my house, leave doors open and eat tons of food. While many are considerate and make the experience positive (by sharing travel experiences, preparing a meal, or engaging in a great conversation), it doesn’t take more than a few inconsiderate travelers to start to spoil the experience.

    The only thing I would counter in your article (and comment) is a preference towards couples. While my experiences may differ from others, I’ve found dating couples to be the least desirable group to have. All to often, arguments spoil the experience. Connecting and enjoying the experience of one can “turn-off” the other. Lastly, it’s never fun to willingly make yourself the “third wheel”.

    The best surfers I’ve had have been younger, single guys who have an itinerary they want to do/see and the flexibility afforded only to those who travel alone. They are often less impact on my home that groups our couples and significantly more independent.

  21. Thanks for writing. It’s great to hear the opinion of someone with a lot of experience.
    It always kills me when long-time hosts tell the stories of inconsiderate guests. I didn’t realize couples could lead to so much drama. Better experiences with younger guys than girls? I wouldn’t have guessed that either. I hope the bad apples don’t keep you from continuing!

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