When I moved to Cologne in 2011, my new housemates told me about Couchsurfing. At first, I couldn’t believe that their concept really worked; staying at someone’s place for free and sleeping on their couch. But of course, I was thrilled and wanted to try it myself. I read some articles about it online, watched YouTube videos and it seemed to work. So I signed up and went to surf my first couch a couple of weeks later.

Rasta couple with family of Couchsurfing host in Peruibe, Brazil

Our host Vanessa (also in the picture on top) and her family in Peruíbe, Brazil, were very welcoming and sweet. We spent good times together and enjoyed the delicious local food.

How It Works

A person who offers a place to stay is called a Couchsurfing host and the person traveling a surfer. Everybody on CS has their own profile where they can put information about themselves, their interests, their home or anything else, and pictures. On the profile, you can also find references. For me, those references are the most important part of deciding if I want to meet someone or not. There are three different types; from surfers (to hosts they stayed with), from hosts (to surfers that stayed at their home) and personal (people that met through CS or any other way, but didn’t stay at each other’s place through CS). You can leave a positive – would stay/host/meet again reference or a negative/neutral one – would not stay/host/meet again. So if a person has a couple of positive reviews and no negative one, why shouldn’t I trust him/her?

Since I started CS I’ve probably met over 200 couchsurfers from all over the world and most of them were really nice, open-minded and good-hearted people. There were also some “weird” persons, but I think that’s kind of inevitable if you meet that many different characters. Unfortunately, I had my first negative experience on my visit to Northern California. However, there has never been any moment of fear or danger even with the not so pleasant CS encounters. In fact, many of my surfers and hosts have become good friends. I try to meet up with old and new CS friends wherever I go.

Finding the Right Host

If you want to surf somebody’s couch, there are two different options to get in touch with hosts. The main way I use is the host search. It lets you look for CS hosts in any city and has some filter options like age, last login, has references etc. If there are many hosts in one place it makes sense to use some filters of course. You get a list of everybody in the area, can go to their profiles and request to stay with them. The profile has information about the place, how many people can be hosted at a time if the couch/bed/mattress/… is in a shared or private room and anything else.

Example of basic home information on a couchsurfing host's profile

These are the basic information a host has to fill out about their home. Most people write more than that though 😉
In the picture, you see my settings when I hosted in Cologne.

Needless to say, it totally depends on the individual how much info you get. Some profiles have detailed descriptions of their living situation and surrounding area while others only fill out the required fields you can see on the right. So if you have any questions or concerns, you should ask the host about it. Communication is the best way to have a good experience. Other than that you shouldn’t have expectations of who you are going to meet and how they live, but be open-minded.

I couchsurfed places where I had my own bed- and bathroom, and others where I shared the bed with strangers. It was ok for me personally and I knew about the sleeping arrangements beforehand. In our apartment in Cologne, Germany, we hosted couchsurfers (and friends and family of course) on the pull-out couch in our kitchen. 😉

Couchsurfing Requests

If the profile and references look good, you can send a request to stay with the host that includes the dates, number of surfers and a message. Recently there has been a change on how you can send requests that I don’t like at all. CS wants you to get verified which costs US$ 50 and only then you can send out as many requests as you want. When I first signed up this verification only cost a couple of bucks and I felt like the references are a much better verification so I didn’t do it. And I could use the website without restrictions, now I can only send out 10 requests per week.

That is really not enough because sometimes I’m in two or three different cities in one week and you don’t get a (positive) reply from everyone you contact. Another negative effect of this new verification is that the original CS spirit gets lost a little bit. I heard from some hosts in the past months that some new surfers feel and treat them like they stay at an Airbnb or hotel because they paid and expect more “services” from the hosts. That’s pretty sad to me because CS is not about just having a free place to stay. I hope CS figures out a better way to make money and verify their members.

Jamaican girl and German rasta girl in neighborhood in Montego Bay, Jamaica

Couchsurfing friends: I had a great time staying with Shamoya and her family for two days. Find out more about my time in Montego Bay, Jamaica >

Alternative Host Search

If they don’t, we will probably end up using the second option to find hosts more often. You can also write a public request for the place you want to visit. All the couchsurfers in that area can see your request and offer to host you. This method has worked well for me especially in big cities where hosts get sometimes hundreds of requests per day and are unable to answer all of them.

In the last years in Cologne, I only hosted that way and invited surfers to my place because I had gotten many requests that I had to decline. So by putting my profile on “not accepting guests” I didn’t receive any direct requests anymore, but could look for surfers who came to Cologne on a date I was free and able to host.

What Couchsurfing Really is About

CS is about much more than staying somewhere for free though. It’s about the cultural exchange, meeting different types of people, sharing ideas and experiences, learning new things. So even if you can’t host, you can still meet couchsurfers in your city and show them some nice places or grab some drinks. I use this option also when I’m traveling and when I still lived in Cologne. For example, I stay in a hotel when I go on vacation with my family, but contact local couchsurfers if they would be interested in meeting so we can get to know the place and culture even better. And meet cool people everywhere, of course. 😉

There is a relatively new way to find other couchsurfers on the website. If you enable your GPS, you can see couchsurfers in your area who are interested in hanging out, going sightseeing etc. We haven’t used this yet, but probably will at some point. There are also meetups and events on CS that can be a lot of fun.

When we go to a place where we don’t know anyone yet, we always try to find a CS host. If that doesn’t work out, we usually go to a cheap Airbnb or hostel. But even then we try to meet up with some couchsurfers. We really love Couchsurfing because it allows me to travel better, cheaper and find good friends from all over the world.

Any thoughts or questions? Just leave a comment at the bottom.

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Dreadlock couple laughing in Dunas da Ribanceira with ocean view in Imbituba, Brazil

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