Couchsurfing, no doubt, is a fantastic platform. It not only helps you save money on accommodations during your travels, but also allows you to meet very special people with unique lifestyles and philosophies.
Yet using it can still be a challenge for beginners.
Getting a host to accept your couch request may be trickier than you think. One day you may find yourself sending out dozens of requests and never getting accepted.
Here are a few rules to follow if you want to be taken seriously:
1) Start with updating and polishing your profile. Make sure to upload a few photos where your face is clearly visible. Try to provide as much relevant information about yourself as possible (but not too much). List your travel locations, if any. Fill every fillable section. You won’t regret putting time and heart into it.
2) Now start searching for your friends on CS. There’s a tool that lets you scan your Facebook friends for CS profiles. Maybe you’ve travelled with some of them, hosted or stayed with the others. Add them, write them reviews and make them write reviews for you. Building your reputation on the website is important – no one would like to host someone with zero trust base.
3) This is not a must, but getting verified might be a good idea. Verification on Couchsurfing proves your identity and your location. The first and easiest step is cellphone number verification – you enter the number on the website, they send you a code, voila. This is to provide further contact between you and your guest/host, the number is not visible on the website. Second, you can pay a little non-refundable fee (around $10) so that the system checks your credit card and proves you’re real. Third, they send you a postcard at the address you give them. It might take quite a while – my postcard took about 2 months to arrive to Moscow. But it’s worth the wait: once you get the postcard and enter the code from it on the website, you get the last green check mark next to your profile picture. When you’re looking for a host, it may play a role in his or her decision.
4) Know your dates. No one wants to get requests from people who don’t have a clear idea of their plans. Respect your hosts’ time! They usually have arrival lists and are hosting if not non-stop, then rather often. If you want a good host, plan everything in advance.
5) You should know that most of CS hosts are guys. It’s understandable – not many gals choose to host random strangers. So being a girl is sort of a benefit for getting accepted, but don’t count on it – and please, don’t let this fact make you feel like you owe your host something. Anything. Same goes for guys.
6) Best time for sending couch requests is about 2 weeks ahead of your trip. Usually people don’t know their plans too much in advance. Although hosts with high reputation may be booked far ahead – you’d want to write them earlier, especially during holiday season.
7) Once you launch your search, in preferences check boxes for “users with photos” and (optional) “verified” – it’s in the Security section). There used to be a “vouched for” option as well, when only established users could vouch for other users and so on, but now it’s gone. It narrows down your search, but if you’re not an experienced CSer and especially if you’re a girl, that can make your life a lot easier. After you do that, choose “sort people by… Experience” in the upper right corner of the page (alas, only available for the desktop version – I recommend it). This will let you see the most experienced and reliable couchsurfers around. Who knows – maybe you’ll be lucky! I’m pretty cautious in my searches, so I don’t usually address hosts who had less than 20-30 guests. But that’s completely up to you.
8) Sometimes users will have “Maybe” as their hosting status. Still, give them a try – they may agree to host you!
9) Choose a few profiles that you like. Don’t forget to look at the amount of references, last login date and reply time and rate. Don’t bother with people whose reply rate is under 60%, they don’t usually pay much attention to their profile. Reply time is important as well for you to be able to make plans.
10) Once you open a profile, read through it, attentively, especially the general info and the living conditions. You might find some important info there – the host might list the days his couch is unavailable, or ask you to include a special word in your request to make sure you’ve read his or her profile. Once you’re sure the host is available, go see the reviews. When was the last review written? Was that more than 3-4 months ago? Perhaps, the host is away or not really eager to host now? Filter them by “From surfers”. Some people just want to make their profile look grand and the majority of reviews there is from random strangers they met at various CS events.
Read through the latest reviews. Are they too impersonal, too brushed up? Are they only from girls, girls, girls? That should be a signal that the host is on the website for one purpose only – to get laid. Are there any negative ones in the profile at all? If yes, read them carefully – it’s up to you to decide if they matter, because sometimes they’re pure nonsense. Pay even closer attention to neutral references, that’s where most people give their negative experiences when they don’t want to be too direct. Look for subtleties, use your instinct and the inner magnifying glass. This especially matters, again, for gals – you can often find some reports of attempted sexual harassment there. Funny observation – in some countries it may be pretty difficult to find a host without any of the kind…
Mind the host’s surfing policies. Does he/she offer you a separate room (like a living room) or at least a separate sleeping surface? Is there a couch or an air mattress, are there pillows, blankets, linens, or you have to bring a sleeping bag? Does he/she host a few people at the same time, and if yes, do they stay in the same room? Little things matter.
11) Time to write the request. It really should be personalized – it’s even offensive towards the hosts to just drop them a few empty lines. Make sure to state your dates, both in the calendar and in the body of your text. In the introduction part address the host by his/her name (if it’s not written in the profile, you can easily find it in the references), introduce yourself, your occupation, the purpose of your trip and your trip dates. Be polite, and a little humor won’t hurt either.
Then it’s time to exploit your creative writing skills a bit. I’ll tell you the truth: I don’t write a new message for each host, but I do tailor them as much as I can. After reading through the person’s profile note some details that you like – a funny quote, a statement about loving animals, favorite books and movies etc. Tell the person about the interests you may share, things you’d like to talk about, questions you’d like to ask, yummy food you may cook (yeah, that). You don’t have to write a novel – four to five sentences will be enough. Thank the host in advance and check your request for mistakes before sending it.
12) Now you have to wait. Make sure to send at least five (better up to ten) requests. Five well-written requests have higher response chance than a thousand of poor ones. Wait for up to a week to make sure the host is not interested (if a week later the request is still marked as pending, he/she probably isn’t). Though of course the nice way would be to just decline. In my experience, active hosts that are interested in having you over reply within 1-2 days. The new CS policy gave all requests an expiration date – they expire on the day of your planned arrival.
13) Once you get a positive response (sometimes you have to choose from a few options), make sure to confirm your stay and get the host’s address and contact number. Connect over Whatsapp or Viber or Facebook or whatever, it’s an easier way to communicate than Couchsurfing website. Talk through the details of your arrival and departure, the host’s schedule and the keys (some would freely give you an extra set and some would prefer you leave the house with them and come back when they’re back home). Usually, if the host has lots of positive reviews, you don’t have to worry about safety. But giving your family and/or friends the name and contacts of the person you’re staying with is still a good idea.
14) Enjoy your stay! Bringing a little gift or souvenir for the host would be a nice thing to do, though not mandatory, of course.
15) Traveling in pairs, friends or couples, is totally fine with Couchsurfing! Yes, it will narrow down your search as not everyone can accommodate two and more people, but usually it’s not a problem to find a couch for two. Just make sure that you introduce your partner in crime well in the couch request, or, preferably, make sure they get their own profile. I’ve recently couchsurfed with my mom in Italy (yeah, that’s fine too), and I just gave her a brief, but detailed intro in my request.
16) If your plans suddenly change – got sick, got stuck in another city,
met a gorgeous stranger on the street and decided to stay with him/her – make sure to let your host know, the earlier the better! People not showing up without warning are awful. Period. And most likely they’re going to get a negative reference.
17) Leave a reference once you leave your host’s place. It’s very irritating both ways, when either a surfer or a host decide not to bother with leaving a reference. To begin with, references build one’s reputation on the website, and thus are important. It’s also good to inform the others about your experience with this person, and let the surfers searching for a place see if the host’s active at the moment. Just please, don’t write anything like “cool guy/gal, nice place”. Your host deserves at least a few sentences, even if he/she hadn’t spent all the time in the world with you. And if there was any negative experience, it’s your duty to inform the community! Don’t you dare be shy if the host tried to harass you or whatever! Some people use neutral references to warn others against such hosts, and you can do that too if you don’t want to go full-scale negative. Two neutral references with implication in a high-rank profile helped me decide with which host to stay in Amsterdam. I chose the less experienced one, but I felt much more at ease.
And a word for the hosts out there – we surely are all busy people, but writing a short constructive reference won’t hurt. Five minutes of your time, and it’s done! It’s extremely annoying when you leave the person a reference and he/she doesn’t even bother to reply. Let’s all be nice;)
A few more things based on recent experiences:
– If the host hasn’t replied in 2-3 days, most likely, he or she won’t reply at all. Or will reply in a few weeks telling that he or she was digging the Himalayas at the time. That happens too.
– Lots of positive reviews do not guarantee that the host will be paying much attention to you, or especially will show you around etc. Usually, people are busy with their own lives and won’t have much time to hang out – of course, there are exceptions, but still. Sometimes all you get is keys and a couch, and then you just have to be respectful and do your own thing. Most hosts indeed state in their profiles that “my home is not a hostel”, but we can’t blame them if it turns out just so. People are different. With two out of ten couches I’ve surfed I only saw the host a few times and had a maximum of one-two conversations. They were still very nice people, and I’m grateful that they did host me.
– Weekly Couchsurfing city events can be a great place to socialize and maybe even find an emergency couch (haven’t tried it yet myself). They really differ from city to city: say, in Amsterdam one is a nice quiet evening hangout in the pub, with talks and good company, and another is a coffeeshop meeting (that coffeeshop that sells anything but coffee). And in Moscow they meet at a Mexican bar, aren’t very talkative until after a few drinks, and then rock to Latino music till the place is closed.
– I don’t see it as a problem, but while searching for a couch in Budapest and some other places I saw many hosts asking that the guests bring sleeping bags. Personally, I never even thought of having one, because I always travel light with a small backpack and I really can’t sleep on the floor due to back problems, even air beds can be a pain sometimes. But it’s totally understandable: not many people would like to be constantly doing laundry.
– Always – always – make sure you have the host’s full address and cell number before you head out there. What happened to my best friend Dasha in Hamburg was that she went to her host’s place knowing the street address but not the apartment number, and having left her phone number to the host but not asking for hers. So she arrived and found the name bell not working, and there she was, in a foreign country, with no Internet and no means of contact aside from the CS website, or maybe Facebook. She had to call a random flat to be let in and then had tried every door in the building, but never found her host. In the end, she asked the lady who let her in for a wifi password, wrote her host and contacted another host who had accepted her too. In two hours, she was soaking in a bathtub in a beautiful apartment, happy how it turned out in the end, for the other host was nice enough to let her stay. The first girl never really replied or apologized, and she had lots of positive reviews. The lesson here: it’s always good to have a backup plan, and even positive reviews in someone’s profile can’t be a guarantee that everything will work as planned.
– Remember I talked about bringing a present? Well, I had no chance to do that during my recent trip, of which I was really ashamed… before I figured how great it was to have a few simple recipes up your sleeve. I, for example, make awesome omelets and scrambled eggs, but above all, a really cool Russian apple pie, which can be ready in no time and requires very few ingredients. Cooking something from your home country can be a great ice-breaker and socializer. Well, now I’m learning to cook… ‘Cause it’s cool.
That’d be all for now, but surely I’d have more things to share! I hope you find this [many-worded] material helpful, because I wish I knew all this when I started my CS journey. Cheers!