How I Use Couchsurfing for Local Experiences and Budget Travel

Portage Glacier, Whittier, Alaska

Transportation, lodging, dining… travel costs add up.

Sure, 5-star accommodations and luxury transportation are great, but like many other backpackers and long-term travelers, I don’t want to sink all my money into those things. When I have a finite travel budget, I want to allocate it wisely — and I tend to prefer spending my hard-earned cash on experiences vs. a place to lay my head at night.

Budget was the #1 reason I turned to Couchsurfing (iOS app store) in 2017. I was newly unemployed and visiting Europe for four weeks, so naturally, I wanted to keep costs low. I decided to give Couchsurfing a try in Austria, even though I was a little skeptical of the concept. (The rest, as you’ll soon see, is history.)

Elise was my first Couchsurfing host. She lived in a teeny place in Salzburg, Austria, the size of a college dorm room. She put me up on an air mattress two feet from her bed, and we chattered away into the early morning hours. The next day, we explored Salzburg together, Elise, full of interesting facts and historical tidbits, and me, soaking it all in. We feasted on rolls at Salzburg’s oldest bakery, hidden in the basement of a church, and strolled by Mozart’s former residence and through the Sound of Music garden. Over dinner we talked about boys, our love of classical music, and what’s next for the both of us professionally. 

I may have saved some money, but I gained a priceless friendship.

Let me explain further. Couchsurfing is not a free place to stay (well, technically, it is) — but so much more. As a host, to Couchsurf is to open up your space and share the secrets and joys of your home city. As a guest, Couchsurfing is for those who want a different experience and the companionship, guidance, and friendship of a local. It’s a desire to swap stories, spread good karma, and pay-it-forward.

Some people try to use Couchsurfing just to crash for free. I Couchsurf because I like to mix up platonic fellowship with my usual going-it-alone travel style. It allows me to experience the place I’m visiting through a local’s eyes, often discovering things I would never have been able to see by myself. I can do things not offered on a tour or not findable on my own or through a guidebook. And, because my budget is better allocated, my trips can be longer and more meaningful. 

My most recent Couchsurfing experience was in Anchorage, Alaska. Through my host Kelvin, a bonafide Couchsurfing expert, I was able to experience the distinct taste of a seagull egg (which, by law, only Alaskan natives can harvest!), Eskimo ice cream (made with Crisco… very unusual!), and feast on some delicious home-cooked (and home-caught) salmon. Kelvin also knew just the places to pick wild blueberries and spot moose up close. It was a magical experience.

How to use Couchsurfing

1. Create a profile.

This one’s pretty self-explanatory: just describe yourself in a little box on the internet! Upload a few pics, state your interests, and let your personality shine. If you’re a book, this is your cover — anybody who is going to commit to spending some time with you should want to know what you’re all about (don’t you agree?)!

2. Create a trip

The next thing I do when I’m thinking about Couchsurfing is to create a public trip. You enter the location you’re traveling to and the dates, and a short summary of who you are and what you want to do, and your trip is searchable by locals and other travelers. You can receive messages or hosting invitations. (You can also be proactive and search and message hosts yourself!) 

3. Personalize, and be discerning

Remember, Couchsurfing is about connection. When searching for or evaluating a prospective host (both whether I sought them out or whether they found me via my public trip), I thoroughly read their profile and reviews. Does this person seem cool and do we have things in common? Did he/she take the time to read a little about me (through my profile), and is his/her message reflective of that? Does he/she have positive reviews, or a reason for not having reviews? Have they described their home and the sleeping arrangements? Will they be mindful and considerate of my needs and preferences? These are all factors I take into account when reviewing someone’s profile and messages, so these are all things I’m also mindful of when it comes to writing my own profile and sending messages to others — it’s in the details. Again, Couchsurfing not just a free place to stay. You’re going to be spending a little to a lot of time with each other, shouldn’t you both want to?

4. Be clear about the experience you want

This is a biggie: be explicit about the experience you want, either in your public trip post and/or in your messages to hosts. When I was traveling to Alaska, I mentioned that I’m traveling on a budget, that I won’t have a car, that I work remotely and will need reliable WiFi access, and that I’m coming with my dog, a cuddly miniature Australian shepherd. It may sound like kind of a tall order, but it allows a potential host to see how much of a match there may be. (Kelvin, to his credit, sent the perfect reply: He affirmed the WiFi situation, offered up use of the fenced-in yard, and even said I could borrow a bicycle — adding, ‘Mi casa es su casa!’) I was also straightforward about having to work during the day and my desire to fill rest of the daylight hours with adventuring and high-energy activities (like the photo you see here of Portage Pass hike in Whittier!); luckily, this was also a match to Kelvin’s schedule and personality. Explain what you’re there for, what kind of transportation you’ll have, and how much attention you’d like from your host. In short, communicate your expectations!

5. Be thankful 

If you’re a guest, be gracious and appreciative to your host; they’re sharing their home and giving up their time. In Couchsurfing, there’s no money to exchange, but there is an expectation to be thoughtful. Bring a gift from home. Cook or buy a meal or two. Fill up the gas tank. Pay it forward — and later, be a host yourself for a fellow traveler in need!

6. Validate the experience by leaving a review

I usually won’t stay with someone if they have no reviews or a negative review — I’m generally not one to completely roll the dice — which means I’ll always leave a review afterwards. Because your feedback will shape the decisions of other future travelers, leaving a detailed, honest review is super important. 

Have you “Couchsurfed”? How was your experience? Leave me a comment below!

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