When we were in the remote town of Corner Brook, on the island province of Newfoundland, Canada we stayed with Angela and John, an older couple from England who were working in the area. They picked us up in town, took us to their gorgeous house, gave us the entire top floor suite to stay in, cooked us delicious meals, got us giddy on glasses of wine, stayed up chatting and playing games, lent us their snowshoes for a winter trek and even took a full day to drive us up to Gros Morne National Park for a hike and a picnic.
Angela and John are not our relatives or even old friends of the family. They were perfect strangers that we had only contacted briefly online a few days before. So why did this lovely couple spend so much time and energy making sure we had an amazing time during our travels around Newfoundland? Because of the wonderful travel phenomenon of Couchsurfing.
What is Couchsurfing?
Couchsurfing is a way for generous and welcoming people from all over the world to connect with each other and help each other have better travel experiences.
You can create a profile on the website and include information and photos about yourself, your hobbies, your travel plans and your background. When you are traveling to a specific destination, you simply do a search within the area and you will see a list of all other members whose couches are available. If you see someone on the list who you think you might get along with, you can send them a request to “Surf their couch”. If they are able to host you they will respond with instructions on how to get to their house and they might even pick you up from the airport, bus or train station if they can.
You might end up sleeping on their couch, but not necessarily. You could also be in a spare room, guest house, air mattress or even have part of the house all to yourself like we did in Corner Brook.
You are their guest during your visit and no exchange of money takes place, although good Couchsurfing etiquette suggests that you might offer to do the dishes, buy them a few drinks or bring them a small gift of thanks.
The Couchsurfing community goes beyond a place to stay as well. Even if you decide to stay in a hotel or a hostel, you can check out what sort of events and activities are being organized in your destination. Often there are dinners, parties, movie nights, activities and so much more organized by the local Couchsurfing group.
If you have room in your house to host travelers when you get back home from your travels, you can set your profile to reflect this. However, it is not mandatory. If you don’t have enough extra room, are too busy, or don’t have a house because you are living a nomadic lifestyle at the moment like Lee and I, there is no obligation. There is also the option to set your profile to reflect that you can’t host people at the moment, but you would love to meet up with them for coffee and show them around.
Of course, after having such wonderful Couchsurfing experiences on our travels there is no doubt that Lee and I will want to host some travelers in the future when we are a bit more settled.
“But isn’t it Dangerous to Stay With Total Strangers?”
Many people we met have maybe heard about Couchsurfing but they have dismissed it outright because they believe it would be awkward/creepy/uncomfortable/unsafe or otherwise not enjoyable to sleep on the couch of a stranger that they meet online.
It’s true that this set up does sound at first glance like it might be a dangerous idea, but the reality is far from it. In fact, from our extensive Couchsurfing experience and the experiences of other Couchsurfers we have met around the world, the truth is that this is an incredibly safe and fun way to travel.
Of course, like any other online tool for exchanges between people, there will be the odd creepy person here and there. However, they are few and far between and they don’t make the website any less useful for making amazing travel connections. There are weird people on Craigslist as well, but they don’t really affect the value of these classifieds. When it comes to Couchsurfing, the verification process built into the website keeps you safe and every “surfer” leaves feedback about their hosts and vice versa. If someone’s profile gives you a red flag or they don’t have any feedback, you are under no obligation to stay with them or invite them into your home.
It’s easy to be skeptical about Couchsurfing, especially since in our culture there is the attitude that nothing comes for free and many people have an inherent distrust of strangers. With all of the horror stories that get shoved in our faces by the media and all of the messages of greed out there, it’s really hard to believe that someone would give up their spare room or couch for free and spend so much of their precious time on someone they don’t even know.
However, if you are able to forget those notions briefly and give it a try, Couchsurfing has the power to restore your faith in humanity. The more friendly, open, honest and humble you are the more people will open up their doors, their lives and their hearts to you.
Our host in Kamloops, British Columbia took us to a summer evening music festival in the park where we sat on the grass playing cards, listening to the music and watching the sunset (see the featured image for this post). Our host in Winnipeg, Manitoba drove us around the city for a full day, playing tour guide and showing us the highlights of his hometown and even took us to his mother’s house for a pancake breakfast. Our hosts in Grand Falls-Windsor, Newfoundland took us out to few great bars and even to an art show. We met up with a Couchsurfing group in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia which got us involved in everything from a barbeque on the beach to a salsa dancing night to wall climbing. All over the world, people we have met through Couchsurfing have been kind, welcoming, generous and friendly to us.
Why it Works
Why does Couchsurfing work so well? I think there are a few principals of human interaction that it works upon. One of those concepts is the idea of “Pay it Forward”. We have had many of our hosts say to us that they were given kind hospitality on their travels in the past and they are now taking the opportunity to pass along the kindness. In Angela and John’s example, their son had Couchsurfed on a road trip from Halifax to Toronto and they were inspired by his experiences and were paying it forward on his behalf. Many of our hosts seemed to be keeping the “Golden Rule” in mind and were treating their visitors the way that they would want to be treated, or how they had been treated by their previous hosts.
I also have heard many Couchsurfing hosts say that hosting is a pleasure for them because although they are in a stage in their life when their travels have slowed down, due to work, money, family or other commitments, they are still able to meet interesting people from all over the world. In a sense, when they can’t travel the world hosting lets them bring the world to them. This makes the exchange a truly win-win situation.
If you have been curious about Couchsurfing in the past but hesitant to try it, why not give it another look? Once you get connected with this community, you will be amazed at the great travel experiences that you will find.