The Hostel of No Hostel: CouchSurfing

By Jonathan Fisher

I receive somewhere in the neighborhood of ten emails every month from strangers asking to sleep on my floor for a couple of days.  These people are strangers when they contact me, but sometimes once they arrive on my doorstep I find we have so much in common that we can lay awake and chat all night like a pre-teen slumber party with my surprise – but not unplanned for – guests reclining in sleeping bags beside me, sipping a beer or some tea, sharing travel stories or photos or both. This is my life as a CouchSurfing host in Japan.

I’m the type of guy who values his personal space very highly, but CouchSurfing has become such an integral part of my experience abroad that, after about 18 months of meeting travelers from around the world, it’s difficult for me to imagine traveling anywhere – whether it’s my upcoming, semi-permanent move to Vancouver, or Golden Week adventures in Korea – without first scanning the database of travelers and hosts at CouchSurfing.org.

CouchSurfing.org is a website and social network launched in 2003, which now has a membership of more than two million hosts and travelers in 238 countries and territories worldwide. While the bulk of CouchSurfing activity is still concentrated in Europe and North America, the popularity of the network is growing quickly, particularly in Asia. CouchSurfers are by nature adventurous, and so, even if your home is well off the tourist track you can expect curious travelers to come calling from time to time.

Fish’s inbox of “surfer” requests at CouchSurfing.org

Of course, people don’t just show up at your place and demand shelter. On the contrary, there are extensive review, rating, filtering, and security functions in place on the website, which protect your privacy and allow hosts and surfers maximum control and peace of mind when they are determining where and with whom they are staying. The centerpiece of the whole CouchSurfing enterprise – like so many other social networking websites – is the member profile, but a CouchSurfing profile is unique in that its contents are absolutely essential to the people who are reading it. You can be selective about who you meet through the site along the lines of music, film and literature tastes, hobbies, and other interests like you might find on a person’s Facebook profile. Additionally, CouchSurfing profiles allow individuals to rate their personal experiences with the people they have met through the site. So, it’s very easy to get a feel for a potential host or guest’s personality as you are considering whether or not to meet them.

The responsibility for making the CouchSurfing experience a positive and memorable one rests in the hands of both host and guest. It is wise to be at least a little picky when you are arranging CouchSurfing experiences. With this in mind, you and your future host or guest enter into a kind of social contract, the integrity of which is maintained entirely by the standards of the CouchSurfing community at large. No money or imaginary “credits” or other currency need change hands. There is only the sort of “pay-it-forward”-style flow of hospitality, and it works incredibly smoothly.

Typically, a surfer looking to do some sightseeing in and around Hiroshima will send me (and a few other potential hosts in the area) a message through the CouchSurfing.org secure message system. The guest’s message will contain their itinerary (e.g. arrival and departure times), a link to their personal profile, and some sort of personalized message which gives me, as a host, an initial sense of whether this is the type of person I think I would get along with or not. If, for whatever reason, I am busy or don’t feel up to hosting at the given time, there is no obligation for me to host and I may (hopefully politely) reject a traveler’s request. My personal limit is about one or two guests each month, though I have had as many as 10 people staying with me in my apartment in the course of a single week (not recommended).

If the host chooses to accept a CouchSurfing request, generally the date is confirmed and specific planning begins. Only then need you share information such as your address or phone number with a guest. Also, as a host, you really do have a lot of control over the terms of your guest’s stay. If only weekend stays are convenient for you, just say so in your profile. The same goes for non-smokers, anime fans, or people who speak a specific language. You are ultimately in control of how smoothly your CouchSurfing experience goes.

Some of Fish’s ratings from past CouchSurfing experiences

The real beauty of CouchSurfing is most evident to me in the elements of it that are in no one’s control. The times when you are able to help your guest recover the digital camera he left on the bus, or when your find out, completely by accident, that you and your guest both used to take family vacations in the same tiny seaside town back home – these are the times I find CouchSurfing to be an invaluable resource.

Particularly if you live alone, or are isolated out in the countryside somewhere, CouchSurfing can be a boon. It can be jarring to have a couple of extra people sharing the space you’re used to occupying by yourself, but you really begin to value that space differently once you get into the habit of sharing it. My one room mansion never felt so luxurious and large as it did the day after the four surfers I accidentally double-booked my futons for left with their backpacks and other luggage after 36 hours of tiptoeing around and waiting for the shower. Still, the time we spent was certainly fun, if a little stressful. My guests were good sports about the whole thing and, as usual, were grateful to have a free, dry place to lay their heads (that particular incident happened to have taken place during the rainy season).

CouchSurfing draws heavily on the same demographic of world travelers who are used to backpacker’s hostels and other similar accommodations, but with so many active participants, to sum the group up so quickly would be an oversimplification. The surfers I’ve met from Europe, where the network has been perennially most popular and well used, have been a particularly diverse group, ranging dramatically in age, occupation and socio-economic status. Language barriers do exist, certainly, but English is the most widely used language with over three quarters of all surfers listed as speaking some English. To say that CouchSurfers are a diverse group is somewhat of an understatement.

A group of CouchSurfers camping together in Miyajima

So, what do members of CouchSurfing.org have in common?  I would say curiosity, flexibility, compassion, and a certain adventurousness are fairly common traits. CouchSurfing is an organization for highly principled idealists, but also an outlet for wild creativity. There is often occasion for some mild social discomfort, as with any cultural exchange. However, I think that CouchSurfers, while often more sensitive to the needs of the people around them, tend to cultivate such slightly uncomfortable situations as a by-product of their preference for fresh experiences. To illustrate this point: I’ve met more skydivers in the last 18 months through CouchSurfing.org than I think I’ve known in my entire life previously. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

I certainly do not wish to depict CouchSurfing as a risky enterprise. There is a sense in which it is the most natural, mundane practice in the world – hospitality – the type of human interaction that we can only talk about nowadays with a sort of nostalgic gleam in our eyes. No matter how you interpret it, though, it is worth experiencing in some respect. There is something very special about a network like CouchSurfing which fosters such robust grassroots involvement among its members. I can’t think of a more fulfilling way of enlivening my free time as an assistant language teacher abroad than through volunteering as a host for, and traveling as a guest with, CouchSurfing.

6 comments

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  • Martin

    Um…Fish please will you detail a bit more about these “slightly uncomfortable situations” and why they happen? Thought it was quite vague…

  • Fish

    Hi Martin,
    the “slightly uncomfortable situations,” are all things that you might expect to arise from living with room mates in close quarters– things like strange new body odors sometimes, the odd sleep-talker, things of that nature. Also, just the sort of thing that crops up from time to time due to cultural difference– my strong political views have sometimes contrasted with those of my guests, for example. I’m not talking about anything that couldn’t be overcome, or that I couldn’t laugh about after the fact. Come to think of it, you can go a long way towards eliminating these discomforts before you host or stay with someone, if you’re very specific and detailed with your profile information. Some people actually write things in their profiles like, “No guests with strong body odor please.” It’s kind of funny in a way.

    Thanks for the question. Sorry if that was a bit vague.

  • Martin

    Thought you might’ve been talking about something alot wierder than that but thankks for clearing it up. Awesome article

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