10 Years of Couchsurfing: Lessons Learned from Staying with Strangers

In 2009, I joined Couchsurfing. After moving to Japan in 2007 to live at a monastery, I was planning a return trip and signed up to the platform. The plan was for me to spend about a month in Japan on retreat at the monastery and then go backpacking around the country for 6 weeks.

To keep costs low — Japan isn’t the cheapest country in the world — I created an account on Couchsurfing.

For those of you that don’t know, Couchsurfing is a platform that allows you to stay at someone’s house for free. It’s a cultural exchange platform wherein you get to meet a local (or a local gets to meet a traveler) and you hang out, chat, and share ideas and conversation.

These days, you can also use Couchsurfing’s Hangouts app just to meet people while you’re traveling if you don’t want to stay with them. For example, you can meet up with a local to go out for dinner or meet up with another traveler to visit a museum. It’s a great app and I use it regularly when I’m not traveling (I’m meeting a friend I met on the app tomorrow, actually).

To this day, I remember with such vivid clarity the first time I met another CSer. His name was Simon, and we were in a hostel in Tokyo. He was well-travelled and had a ton of amazing stories that kept us all entertained throughout the night. He gave me some pointers about my CS profile and gave me my first ever reference.

Without references, it’s hard to find hosts. After all, people want to make sure — quite reasonably — that the strangers they are hosting are reliable, trustworthy people. 

Fast forward a decade and I have over 50 references now. I’ve both hosted and been hosted all around the globe and I’ve had some amazing experiences that have enhanced my travels. Of course, I’ve also had some awkward and unpleasant experiences too. But like all things, you can’t have the good without the bad. 

A Memorable Host

I’ve been blessed with having been hosted by some awesome people over the years, hosts who go above and beyond the call of duty to make you have a truly unique experience. One host that comes to mind is Chris, who I stayed with in Dallas.

Not only did Chris host me, but he hosted 2 other travellers that night as well. He took us around the city for a private tour, walking us through the epic and mysterious history of JFK’s assassination with tour-guide-like detail. He showed us some of the best views over the city, and then took us out to a kitschy diner for a late-night bite to eat.  

It’s that sort of heartfelt, personal experience that brings me back to CS time and time again.

But not every experience is awesome.

My First Negative Review

A couple of years ago I was backpacking in Poland. I was a veteran of CS and had a lot of references, so a local Polish woman offered to host me before I even started looking for a host. 

She welcomed me to the city, gave me a tour, and even bought me lunch. It was an amazing introduction to the city, and quite generous too. I felt incredibly lucky to have found such a wonderful host.

Afterward, we went out and bought a ton of weird vegan polish food for me to try (you can see the video of it here). That night, we went out dancing until like 3am. It was super fun. Some of her friends tried to pressure me to drink (I don’t drink alcohol) and that got awkward but otherwise, it was great. A real night to remember. 

The next morning, she asked if I wanted to hang out but I had to go to a café and work (she didn’t have Wi-Fi at her apartment, so I needed to step away for a couple hours). She didn’t take that well. 

She was distant and short with me after that, chewing me out for not putting my blankets away after I woke up (she didn’t give me any instructions so I just folded them and left them on the couch). The next day, she got up for an early morning run and implied I had to leave then as well. I thanked her for having me and we parted ways.

Over a month later, she left me a negative review. To this day, I still have no real clue as to why.

That experience really soured me to CS for a while. It came out of left field and I was really bothered by it for a long time. I don’t feel I didn’t anything wrong, so it just kind of ruined the magic of CS for me.

I get that not everyone will connect. Not everyone will be BFFs. But it was still an odd experience that had me second guess the platform.

It also reminded me just how challenging it can be to spend time with someone you don’t know. It takes a lot of effort — on both parts — to really make it work.

But is it safe to stay with a stranger?

Staying with strangers isn’t for everyone, it’s true. You need to be willing to put yourself out there and embrace a new and slightly-awkward situation. But generally speaking, it’s a perfectly safe platform as long as you do your due diligence and use common sense. 

Women will want to be a little bit pickier with who they stay with and who they meet-up with, but as long as you read all of the person’s profile (as well as their references) you can usually sift out any questionable characters from the list. 

Always trust your gut, too. Don’t be afraid to call out bad behaviour or even leave if a host is making you uncomfortable. These days, a lot of people (mostly dudes, let’s be honest) treat CS like Tinder, which is a shame. Never hesitate to take action to keep yourself comfortable or safe. 

As long as you take reasonable precautions, Couchsurfing is just as safe as Airbnb, Tinder, or any other platform where you’re interacting with strangers. There are a few bad apples, a few weird apples, and a few awkward apples, but there are a lot of great ones out there too. You just need to find ‘em! 

Lessons Learned from Strangers

Couchsurfing has been a great teacher over the years and has taught me some important lessons, lessons that have made me a better traveller as well as a better person.

1.     Help people. Whether it’s something big or small, always try to be useful to others. Simon showed me the CS ropes when I was new to budget travel even though he didn’t have to. But he helped me, sharing knowledge and wisdom so that I could benefit and have richer travel experiences. I’ve tried to do the same whenever I can. We all need help from time to time. Try to pay it forward.

2.     Say yes. I’ve been to a weird traditional Japanese dance festival late at night. I’ve went on road trips with complete strangers — on multiple occasions. I’ve attended meet-ups in other countries where I didn’t understand any of the language. I’ve broken my routines, slept in cars, hitch hiked, and done all sorts of things I never thought I would do. Sure, it was uncomfortable at times, but every experience was worth it in the end. You just need to be willing to say yes. We grow the most when we’re challenged in new ways. So get growin’!

3.     Embrace generosity. Kindness brings people together like nothing else. Whether you’re a traveller or host, try to find ways to be generous in your interactions. Whether that’s taking your host out for a meal, telling them entertaining anecdotes, teaching them a new skill, or just listening to them and their experiences, there are a million and one ways to be generous. I’ve found that the more I give on a trip, the more I get out of it. Every. Single. Time.

4.     Trust your gut. We’ve developed instincts for a reason. Trust yourself and your intuition. I once got to a host’s apartment and had a really weird feeling about the place. It didn’t feel super safe and my host was acting a little odd. Some things didn’t add up so I just left. Maybe it was nothing, but it’s always better to be safe rather than sorry. Trust your gut.

5.     Accept less. You don’t need a king size bed, room service, or luxury duvet to be comfortable. Yeah, I know sleep is important but the more accustom you get to comfort, the more experiences you miss out on because they don’t fall within your ever-diminishing range of what’s acceptable. Learn to embrace discomfort. Learn to appreciate kindness even if when materially below your standard. By accepting less, we can learn to appreciate the simple things in a much more tangible way.

The Importance of Meeting Strangers

Every stranger you meet on the road won’t be someone you hit it off with. Sometimes you’ll meet people you don’t like, sometimes you’ll meet people you disagree with. But sometimes you’ll meet people who you connect with, who you become fast friends with.

Both experiences are equally important. All too often, we create bubbles around ourselves that prevent us from ever being uncomfortable. We’ve forgotten how to disagree with people but still respect them. We’ve forgotten how to be nice to people even when we’re not getting along. We’ve forgotten how to be open and vulnerable and reflective.  

Meeting strangers gives you a new opportunity to be yourself. There are no preconceived notions or expectations. No past, no baggage. Just you and a new opportunity to embrace yourself, to embrace change, and to meet a fellow human being who’s in this mess alongside you.

I think few things can teach us more about travel — and ourselves — than spending time with strangers and genuinely working to take an interest in them and their lives. It’s humbling, it’s challenging, but it’s rewarding too.