Last updated on June 6th, 2020
“Conditions are never perfect. ‘Someday’ is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you. Pro and con lists are just as bad. If it’s important to you and you want to do it ‘eventually,’ just do it and correct course along the way.”
― Timothy Ferriss, The Four Hour Work Week
“And let me tell you something. That first morning, when you are in your country of choice, away from all of the conventions of atypical, everyday lifestyle, looking around at your totally new surroundings, hearing strange languages, smelling strange, new smells, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ll feel like the luckiest person in the world.”
― Rolf Potts, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel
At a roadside chop bar after crossing into Ghana from Cote d’Ivoire. The stuff on my face is dirt.
In the Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig uses a South Indian Monkey Trap as a metaphor for our inability to escape from old ideas. The trap includes a hollowed-out coconut attached to a stake in the ground. The coconut has a small hole in the side and some rice inside. When trying to score a handful of rice, the monkey’s hand fits through the hole, but his clenched fist full of rice can’t fit back out. The monkey is trapped.
What would you say to the trapped monkey if you could communicate with it and cared about its well-being? “Let go of the rice”. But this is would be impossible advice for the monkey to consider. He is not really trapped physically; he’s trapped mentally. He’s trapped by an idea, unable to realize that a principle that worked all his life – “when you see food, hold onto it” – has become deadly.
Letting go of the Rice
Last year, I took a 10-day vacation with my parents to Italy. It was an incredible trip, but I was shocked at the lodging costs we accumulated: well over $2,000 (that was my annual salary as a Peace Corps Volunteer!).
Fast forward one year, I took a 3 week, 3,600 km motorcycle trip from Cotonou to Abidjan, up to Ouagadougou through Ghana, and back to Cotonou. My total cost of lodging? $0.
When planning a trip, many people still have their hands deeply lodged in coconut traps. The rice we stubbornly hold onto is hotels. My advice: let go of the rice and become a couchsurfer.
What is Couchsurfing (CS)?
In 2004, Casey Fenton launched couchsurfing.org with the slogan “Stay with Locals and Meet Travelers”. Fenton came up with the idea for couchsurfing during a trip to Iceland. He didn’t want to stay in a “boring” hotel, so he hacked the University of Iceland’s database and emailed 1,500 students, asking if he could stay with them. He received 50-100 offers.
Couchsurfing.com is now a massive social media and hospitality service. The site provides a platform for members (typically people who love travelling and meeting other travellers) to both “surf” and host. “Surfers” can request to stay as a guest at another member’s home, and hosts accept to accommodate surfers for free. Currently, there are over 10 million members on couchsurfing.org in 80,000 cities.
Distribution of couchsurfers throughout the world
Mum always told me not to talk to strangers
If this is the first time you’ve heard about couchsurfing, I bet you’re wondering: “My mum would kill me if I did this. What if I surf with/host a murderer!?”
There are two things you can tell your mum to convince her you’re not crazy.
First, just like Uber and other startups in the sharing economy, couchsurfing.com relies on a reference system to create social capital and accountability. Each time a surfer stays with a host, both can write a reference on the other’s profile describing the person and the experience. When you are looking for a host or deciding whether to host a surfer, you can see all their references. The more positive references someone has, the surer your mum can be that he or she is not a murderer.
Second, you can tell mum that the rewards far outweigh the risks. Beyond the major benefit of free accommodation, staying with a good CS host can provide the richest experiences travel has to offer. You can gain a deep insight into how people of a different country live, exchange adventure stories and travel tips, experience the unfamiliar rhythm and flow of a household and pick up a few words and phrases in the local language.
You can get suggestions on the best places to go and the cuisine worth trying. And you get the chance to meet kindred spirits who teach you the most powerful lesson of travelling-that what we all share in common is more important than what makes us different.
Now that you have mum’s permission, are you ready to become a couchsurfer?
My first time couchsurfing in Calabar, Nigeria
8 Steps to Becoming a Pro at Couchsurfing
1. Create an awesome couchsurfing profile
Register on couchsurfing.com. After signing up with email or Facebook, you’ll be asked to verify your profile with a contribution. You can skip this part. Click your name in the top left corner, then click “profile”.
Post 5-10 photos: Many couchsurfers post photos of themselves they took during adventures around the world. In general, the photos should try to capture an aspect of your personality.
Fill out your profile: Your CS profile allows other members to understand who you are, what you’ve done and why you participate in the CS community. When filling out your profile, CS provides a few description fields to guide what you write, like your current mission on CS, favourite books/movies, what you can teach people, one amazing thing you’ve done, countries you’ve visited, etc. You don’t have to fill out everything all at once. Fill some out, check out other CS profiles and polish yours up later.
When creating your profile, it’s important to accurately represent yourself. Providing a false name and false information hurts your chances of connecting with other couchsurfers and having positive experiences.
2. Verify profile
Verifying your profile is optional. CS says verification builds trust and security, but most couchsurfers I’ve hosted were not verified. I think I have my phone number verified, but not my address or payment.
The real key to building trust and increasing your chances of connecting to other members is getting references. I rarely accept to host people with 0 references.
There are three types of references on CS: from surfers, from hosts and from friends. When you first create your profile, find friends who are also on couchsurfing and ask them to write you a reference.
A good reference could be: “I’ve known Tobenna since we were kids. He’s a charming, smart, well-travelled guy. He also knows a lot about Nigerian culture and could provide some interesting insights into the political economy of Nigeria. Anyone would be lucky to cross paths with this guy!”
3. Finding hosts
In the search bar, type in the destination you are travelling to, then click on See more hosts under Local Hosts. A list of all the CS members at that destination will come up. Some destinations have thousands of hosts. Here are a few tips to narrow down the search.
– Look at whether or not they are accepting guests.
– Look at their response rate/last login time. Some people respond infrequently and haven’t logged in for months.
– Look at the number of references. More doesn’t always mean better, but more does mean you’ll get a better sense of who the person is.
– Check out their profile picture and general info. Do they look like a local or expat? Do they speak the same language as you? Are they old or young? What do they do for work?
That should help you narrow it down to 3-5 hosts. The next step is to read each profile and the references. Then make a decision on which host you think would be best.
4. Writing requests
Should you write request to more than one host?
Depends. If it’s last-minute (less than a week before travelling to the destination), then it may be smart to send a few requests to different hosts. If you choose a host and send a request 2-4 weeks in advance, you should have plenty of time to find another host if your first request gets declined.
– What should I write in a request?
Do not spam hosts. Requests should be personalized, providing some details about who you are, why you are travelling and why you want to stay with the person. You should try to give the impression that you read their profile and are genuinely interested in staying with them. Here is an example of a bad and good request:
Hi, I am coming on 14th and will stay for 2 night. Can you host me?
Oh, I would love to hear about your moto ride across Nigeria, and possibly even to experience some moto riding in Benin! I’m on my first trip to West Africa now, having spent the past few weeks in Nigeria. I actually learned to ride moto in South Sudan, on the dusty back roads of the capital. Would dig chatting I’m sure.
I’m about to head to Benin for my first time, and I’m wondering if it might be convenient for you to host me for a short time. I’m hoping to get to Cotonou on Wednesday (Aug 10) and maybe stay for up to a week or so, possibly with two different hosts, to see different parts of life in the city.
And if hosting happens to not be convenient for you at this time, if you might want to meet up for a conversation over ice cream or a beverage or a little ride or some such thing, I’d look forward to that as well. Also interested in hearing about your Peace Corps experiences.
Thank you so much for considering hosting me! I’m very much looking forward to my first of Benin.
– How many days can you request to stay?
I’ve hosted surfers for less than one day and more than one month. One surfer I hosted told me that he surfed for two years in the same city while going to university, staying with many different hosts for 1-2 months each. Moral of the story: it depends on you and the host. The longer you want to stay though, the more epic your request should be.
– Can I extend my stay with hosts after arriving?
Again, that’s between you and the host. Around 50% of the surfers I’ve hosted have extended their stay. If you are getting along well with the host, they probably won’t mind if you stay a few extra days.
5. Preparing for the Surf
If you’re surfing:
Confirm your arrival and departure date with the host. It’s polite to let them know in advance, so they can arrange their schedules if need be.
Write down the host’s address and phone number and enter it in your cell phone.
Have a backup plan. If you can’t get in touch with your host or your host is super creepy, make a plan B for lodging.
If you’re hosting:
When accepting a request, write your address, phone number, and when and where you can meet on the date of arrival. Some super generous hosts offer to pick surfers up at the airport or taxi station.
Tidy up wherever the surfer will sleep. I usually offer surfers my bed and sleep on the couch. Some hosts simply offer a space on the floor. Either way, make the sleeping arrangements clear in your profile.
I usually make a meal the first night and stock up on wine and water.
If you’re not planning on showing the surfer around, have a few suggestions for must-see places and tasty dishes. Also, if you don’t have an internet connection at home, it’s nice to let surfers know where the closest internet cafe is and where they can buy a SIM card if they need one
Keep in mind: Couchsurfing is not a dating site. Don’t make your surfer uncomfortable. Keep it classy.
6. Be flexible and open-minded
Each couchsurfing experience is different.
Hosting: I’ve hosted people that I now consider very close friends. I’ve hosted others who barely exchanged a word with me. Some surfers made me food and offered to pay for all the meals we ate together. Other’s didn’t. Each surfer has a different budget and preferences, so you have to adapt and be flexible.
Surfing: Some hosts make a trip magical. Some just provide a place on the floor to sleep. You can get a decent idea of what to expect from their profile, but sometimes expectations are wrong.
7. Godliness is cleanliness
Be clean. Wash dishes. Make the bed if you sleep in one.
8. Write thorough references
A day or two after the departure date, couchsurfing.com will send you a message prompting you to write a reference. Writing a reference is not mandatory. In fact, many surfers/hosts don’t write references if the experience was neutral/negative.
My opinion is that you should always write a reference. It’s part of the social contract of the CS community. This contract says that if I’m a good host or surfer, you’ll write a kick-ass reference so other cool surfers/host will want to stay with/host me. And if I host/surf with a creepy, dirty, horrible surfer/host, I should feel obligated to write a negative reference so other hosts/surfers are aware. Honest references are the key to building trust and security and creating positive experiences.
Here is an example of a typical reference:
Yoshiro is a wonderful guest. He is a very independent traveller and I admire his bravery in exploring Nigeria and the mainland. I am so happy I could help him on his trip. He was happy to meet my friends – and even cooked up delicious Asian style noodles! Good luck and hopefully see you in Tokyo one day for sushi?
Congrats on becoming a couchsurfer and let us know how your first CS experience goes!
Thanks for sharing these tips with us, Mark. I hope you all enjoyed reading it as much as I did. I’ll definitely be updating my CS profile after this.
Please leave us a comment, we’d love to hear from you.