A few weeks ago I updated hitchhiking for the internet age and introduced, particularly, www.carpooling.co.uk. So now you know how to get where you’re going and share the experience with someone who has a car and knows how to drive it someplace you want to go.
Consider this part two. You still need somewhere to sleep and as hitchhiking is to the Eurail pass, couchsurfing is to spending a night on a park bench or in the waiting room of a train station.
Like carpooling, couchsurfing has its critical mass website which you’ve probably guessed is www.couchsurfing.org. It’s very intuitive and you can ignore for the moment the social networking aspects of it. You mainly want to establish a fairly rigid schedule and start searching through the truly vast number of couches on which you can surf.
The top tourist destinations like Paris and Amsterdam have more offers than travellers and it’s a bit of a buyer’s market but even tiny, obscure towns and villages and resorts offer a surprisingly large number of potential hosts so don’t assume that you won’t find something where you’re going.
Couchsurfing seems, obviously, dodgy as all hell. Why are people offering free accommodation and what are they hoping to get out of it? Well, in some cases it’s not free and it’s not even a couch. Sometimes it’s a room and you’ll be expected to pay for it and yeah, it would be naive to think that those offering a bed aren’t at least sometimes hoping to share it. In most cases it’s what it looks like – cool young people who just like meeting other cool young people and this is in fact an almost guaranteed way of doing so. There are surprisingly few assholes in the free accommodation business and even fewer in the bumming around Europe hoping to make friends line. And usually those offering places to stay on couchsurf.org have used it themselves.
Never-the-less you need to leverage the filtering mechanism at least for dates and probably for “safety features” and, if you’re a girl, I strongly recommend that you limit your hosts to other females. The ratio of nice to not nice among women and men on couchsurfing.org is almost certainly exactly the same but there’s a comfort and commonality level that you have every right to decide on your own.
If you’re not a sociopath it probably feels a little awkward making demands on people offering you a free or almost free place to stay. So don’t. Let couchsurfing.org do it for you and read through the descriptions of the offers. The accommodation can be anything from a space by the radiator to your own studio and on occasion there may be a fee or you may be expected to provide a little hash. There may also be at least one thing to which you object, like smoking or the fact that smoking’s not allowed or cats or a “shared sleeping surface”.
If it needs to be said, couchsurfing is not for everyone. If you’re a couple planning your honeymoon or an executive attending a sales conference, get a hotel and leave the better couches to those who need them. But if you’re a band or hippy or backpacker or just a traveler with a positive perspective on adventure then even if you can afford something “better” give couchsurfing a try and in the unlikely event that it goes wrong it’ll still be a story to tell.