I am a huge fan of Couchsurfing.org, and have been a part of the CS community for almost 10 years now. Couchsurfing is an incredible social network and travel tool. The concept is simple: there are those that need couches to stay on, and there are those that have couches. Couchsurfing.org connects the two. Of course, frugal travelers have been doing this for far longer than the internet community has been around, but the site makes connecting with others easy.
I began my couch surfing experience when traveling with my sister and two best friends throughout Europe 9 years ago. We were definitely on a shoe-string budget, so found the idea very appealing. We managed to surf both in Berlin and Vienna, and a whole new world of travel possibilities opened up. Later, when my sister Mel and I shared an apartment in Los Angeles, we created our own Couchsurfing profile, and hosted 10 different pairs of travelers during our time at that apartment. Since I began traveling with Zac, we’ve surfed in Israel, on road trips throughout the US, and most recently in Istanbul and Bulgaria on our Eastern Europe adventure last year.
I love the money that I can save with couch surfing, but more than that I love the personal connections I gain. It is one thing to stay in a hostel and meet a bunch of backpackers, but often one’s travel experience is more enriching when you can stay with locals and actually get a glimpse into their lives. I love to see what people’s houses and neighborhoods look like, the books and movies on their shelves, the food in their fridges and toiletries in their showers. Hosts are also great at giving tips and tricks, helping you figure out transportation around town and what to see and do. Often we’ve made fast friends with our hosts and guests, and have so many wonderful memories of meals and experiences shared through the simple act of staying on a kind stranger’s couch.
People are often surprised when I tell them that I couch surf. “But what about safety?” is a common question. True, there is no way to be absolutely certain that a guest or host you meet online is not a psychopath, but Couchsurfing.org does it’s best to prevent this. A negative review cannot be taken down off of a CSer’s profile, and there is a verification process that many CSer’s undergo to give a higher level of security as well. I also have a few “house rules” that I follow. I never surf if I am traveling by myself, only with Zac or friends. When my sister and I were hosts, we had a policy of not hosting guys, only couples or female travelers (though I do admit that we broke this rule once. We hosted two French male engineering students that were wonderful and absolutely harmless). Also, I’m fairly picky when choosing a host or guests. On Couchsurfing.org, one creates a profile, like any other social networking site. I have taken care to make sure that our profile is well filled out. The way I look at it, your profile is your chance to show other CSers who you are, and that you are a real person and not a robot. So I tend to only accept guests or hosts who have done the same, especially if they have tons of positive references on their profile as well.
I think also the kind of people that are shocked or surprised by the thought of couch surfing have not done a lot of travel. As much as you do need to keep your wits about you when traveling, at some point you always end up at the mercy of a kind stranger. In my experience, people are usually very generous and warm to travelers, and Couchsurfing.org personifies this.
Nothing has proved this last point like my search for hosts in Izmir, Turkey. Zac and I arrive in Izmir on December 30, and then have about a week and a half before our CELTA course starts to get settled and look for housing. Originally, I was thinking of staying in a hostel, but then I remembered to check Couchsurfing.org! Despite saving a little cash, this is a great idea. By couch surfing upon our arrival in Izmir, we can check out areas, ask locals for advice on housing and what neighborhoods they like, and hopefully make some new friends.
Izmir is a big city and has countless hosts to choose from. In my emails with various hosts, I’ve gotten the impression that the Izmiri Couchsurfing community is strong and welcoming. All have been quick to respond, and those that could not accommodate us were very helpful. One couple offered to help us find housing, another man gave us the email of a friend looking for someone to practice her English with, and yet another generous man gave us a lead on a room for rent. I’ve been arranged accommodation for our arrival with Mustafa, who lives with his cat Melo in an incredible-looking apartment building with a pool in an area we are interested in. If this level of warmth and generosity is any indication of Izmir itself, bring it on!
I am happy to have found a host for us as we leave for Izmir just two weeks from today. As our apartment gets increasingly emptier and our social lives get increasingly fuller this wild dream is actually beginning to be a reality. I’ll continue to keep you posted as all of the pieces come together.