29 October 2013

So You Wanna Be a Couchsurfer?

Last July, I wrote about how I invited a stranger to stay over in my flat for a few days. Yes, I am a Couchsurfing member, and though I already knew the existence of this concept a long time ago, I only implemented it recently. As in within this year. And ten surfers later (and yes, I have had the chance to be a surfer myself when I was in Yerevan, Armenia), I think I have an idea now on who would be my ideal guest.

See, the thing is, as much as Couchsurfing allows potential guests to get to know potential hosts (and vice versa), just because one is a member of the Couchsurfing community doesn't mean that the potential host will immediately accept your request and agree to put you up for the night. One can still get declined. And yes, I have to say that I have declined more requests than I have accepted. So I figured I would write some of things I consider in deciding whether to accept or decline a request.

First, I think there is an age issue. I am 31. If the potential guest is 20, then there is a high chance that this person is not mature enough and therefore I would probably decline. That being said, age is not the only consideration I have. The youngest guest I had was 26, and the oldest was 39. I am willing to go lower, but only if the potential guest scores higher on other factors.

Second, it is a great plus if there are things in common that we can talk about. The most common thing I have found with me and my surfers is love of travel. Hence, there has been a lot of travel tip exchanges that have happened already. Aside from that, I have hosted a couple of PhD students, and I also hosted an acoustic engineer and a classical music fanatic. After all, this is not a hostel, guests and hosts have to interact with each other, and it is just easier to interact if there is a shared topic of interest.

Third, I somehow have an allergy against "artist" types: there are quite a few of them. They say they are artists, members of a band, hitch-hiking across Europe. Most of these are young people too (younger than 25), and therefore they don't appeal to me as much. I have the impression that they only want a cheap (aka free) place to crash with their sleeping bags, and aside from that, I have nothing in common with these people. After my undesirable experience in Kreuzberg, I don't think I would volunteer and mingle with the punk and anarchist groups again. I am not saying that hitch-hikers are punks or anarchists; all I am saying is that I have the impression that I won't have much in common with either of these three types of "alternative" people.

Fourth, when you make a couch request, it is very advisable to make your request not seem to be a copy-and-paste request. For once, mention my name in the request. Most of the requests I have denied are basically in the form of the following: "Hello, I think you're an interesting person and we will have plenty of things in common. Can we stay for a few days?" I hate it when people do that. State in the request why you would want to meet me. My profile is detailed enough that you know what I do for a living, you know my favorite books, music, and movies, you have plenty of information about me as a host. I expect the same from a potential guest.

Fifth, I also check how many references a potential host has. References is the only way of receiving and giving feedback to a person. A host can give a guest a reference, and a guest can give a host a reference. If someone requests my couch and I see that this profile has zero references, then that is an automatic denial for me. Get some experience first, try hosting before you surf, get to know the Couchsurfing community in your home city (of course, this may not be easy to implement). But in other words, do not make it seem that you have joined Couchsurfing only to get a free place to stay when you are traveling. Couchsurfing is not a community that only exists when you yourself are traveling. In my personal experience, I started hosting first, before I even started surfing. The more positive references you have, the easier it is to find a host.

So there, those five constraints typically do the trick for me, allowing me to narrow down potential guests and decide whether I would accept them or not. While most of my guests have requested my couch at least a week in advance, I have accepted at least one last-minute request: I was traveling back from Yerevan to Berlin, and I was about to leave my host's apartment. I asked if I can borrow his computer for the last time to check my email, and then I saw that I have a request. The request was very well-written, and therefore I decided to accept the request, even though the guest was arriving the same day I was supposed to arrive in Berlin. And sure enough, I had a pleasant experience with this guest.

In short, Couchsurfing is not a free hostel. This is a community of people who simply want to interact with other people while on the road. It seems that this concept is hard to understand for most people, as they seem to think that Couchsurfing is an easy way of saving some money while traveling. Personally, if someone tells me in the request that they are requesting my couch because either they have no money left or because it is a cheap way of traveling, then that also gets denied. If you don't have any money, you have no business traveling. You're just a freeloader, and you're not welcome in my couch.


  1. You can travel on a budget, however, you do need some money. Otherwise you are just bumming around and really, it gets old (and it gets on people's nerves). I've seen a lot of backpackers doing that... really not a good idea.

    I see your point and this is one of the reason why I have never welcomed couchsurfers (that and the fact I think it works best when you are single, as a couple - and with a kid - the dynamics are different).

    1. Zhu,

      Yes, that is the most common mistake for newbie Couchsurfers, I think. They think that Couchsurfing is ALL about having a free place to stay, when in reality, if everyone just wanted a free place to stay, and nobody wanted to host someone, then there would be a huge imbalance. Personally, I tend to host people who have hosting experience themselves. If I see in their profile that they only have surfing experience, then I typically reject them.

  2. thank you very much for this post. i know of people who are members of couchsurfing (as far as i know they only host) and are very well educated doctor and scientist in their 60s who hosts young people in their couch. while the lure of "free" is very tempting, there seems to be so many variable to consider when requesting and hosting. i am so glad you clarified that you can deny a request.

    1. PC,

      Oh yes, you can definitely deny a request. Since surfers are requesting whether they can stay or not, you the host has the prerogative to say no in case you think you guys will not get along. At the same time, the surfer also has the option to say no to any host who send them invitations.