Couchsurfing- the best way to meet the locals and save some money

What is Couchsurfing?

Couchsurfing is a social platform which allows potential hosts and travellers to find each other. The idea is simple: as a host, you open your doors to anyone whom you choose, offering him shelter (and often travel advice, company or food) for free. As a traveller searching for a host, you should be ready to respect the rules of your host, share with him/her your time, stories and skills. Couchsurfing additionally facilitates meeting the locals or fellow travellers just for the sake of hanging out together.

In a greater scheme of things, it’s all about sharing. It’s absolutely your choice whether you want to be a host- it’s not a requirement to use the platform. As the Couchsurfing website proudly announces, the platform serves 4 million surfers and 400 000 hosts every year.

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Doing yoga with my CS guest in a London park

Couchsurfing is a great way of meeting the locals and getting to know the area through the eyes of the insider. Using this platform would certainly make your travel more memorable and it’s definitely worth a try at least once in a while.

How to start?

If you’d like to use Couchsurfing when travelling, I’d suggest opening your account and ideally also hosting at least one or two people a few months before your trip. It would not only give you a taste of how it all works but would also make prospective hosts more willing to host you, particularly at the beginning. Last but not least, it is simply fair to ‘give back’ to the community.

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Hosting a Korean traveller at our first London flat

The limitations of Couchsurfing in South (East) Asia

First thing you need to keep in mind is that you definitely won’t be able to use this service everywhere. CS is available mostly in big and middle size cities. There probably would be some options in smaller tourist destinations, mostly from expat hosts. However, you can forget about staying in a village at the border of the national park or on an island.

In some countries, CS isn’t popular at all and you might struggle with finding hosts even in the major tourist destinations. In Luang Prabang (Lao’s most popular attraction) for example, you can count reliable hosts on the fingers of one hand and the demand is huge.

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Finding a Couchsurfing host in Laos is very difficult

Out of a long list of hosts available at any given location, there will be just a small percentage of hosts who:

  1. have references from the guests (not friends!)

  2. log in regularly and are still active on the site

The list will be further reduced if there are two or more of you- most hosts take just one person at a time.

Just how local are Couchsurfing hosts?

For us, it was very important to stay with the locals rather than the expats. Meeting a few members of the expat community in Siem Reap, made us realise they live in a bubble, hanging out with each other and leading very comfortable lifestyle, completely unrelated to the lives of Cambodians. I was shocked to discover I knew some things about Cambodia that those guys who lived there for months didn’t have a clue about. Many expats don’t know the local language either, making rather poor hosts.

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With our host in Hanoi

This being said, most of the hosts in South East Asia belong to upper or upper-middle class which also makes them rather unrepresentative of the general population. Furthermore, keep in mind that staying with an ethnic Chinese in Thailand or Malaysia would certainly enable you to learn much about the country but wouldn’t let you have an in-depth insight into Thai or Malay culture or beliefs.

The types of accommodation

Contrary to the name, often Couchsurfing hosts offer a room, sometimes of a very high standard (think: en-suite, A/C,etc). However, sleeping on one bed with the host or on the mattress/floor in a living room is equally likely.

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In Phnom Penh we slept on a mattress spread in a common room

If you have minimum requirements regarding the conditions of your stay, make sure you read the house description AND the references carefully before sending a request.

A word about the hosts

Couchsurfing in South and South East Asia is quite different from Europe, particularly regarding the hosts and their expectations. I have found a few kinds of hosts during my travel. Only the smallest section of them was genuinely interested in altruistic sharing their space or simply curious about meeting new people. Many Asian hosts use CS for a specific purpose.

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Our hosts in Phnom Penh belonged to the category of idealists who simply want to share

Most commonly, the hosts want to practice their English skills. I’ve heard from some of the hosts that they reject surfers who are unlikely to speak fluent English or who they believe to have too strong accent. Furthermore, I came across a couple of hosts (and chose to stay with one of them) who were English teachers and who expected their guests to participate in their classes. Personally, I didn’t mind it at all- in fact, I really enjoyed hanging around with the students as it gave me an access to the whole group of the natives, not just one. Most of this kind of hosts were from Vietnam.

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Helping out in teaching English classes allowed us to meet lots of young, local people in Saigon

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter what you exchange, so long as you do offer something. I found that my host in Malaysia was quite reserved until I promised to teach her some yoga and do a massage for her. Only then did she go with me to the local market and cooked a nice meal.

Similarly, on Sri Lanka, me and my friends found a host who was so insistent on driving us around, buying and cooking us food and so on that I started wondering if it wasn’t suspicious. Eventually, we got his point when he asked us to help him to open a FB page and Instagram account for him. We had no problem with helping him out and were really grateful for his royal treatment.

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Our tent inside the hippie Couchsurfers base in Sri Lanka

I don’t think there is anything wrong with this kind of give-and-take policy. You just have to be prepared that some of the hosts would like to receive a token of appreciation, something to show that you care about them.

Finally, there are also quite a few hosts from the hospitality sector who reserve a few beds for CS. Most often they offer it for free, but I came across hosts from a few different countries who charged a nominal fee for staying in their hostel.

How to make it work?

So how to find a host? Well, you would have to learn how to present yourself in a good light and put some effort into the process. Always read the host’s profile and quite a few reviews. It will not only help you to find the one that is most interesting for you but also work out whether he lives near the city centre and what are his expectations and house rules. Don’t choose just one- send at least a couple to increase your chances (CS gives you a limit of 10 requests per week).

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With my CS host

Last but not least, it will help you to write a personalised message which would make it more likely to be chosen. In the letter, you’d need to present yourself as a perfect guest who would be happy to hang out and ready to share something, be it interesting travel stories or some skill. Don’t write to the prospective host months in advance- most probably you’ll be ignored. Many hosts would appreciate knowing you’re coming a week ahead but there would be plenty for whom one day notice is enough.

Don’t just take: give back!

Since you have some obligations towards your host and need to respect his efforts, don’t use CS as a free bedroom. If you’re hosted, you should spend some time with your host- unless he specifically says he is busy and doesn’t have time for you. If you’re short on time, CS is not a good option for you.

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With a Ukrainian surfer on a climate change rally in London

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