Why I invite strangers to sleep on my couch (or air mattress)
“Don’t end up dead in a dumpster” is advice that I’ve eagerly and successfully followed my entire life. It’s also a plea I’ve received on more than a few occasions when I explain my Couchsurfing plans to those who aren’t too keen on the idea. For those just introduced to the term, it may sound perplexing, like a missed financial opportunity or perhaps even something downright dangerous.
Couchsurfing is essentially AirBnb, but free. Hosts build profiles and describe their available space to host travelers. Travelers can search hosts in their destination and submit requests to meet up with or stay with them. If a host accepts your request - sweet! You’re a surfer, brah!
Once connected, the two parties can make arrangements to meet up for coffee, dinner and drinks, or the host can offer the traveler a place to crash for the night. Once the hangout has wrapped up and everyone has gone their separate ways, hosts and travelers leave reviews for one another which are visible to other users. In the Couchsurfing world, positive “would host again” reviews are the only currency needed, aside from Wifi, a touch of curiosity and a willingness to embrace the unknown.
All of this pre-arrival action happens on Couchsurfing’s website or app totally free of charge. The community is built around the idea that shared exchanges amongst travelers can help create memorable experiences, inspire authentic connections and help build a more accepting and trusting world.
Couchsurfing’s vision statement from their website:
We envision a world made better by travel and travel made richer by connection. Couchsurfers share their lives with the people they encounter, fostering cultural exchange and mutual respect.
I initially got turned on to Couchsurfing by my intrepid journeyman pal, Adam. He’d regaled me with stories of his adventures with Couchsurfing hosts around the world and assured me that I’d be into it. So with his endorsement, I packed my bags, tossed my “but, what if’s?” in the trash, and dove into the deep end of an unfamiliar and uncertain world of travel.
Ever since that first foray, I’ve been hooked. The first several times I surfed as a traveler. I ate mind-meltingly spicy sambal in Indonesia with Fauzi, sipped caipirinhas on the beach in Lisbon with Rodrigo and his surfer friends, boogied between rooftop bars in Istanbul with Yasemin, and slurped stuffed mussels on the Mediterranean shores of Turkey with Melike. Each experience was unique, memorable, unpredictable, spontaneous and most importantly, authentic.
These are the moments that have forever sealed themselves in my memory. These are the experiences that have so strongly tied me to faces, places and specific moments in time. People ask me all the time about my favorite travel destinations, and my mind always jumps to the places I’ve Couchsurfed because it’s in those places that I’ve had the most meaningful experiences. With that realization, I felt a desire to build the community and facilitate these kinds of opportunities for others.
When I landed in Denver and found myself with extra space, I opened my door and began hosting surfers. I thought of it as my way of returning to the universe the karmic favors that I’d been paid out during my travels. I also knew it would help me experience a deeper and more profound connection with the rest of the world while being grounded in one place. When I moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Utah, I briefly considered finding a roommate for the extra bedroom before electing to turn it into a Couchsurfing crash pad.
The experiences I’ve had as a host in many ways mirror those I had as a couch-seeking traveler. They’ve been mind-expanding, curiosity-inspiring, and soul-enriching. But there’s an added sense of responsibility that comes when I host travelers. I want my surfers to experience that special connection that I felt on my travels. I want them to remember something real, something unique about their visit and to reap rewards beyond the finances saved by foregoing a hotel room. I take it upon myself to try and provide at least one moment for them to experience something out-of-the-ordinary and memorable. Intrigued? Check out an ever-growing list of experiences I’ve had hosting Couchsurfers.
Those who have Couchsurfed know that there’s almost always an instantaneous camaraderie amongst people who are willing to make themselves vulnerable for the right reasons. Travelers for trusting a host who they’ve seen several pictures of and perhaps read a few paragraphs about. Hosts for allowing people they’ve never seen before share in their life and spend the night in their home.
If we look back through history, Couchsurfing doesn’t seem that out-of-the-ordinary. Some Native American tribes offered assistance and even space in their homes to settlers who were unfamiliar with the harsh winters in their new surroundings. If trekking pioneers were lucky enough to find a settlement, they would seek respite for a night or two at houses along the way. Folks harbored Revolutionary War soldiers in their homes (though, to be fair, they didn’t have a “decline request” option). Didn’t Mary and Joseph have Jesus in some random guy’s barn?
These gestures of hospitality were often born of necessity, but maybe a similar necessity birthed Couchsurfing. Our world is in desperate need of kindness for the sake of kindness itself. Videos of good samaritans routinely get millions of views on Facebook. Some of those individuals create enough of a buzz with their actions and get invited on Ellen where they’re rightly celebrated. People crave displays of empathy that remind them that our humanity is still alive and well. We desire reminders that assistance doesn’t always require a reward, a background check or certain number of shared genes.
Couchsurfing is a worldwide community of people who, for the most part, want the best experiences for themselves and for others. There are undoubtedly a few bad apples in any bushel of 14 million, but as my newly-created mixed metaphor goes, “Don’t throw the good apples out with the bathwater.”
It’s important to be smart as you travel. Always tell someone of your plans and, more importantly, trust your intuition. If you’re not comfortable somewhere, chances are that it’s not a situation you should be in. Perhaps not all of those on Couchsurfing share my vision for what it represents, but I‘m confident the majority do. At its best, I wholeheartedly believe communities like this have the potential to lay a path toward intentionally creating a better future.
Look, I understand Couchsurfing isn’t for everybody. If you’re into luxury resorts or glamping, then stick with your bottomless piña coladas and Wifi-equipped tipis (which are, admittedly, really awesome). If just thinking about sleeping on the floor makes your hips hurt, better book an AirBnb with a pillow top mattress. I don’t say that with condescension or disdain — everyone should travel the way they want. But I’ll say this. Couchsurfing has helped reaffirm the hope I have in our present and our future. It continues to remind me of the crucial truth that our differences aren’t nearly as great as our similarities. It helps me stay sane when the nagging wanderlust is greater than my pool of available vacation days. It’s brought the world to me in a place I never otherwise would have experienced it. It doesn’t pad my bank account like a sublet would, but it does provide me with something far more meaningful.
At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, hosting is my way of helping restore a sense of trust in myself and in others that I sometimes feel has been lost. In an age of Cragislist scams, fake news, and “never believe what you see on the internet”, Couchsurfing has rekindled my confidence in us. It reassures the eternal and tireless optimist in me that we are indeed good and we want good for others. It’s shown me repeatedly and in so many different ways the beauty that results from humans making themselves vulnerable and choosing to trust one another.
To me, the ever-so-slight increase in odds of ending up in a dumpster is worth the tremendous reward of a more fulfilling and more fascinating life lived to the fullest.