Why everyone should Couchsurf at least once in their life

Recently, I met up with an old pal who was taking a break from his studies in London. Instead of touring around, he decided to spend his Easter holidays in Singapore this year. On the way home, we chatted about his holiday experiences in Europe. He told me that he was sick of traveling like a tourist, visiting the same old places everyone goes, and was frustrated at the lack of alternatives.

I understood his frustration because I felt the same way back in 2014. Having checked off a good deal of my list of Touristy Places to Go during my 5-month exchange programme in Europe, I became jaded at the prospects of going on another one of such trips. Sure, I was visiting some of the most important landmarks in the world, but there was always this nagging feeling that I was as much of a stranger when I left the country as when I first stepped into it. I was missing a crucial experience in my desire to understand the world.

So while planning my trip to the Philippines in late 2014, I set a simple goal for myself: I want to step out of this country with an acute understanding of the place and its people. This sparked my first trip on Couchsurfing. Couchsurfing is a platform that allows travellers to find local hosts to stay with in any part of the world. The experience is like a homestay, except that Couchsurfing allows you to find complete strangers to stay with.

Wow, ok I see plenty of red flags. Staying with a complete stranger? Are you absolutely nuts? I mean were all taught by our mums when we were young not to talk to strangers right? Much less stay with them. Yeap, that was exactly the thought I had in my mind when I first considered this arrangement. And very frankly, I approached this as a crazy idea that I had to try before I die. If there was any comfort, I was traveling with a buddy. If anything bad was to happen, at least I had someone to share the misery with.

Fortunately, nothing bad happened. In fact, it turned out to be one of my most memorable travel experiences. Here’s why:

My host (right) and us having BBQ at one of the local BBQ spots.
  1. I felt like I was truly experiencing the country like a local

With my life already in the hands of a complete stranger, I thought I might as well leave the fate of my travel plans to them as well. My travel buddy and I had made a few plans here and there (in case this whole thing flops) but we entrusted most of our experience to our hosts. At first, our hosts were cordial and wanted us to decide on our itinerary. But I soon learnt that the magic phrase to say if you want a true local experience is: “Bring me to wherever you go, and I’ll do whatever you do.” Once said, the dams were broken. With my hosts’ recommendations, I ate a half-born duck straight from its shell (Balut, google it), learnt to ride a motorcycle, sang drunk-karaoke till 3 in the morning, and swam with whale sharks. The trip turned out absolutely nothing like what I had expected it to be.

How Filipinos do their Karaoke: With a lot of booze and good company.

2. I made friends for life

After you and your host have seen each other at your absolute craziest and most uninhibited state, there’s no way you guys wouldn’t become best friends. Till now, I’m still in touch with my very first host. In fact, when I traveled to Philippines by myself half a year later, I returned to stay with him. For Part II, we went snorkeling in the crystal clear waters of Moalboal and I tried diving for the first time under the masterful watch of my hosts. When you have hosts who are master divers, you can be sure you’ll be introduced to the best dive spots. And that, is insider info you can’t get from Tripadvisor.

Never thought that I would get that close to a shark. I also learnt that most sharks are friendly creatures.

3. I got to meet fellow Couchsurfers from other parts of the world

Having a local host is only half the fun — the other half comes from having a mishmash of travellers from all over the world coming together to have fun in the same place. Sometimes, hosts might host more than one group of surfers at a time. Because of this, I was fortunate enough to have met a globe-trotting Canadian couple who eventually inspired me to go on my first trip to India. I also met two of the most hilarious people I’ve ever encountered in the form of this perpetually drunken British-Austrian duo. I still form impressions of them in my head now and then to humour myself. These people were a bonus to my already awesome trip.

An American trying to find her destiny in China, a Spaniard trying to adapt to her new life in Philippines, and a Filipino who dreams of traveling the world. These are some of the friends I’ve met during my trip.

I hope at this point I’ve sufficiently tempted you to try Couchsurfing for yourself. Couchsurfing can be dangerous but can also be equally rewarding. A lot of people have asked me: “What if I get robbed, killed or violated during my stay?” I admit that they’re all possible, but here are a few things I do to safeguard myself.

  1. I always check my hosts' references

Couchsurfing recently implemented a policy which prevents hosts or surfers from deleting references on their profiles. This means that every review, good or bad, will be available for viewing. I always make sure that my host has a decent amount of hosting experience (at least 4–5 times) and that most of his reviews are written sincerely and personally (not bot writing). This reassures me at ease that I’ll be staying with the person the host claims he is, and lets me know whether I’ll hit off with the person.

2. I always ask for a picture

A profile without a face is a total no-no. This advice might seem questionable but my first line of defence is to get an initial judgement of someone’s character from his profile picture. To me, a person’s profile picture represents how someone wants to portray himself and that gives me a good gauge whether he is someone I want to hang with. Some Couchsurfers also provide their FB or Instagram address on their profiles. Check them out for a peace of mind.

3. Get a travel buddy

Sometimes, two is better than one. If you feel insecure, rope a travel buddy along. This way you have someone to watch your back (and bag), reducing the chances of your host trying anything funny. Jot down local emergency numbers on a note and keep it close to you in case of danger too.

Couchsurfing has drastically changed my perspective of traveling and added more meaning to my travels. In fact, I intend to Couchsurf my entire way for my upcoming Russian trip. I hope this article has inspired you to try Couchsurfing and has alleviated some of your fears. Feel free to drop me a comment if you have any questions. Remember, those who risk nothing, gain nothing. Good luck!

Find me on Couchsurfing at: https://www.couchsurfing.com/people/matthew_ng