I first heard about couch-surfing from a university tutor in one of those lame first-day “get-to-know each-other” classes. He casually mentioned it as one of his hobbies without divulging any details, so for a good two years afterwards I assumed he meant he liked tying couches to the back of cars and riding them, like some extreme form of sketching. As it turns out, the reality is even better – and it’s free.
Couch surfing is an online social network that connects like-minded, adventurous travellers with each other. It also happens to be one of the greatest inventions of all time. As a member, you can offer to host people for a few nights and let them crash on your couch, show them around your hometown or just provide some local knowledge. Essentially, it’s a way of meeting new people and experiencing a new culture without even leaving your home. And if you’re travelling, there’s no better way to see the world than through the eyes of a native. It may sound creepy to allow perfect strangers into your home and go and stay at theirs, but you have complete control of who you want to host or surf with, and everyone on the site has a profile with reviews from everyone they’ve met.
One poverty-stricken week in New York drove me and two rather reluctant friends to give it a go. It was a few weeks before NYE, meaning 99% of the city’s accommodation was booked out. The few hostels that still had vacancies were charging upwards from $120 a night for a shared dormitory. Not happening. I didn’t actually know anyone who’d couch surfed at the time, so logged on and started scrolling through my filtered search (male, aged between 20-25, able to host 3+) looking for the least predatory character on there. I figured a boy would be easier to crash with than a girl, not because I’m a ho but because it’s generally easier to get along with the opposite gender if you come from different walks of life than it is your own. I eventually stumbled upon a guy who a) seemed super-chilled; b) had a million positive references; c) had a locatable Facebook that seemed legit; and most importantly d) had recently dressed up as an Orthodox Jew for Halloween. I knew we’d found our man, so contacted him immediately asking if my friends and I could crash on his couch for a few days in exchange for me cooking him a mean chicken parmigiana. He agreed, so we rocked up at his Brooklyn apartment for what ended up being one of the best weeks of my life.
My experience of couch surfing blew my expectations out of the water. Our New York host was hip, interesting and beyond hospitable, and took us to incredible local gems we never would even have known existed had we done the trip on our own. We danced to 90s hip hop at a lunchtime disco on a Coney Island pier; ate the city’s finest pizza, hand-rolled by a geriatric Italian; and saw a bird’s eye view of the city for free from atop a residential highrise we snuck up. And it didn’t end there – we’ve all holidayed back and forth a bunch of times since, and thanks to that connection I’ve made around 20 new friends from all over the world. Since then, my friends and I have continued with couch surfing and even hosted as well, and had just as mind-blowingly rewarding experiences as we did that first time.
Couch surfing is like a seed: surf one couch or host one traveller and you’ll end up with not just one but a hundred new friends and experiences. There are literally thousands of hosts in every city and town in the world – couples, groups of friends, families and individuals of all ages – and there really is no better way to travel. Even hosting someone from a new country is fun – especially if they cook for you, and it’s a fantastic way of quelling post-holiday depression. There are even couch surfing meetings (read – piss ups) held in most towns each fortnight – picnics or dinners or parties – where members can get together and share stories.
Of course there are a bunch of people who will try to use couch surfing as a dating site, but really – half the fun of travelling is new sexual encounters anyway, and they never mean any harm. Obviously you still need to keep safety in mind when choosing worthy applicants or targets, so only pick people who have been vouched for and reviewed and maybe try and suss them out on Facebook beforehand to make sure they’re not total weirdos. But be warned: once you have one positive couch surfing experience, there’s no going back: you will be addicted.
Gemma Clarke is the editor-in-chief of Global Hobo. She spends her time contracting tinea in foreign countries, taking afternoon naps and drinking red wine through a straw.