I don’t know about you, but if there’s one thing I can never seem to justify, it’s paying for a hotel room. The beds are either saggy, or rigid as a mortician’s table. Your window routinely offers views of a near-empty parking lot. And if you ever make the costly mistake of ordering room service, you’re in for the dismaying experience of discovering that your New England clam chowder has assumed the consistency and flavor of petroleum jelly mid-transit to your room.
Am I alone, or does it strike you as absurd to plunk down $80 or more for this kind of experience?
Staying in hotels along the course of this trip was never a financial option to begin with. When you’re averaging $15-30 for daily expenses, two nights at a Marriott or Holiday Inn can eat up your weekly budget. So instead, I embraced an alternative means of lodging that’s not only affordable for the frugal traveler, but a lot more fun as well. CouchSurfing.
There are two ways to CouchSurf. The unofficial version involves sleeping on the sofas, guest beds, or floors of people you know; extended family, good friends, even work colleagues. The official way – and the one that many people I’ve met in America are still rather anxious about – takes the same concept but applies it to strangers.
Well, not total strangers. You see, the official CouchSurfing.org community formed in 2003. Here’s how it works: you create a CouchSurfing profile that’s very much like your Facebook page, detailing your travel experiences, interests, and future destinations. It’s also a wise idea to find friends of yours who are using CouchSurfing – and can vouch for your upstanding qualities – to write you a positive reference that other users can see. This allows potential hosts to verify that A: you’re a real person, and B: you’re not going to rob them or give them the Texas Chainsaw Massacre treatment.
From there, the process of “surfing” is simple. If you’re seeking a place to stay, you can search for potential hosts in your destination area and send them a surf request. Once you and your host develop a degree of trust (not difficult, since most people on CouchSurfing are quite gregarious), your request will likely be approved and you can celebrate. You did it! You thwarted the hotel industry, saved a heft wad of greenbacks, and made a new friend.
I’ve used CouchSurfing several times on the course of my trip, and each occasion has been outstanding. In the last month, I’ve shacked up with a Memphis app developer, an Ohio finance and marketing manager (plus her adorable dog), and even an urban farmer raising chickens in Salt Lake City. For the adventurous, open-minded traveler, I recommend the “surfing” experience wholeheartedly and offer the following tips.
#1: Plan early. When I know I’m going to be CouchSurfing somewhere, I start for looking for hosts at least two weeks ahead of time. A month is preferable.
#2: Trust your gut. Look for hosts whose profiles reveal similar interests and positive references. The latter is especially important. As a rule, I won’t surf with someone who can’t list a single human connection. But even if you find a potential host and strike up communications, be honest with yourself about how their replies make you feel. If possible, chat by phone to further gauge this.
#3: Be flexible. CouchSurfing works best when your travel schedule has some wiggle room. After all, your host is most likely working during the day and will have a schedule to maintain whilst putting you up for the night. If the person I’m staying with leaves the house or apartment at 7 AM each morning, I’ll plan to do the same. Same logic goes if they enjoy visiting the local blues bar in the evening and invite you to join. Running on your host’s schedule not only makes life easier for them, but it usually allows the two of you more time to hang out and get to know each other.
#4: Give back. Technically, CouchSurfing is free, but I always like to return the favor by doing something nice for my host. Remember…they’re saving you a lot of money, and demonstrating good faith by letting someone they’ve never met face-to-face stay in their home. In the past, I’ve taken my hosts out to dinner (I’m not nearly skilled enough to cook them a meal) or brought them a bottle of wine from another city. The gift doesn’t have to be expensive. Most of mine haven’t broken $10. What matters is their sincerity, and the evidence that you’ve put a tiny amount of thought into them. Example: your host is a craft beer connoisseur? Get them some local IPAs they might not have sampled yet.
#5: Stay in touch. If you had a great time with your host, write them a positive recommendation on CouchSurfing for all to see. Unless you ate the contents of their fridge in the middle of the night, they’ll almost certainly do the same for you. And by all means, offer them a place to stay should they ever find themselves in your hometown.
Seriously. If you’re going somewhere new this fall or winter, give surfing a try. Especially if you’re still having bed bug anxiety dreams after your last visit to the Ramada Inn. For me, “surfing” has made America feel a whole lot friendlier than our nightly news programming suggests.