What is Couchsurfing?
Now, the name “couchsurfing” may evoke images of unkempt and under-employed travelers looking for a free place to crash, but in reality couchsurfing is a network of like-minded travelers who are passionate about travel and meeting others. Not to mention, it is a community filled with incredibly kind, generous, and hospitable humans opening up their home in the spirit of helping others. For those unfamiliar with couchsurfing, staying for free with strangers may sound unsafe, but on couchsurfing.com you have access to host profiles as well as reviews of hosts left by previous couchsurfers. On the website you select the city you wish to stay in and tens to thousands of hosts populate the page. Generally, there are more hosts in larger cities. We’ve couchsurfed over a dozen times in the United States, Chile, Germany, Singapore, and Turkey. We have always felt safe and comfortable in the homes and apartments we’ve been invited into and continue to be humbled by the generosity of our hosts.
Using couchsurfing we’ve slept on couches, but more often than not, in spare bedrooms, and once in an entire basement suite. We’ve had meals cooked for us, been shown around town, and been given the keys and left on our own for a night or two in the homes of trusting hosts. We’ve been hosted by men, women, couples, foreigners, professionals, students, roommates, and people of all ages. Many hosts are avid travelers, expats, or former “surfers” wanting to pay it forward. We almost always find kindred spirits as we exchange travel stories and world views with our hosts. Of course, sometimes we have more in common with some hosts than others.
Some Couchsurfing Guidelines
Couchsurfing comes with a certain expectation of interaction. You’re not in a hotel after all, but staying with an individual who is housing you out of the goodness of their heart. Granted, all hosts are different and each couch surfing experience is unique. Some hosts are more outgoing than others, some are busier than others- there are all types of hosts. To be the best type of couchsurfer it’s good practice to:
Make time for your host. Share a meal with your host or invite them for an activity with you (sometimes this may not be possible with your hosts’ schedule). Don’t just use your hosts’ home as a place to crash. Converse with them. Interact with them. They likely want to hear your story and brag a bit about their city. Couchsurfing hosts are often enthusiastic representatives of their own city and give great insider tips. They can answer questions and help you gain insight into the local culture and lifestyle.
Be respectful of your hosts’ time. Typically, hosts are working during the week. It is possible that they may want to relax on the weekend or weeknights and not be available to hang out. Don’t over stay your welcome. We typically spend 2 to 3 nights at a time.
Clean up after yourself. If you’ve been invited to use the kitchen, wash your dishes and leave things as you found them. Don’t pick through their cabinets or refrigerator unless they’ve offered. That said, we’ve always been told to make ourselves at home in hosts’ kitchens.
Bring a small gift for your host. Something unique from your hometown or a food item will do. With dietary restrictions these days gifting food can be tricky. You can also take your host out for a meal, coffee, or drink and foot the bill. Or, consider cooking your host a typical dish from your country. Sometimes we send a postcard to the host from our next destination just to say thanks again. Coming without a gift isn’t a deal breaker, just make sure to be a respectful guest.
For travelers from the US looking to couchsurf in South America: when referring to your country say “in the United States...” or “I’m from the The United States” in place of “America.” People in South America are American and from America too. Therefore, some people from South America find it a bit offensive or ignorant when you say “in America” or call yourself American as it shows disregard for the fact that they are too.
Our Experience Couch Surfing in Santiago, Chile
We arrived to the apartment of our Chilean hosts early in the morning…perhaps too early on a Saturday morning. We were tired and cranky from an unpleasant overnight bus ride with 3am border crossing, but slapped smiles on our faces as we meet our welcoming hosts. The couple, still in their pajamas, greeted us cheerfully. We’d come with some food to share for breakfast and were touched by how quickly they assembled their kitchen table with toast, spreads, coffee and tea for us. Over breakfast we shared travel stories and learned about their desire to work in Australia where there are many work-exchange programs, not to mention a generous minimum wage. In Chile he works as a teacher and she works as a journalist. Their apartment was small but smarty decorated and somehow neatly contained his expansive record collection. From their apartment on the 17th floor, the view of the city was spectacular. They offered us their guest bedroom which was perfectly comfortable and just big enough to accommodate a double bed.
This was our second time in Santiago. We arrived without plans and two days to kill until our flight south to Patagonia. Our hosts were filled with suggestions for how to spend our time. Feeling like we should give them some downtime after intruding on their Saturday morning, we set out for a few hours on our own to wander the city. We stopped by a few local food markets and strolled around downtown. Getting around the city was a breeze with the convenient public transit system. The ease and affordability of public transportation abroad really puts our native Philadelphia to shame.
In the evening we met our hosts at one of their favorite dinner haunts. We shared hot dog ‘completos’ loaded with tomato, avocado, mayo, all other imaginable condiments, and beer. At the suggestion of our host, we tried the traditional cocktail, ‘terremoto,’ or earthquake in English. Sweet white wine, pineapple ice cream, and grenadine - drink too many and the ground may shake below your feet. We were joined by their previous couch surfer, a fun Swedish girl relocating to Santiago to study anthropology. While sipping terremotos we compared and contrasted our cultures and educational systems/policies, which always makes for an interesting discussion.
The following day our hosts took us to the Bio Bio Market, the biggest market in Chile. The Bio Bio Market is a sprawling indoor/outdoor venue filled with antiques, furniture, food, knickknacks, electronics, odds and ends, and pleasantly enough, no tourist-targeted chachkies. We explored the market for several hours getting lost and people watching. The food scene was phenomenal. We tried the local dish ‘porotos granados,’ a belly warming corn and bean soup.
Later that evening, the last night with our hosts, we sat for wine and a game at their kitchen table. Being fellow board-gamers, we had spotted Settlers of Catan on their shelf, buried amongst their record collection, and connected over sharing enjoyment for the game. Making it all the more interesting, their game was in Spanish, unsurprisingly, with the Game of Thrones expansion pack. Though they had to translate some of the cards for us, we managed to play the game while listening to a selection of the hosts hand-selected records.
The following morning we headed out early to catch our flight to Punta Arenas. Though it was a short and sweet visit to Santiago, couchsurfing ensure that it was impactful and memorable. Being able to talk with locals, hear their opinions, listen to their praise and criticisms about their city, their country, and their politics offers insight and perspective that can be hard to gain as a tourist. For us, staying with locals always delivers more depth to our travels than solely “seeing the sights” of a city.