How to Start Couchsurfing

I could tell you that Couchsurfing is a great way to save money on a trip, and there are probably 46, 289 articles on the internet that say so too. It costs nothing to sign up and nothing to use, and you get to stay with cool travel-loving people for free, never mind that you only knew them through the internet before meeting up. A ‘how to start Couchsurfing’ guide seems unnecessary.

I’d be lying if it was as simple as that. The saying “it’s too good to be true” applies here. I’m not talking about the possibility of meeting a dubious character (roughly 18.39% of those articles provide tips on how to find a host). Lots of people do the wrong things and get ignored because they forget one thing: In spite of the publicity, CS works best for those who aren’t in it for the free accommodation.

How to start Couchsurfing – really

Just having an account isn’t enough to convince people to host you. The savings don’t come without some effort. Sure, some hosts might take on the occasional newcomer, but he who expects invitations without contributing to the hospitality exchange is setting himself up for disappointment. No one likes to be taken advantage of by scroungers, and CS hosts are no exception.

That said, getting into the CS community is actually easy, as I’ll soon describe. It just takes more time and work than most freeloaders are willing to put in. These are the steps I’ve personally taken on the way to becoming an active member in the Singapore scene, and they’ve opened the doors to meeting CSers around the world.

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Just some of the lovely people (and animals) I’ve met through CS

Get involved

After you sign up, fill out the profile page comprehensively. Trust is an essential component of hospitality exchange. Folks like to get to know the person they’re hosting, and they will try to find common interests, values and travel destinations. If one can’t be open, he can expect the same frostiness in return.

But it’s so difficult to write about myself! The last time I checked, Couchsurfing is not a dating site. Be candid; there is no need to impress anyone!

At this point, you might not know anybody on CS, and there is a better way to fix that than merely answering queries on the website or messaging other members.

Virtually every city has a regular gathering for CSers, usually at a local bar. Whether it’s held weekly, fortnightly or monthly, your find it lumped with the events on your city’s section of the website, and it’s open to hosts, surfers and visitors alike. It’s a public and relatively safe way to meet other members of the community, and for them to establish that you’re not a sleazebag. Go with a friend if you like.

If bars aren’t for you, there are many other types of events that achieve the same effect – sports, workshops, picnics, camps and more. Once you’re familiar with a few members, it’s a good time to write testimonials on their profile pages, briefly describing what you think of them, and you’re likely to get a few in return. Don’t forget to reciprocate if they’ve already done so and if they’ve formed enough of an impression to write one. Almost everyone reads your wall of testimonials to gauge your trustworthiness.

Contribute

Now that you’ve gained a few friends through CS, their testimonials will lower the barriers to meeting other members abroad. It’s easier to get your request accepted now, but giving back to the network is a good idea.

If it’s within your capabilities, host visitors to your country. Again, there is a section where you can see who is planning to visit your area. You’ll meet cool people and understand a host’s point of view, which will be helpful when you go travelling. You will also feel the pain of receiving an awful request or three and know how to avoid writing one. Most certainly, don’t feel compelled to take on anyone who makes you feel uneasy.

If hosting isn’t possible, as it is in my case, organising events for locals and visitors is an option, and you can create your own in the events section. ‘Interesting’ and ‘relevant’ are the keywords here. A simple request for a general meet-up may get a few respondents, but probably not as many as a potluck luncheon, a visit to a specific or unique part of the city, or a festival celebration. I’ve been involved in all three.

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Like a tour of the Marina Bay circuit when the F1 circus was in Singapore
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And brunch on an organic farm – see where it is in Two Weeks in Singapore

What’s the point? These are things that enrich the travel experience for other members. They will refer to these events in the testimonials they write about you.

Hit the road

When the time comes to go on your trips, send out a few requests to the hosts in the places you’ll visit, more if it’s a major travel destination. You might already stand out among the masses looking for requests due to your involvement back home, but there’s more you can do.

Remember those awful messages you received as a host? Don’t pay the pain forward! Read the profiles of potential hosts, and tailor your requests (the ‘Why You Want To Meet Them’) accordingly. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. Woe betide those who copy-paste their requests. If someone puts a codeword on their profile and you don’t include it in your request, be prepared for silence. Don’t write to expatriates saying you want to meet locals, for instance – that is a dead giveaway. And if you’re allergic to cats but miss the bit that says your host keeps them, you’re in for a miserable time.

Stay safe: If something seems odd (e.g. a dude who lives alone seems to host only women), contact their previous surfers.

If your request is accepted, well done! You’ve earned the trust of another member of the community. Props to you if you get invitations too. Go and create great memories with your host and be a fantastic guest. When I reached this stage, the free accommodation was no longer on my mind – I would use some of the money I saved to get a gift, take my hosts out or cook a meal, sharing a piece of Singapore and making the experience memorable.

If someone declines or doesn’t respond to your request, fret not and refer to the next section.

Avoid these blunders!

  • Blokes, don’t be creepy and respond only to posts and requests from women! You’re ruining it for everybody: male members get disappointed and walk away from the network, while female members get scared and run away from it. It’s the 21st Century; learn to view travellers of all genders equally, and that helping other blokes is not even vaguely homoerotic.
  • On that same note, don’t be a sleazy, aggressive host. Contrary to what a few blogs might say (I’m not going to give them publicity by linking them here) Couchsurfing is not a dating site. Take your pick-up game elsewhere. Sometimes the chemistry is right, but there is always a chance that a guest feels obliged to return the unwanted affection. That will create feedback you might not expect.
  • Don’t keep quiet if someone’s misbehaving! It could be someone who uses CS to hook up or prosper his business, or a newcomer who has posted requests in the wrong place. It’s in your interest to keep the community healthy by weeding out undesirables and instructing the ignorant. Compassion is optional, but it’s preferable to bluntness in the latter case.
  • Don’t post couch requests in place pages, even if you don’t manage to find a host. Someone is bound to find out if you’ve sent requests the proper way first. Someone else (i.e. you) will get hurt real bad if that’s not the case. Remember that no one owes anyone their hospitality, so find a hostel to stay in if you’re not successful. You might even meet other travellers who are CSers too. (Exceptions can be made if you are stranded by a host at the last minute or feel unsafe, and there is usually an Emergency Couch group)

Get hooked!

Hopefully, by now, you’ve seen how much good can be created through Couchsurfing by building a network of trust. If you’re as addicted as I am to this concept, you’ll keep paying the kindness forward. Saving money has its advantages, but investing a little money, effort and time reaps far more benefits.

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