Why I CouchSurf

Speaker's Corner: The first time she crashed at a stranger's home, Kristin Luna feared she'd wind up an Agence France-Presse headline. Now she looks forward to sleeping on others' furniture -- and not just to save money.

04.29.08 | 4:00 PM ET

Couch SurfingMy heart was pounding as my travel companion, Helle, and I trained from Paris toward Marseilles. To say I was nervous about meeting Vincent, our host in Marseilles, would be an understatement. Would he like us? Would we like him? Would we have anything to talk about? More importantly, would we wind up the headline of the Agence France-Presse’s next lead story: Two female travelers go missing after stupidly agreeing to sleep on a complete stranger’s couch?

In retrospect, it’s slightly odd that we had never met Vincent but were traveling 400 miles to take up lodging in his spare bedroom. I didn’t even know the most basic things about him: his family background, place of birth, favorite Beatles album—things I generally knew about even the most casual of my acquaintances. The most interaction we had was an email exchange or two. Yet he was picking us up at the station and taking us to his secluded Provence villa for four nights. The setting for a made-for-TV, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”-esque slasher flick perhaps, but we were willing to take the risk.

Where had we met this seemingly perfect stranger? CouchSurfing.com. Prior to departing Denmark, Helle and I had joined a couple of online hospitality exchanges that would set us up with local tour guides and, we hoped, safe places to lay our heads—all for free. The site we’d received the most welcoming responses from was CouchSurfing.

I saw Vincent the second I stepped off the train. Tall, lanky and good-looking, I fell completely in love with him in a purely platonic, he’s-so-nice-you-can’t-help-but-want-to-give-him-a-big-hug sense. His jittery demeanor—it was clear he wasn’t completely comfortable in the presence of two semi-attractive blonde foreigners—was somehow endearing. I sensed I wasn’t about to become a missing persons pin-up girl.

He drove us 45 minutes to his chateau among a grove of olive trees and made us feel right at home. As luck would have it, he was also one of the kindest, most fascinating, caring individuals I have encountered and the type of person you can only dream of meeting while on the road because of his appreciation for other cultures. After Vincent, my future involvement with CouchSurfing was inevitable.

I will admit that had I not had a travel companion, I would never have initially dipped my toe into CouchSurfing waters. As a solo female traveler, there are some chances just not worth taking, and staying with a complete stranger topped that list. But after a month of couch-hopping my way through Southern France and Corsica, I now don’t think twice about staying alone.

It seems utterly bizarre if you stop to think about it. You’re flying solo to Norway for a week and aren’t too keen on forking over $50 for a mere hostel bed, let alone five times as much for a basic three-star hotel. So what do you do? Email a complete stranger whose profile you stumbled across on a web-based travel community and request to crash on his couch.

With CouchSurfing, anyone of any age or nationality can create a profile free of charge. You fill out your basic information—where you live, what you do, your life goals and ambitions, whether or not you have a couch to contribute. Then other users trekking through your town can hit you up for advice or a meet-up, or vice versa. A three-tier vouching system exists for security purposes, as do references from other members.

After immersing myself in the CouchSurfing scene abroad, I moved back to New York and assumed my participation would take a backseat to my career and social life. Besides, I was your typical Manhattan resident living in cramped quarters with roommates. It would hardly be fair for me to offer up the sole piece of furniture in our communal living room. Sure enough, the second I switched the status on my profile to New York, I was overwhelmed with messages from CouchSurfers wanting everything from lodging and assistance finding a job to grabbing a drink or going for a walk in Central Park. I realized that while I couldn’t participate in the traditional sense—letting others stay in my home—there were other ways I could contribute.

As a fashion journalist by day, red carpet reporter by night and travel writer on weekends and holidays, every square inch of my New York life involves media types. It’s nice to occasionally associate with others not in the industry. So for me, CouchSurfing has provided a venue where I can meet people interested in travel from all walks of life. By participating in the weekly meet-ups and odd party or two hosted by fellow members, I’ve encountered investment bankers, photographers, computer programmers, actors, dancers, professional nomads, people from Togo and Siberia—and even Queens and New Jersey. Some of my closest friendships in New York have resulted from an email thread via CouchSurfing. I even vacationed in Latin America with one member after meeting once, for a simple Thai dinner and stimulating conversation.

I must admit, CouchSurfers can be a crazy bunch. While they have a routine get-together in Union Square each Thursday night, they also organize events every other night of the week, whether it’s a rooftop masquerade where you will not be admitted sans costume, or a unitard pub crawl. Sometimes I can’t keep up and the thought alone stresses me out. That’s when I have to sit back and remind myself that I don’t have to respond to every email I receive through the site (though I often do anyway), nor am I required to make it to every social gathering.

Sure, I’ve had a negative experience or two. After a few unsuccessful attempts at meeting up with a traveling Frenchman, through no fault of my own, I received one of the most inappropriate, profanity-laden emails I have ever read—all in French. Another time, I took a New Zealander out in Manhattan with a group of my friends, and he proceeded to offend every one of them with inaccurate generalizations about Americans and his statements about U.S. foreign policy. But, thankfully, these incidents have been few and far between.

Generally, most CouchSurfers seem to be seeking the same thing: to break down cultural barriers and spread an impassioned desire to know more about this vast world we all share. True, CouchSurfing is not for everyone—I once met a painfully shy Scot who acted as if she’d rather endure a root canal than be stuck in a room full of total strangers—but my own life would surely be much more mundane without it.

Kristin Luna is a Bay Area-based travel writer. She writes the Frommer's guides to California and San Francisco, as well as contributes to several national magazines and websites.

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17 Comments for Why I CouchSurf

Tim Patterson 04.30.08 | 2:44 AM ET

Terrific article, Kristin.

I too have had wonderful experiences with couchsurfing and highly recommend the network to travelers.

It’s worth noting that many couchsurfers are actively seeking a greener, more local-oriented, and less consumer driven form of travel - and life.


Nousha.com 04.30.08 | 6:56 PM ET

My roommate told me about that and he said that it is surprisingly safe!

Chris Jackson 04.30.08 | 11:15 PM ET

Couchsurfing rocks.  I’ve met an abundance of super cool people thru the website, and heard stories from people that have inspired me to keep traveling forever.  It’s the best way to get into the local scene from the moment you land.

think 05.01.08 | 8:59 AM ET

Couchsurfing is a great concept and full of great people. ive made some incredible friends thru my travels via the site. unfortunately, i feel that it is receiving too much public press which in turn invites the wrong sort of people to join. You state “CouchSurfing is not for everyone”...then why are you telling “everyone” about it?

Carol 05.01.08 | 1:51 PM ET

I’m 61 years young and love to travel. My travel companion and I went to Turkey last September and loved it. I would like to join the couchsurfing family. We’ve always been interested in how the other half of the world lived. We’ve always taken tours and never meet any of the people that live in the places that we have visited. And we would like too. Enjoyed your article

Justin 05.04.08 | 2:13 AM ET

Right on, Kristin.

I’m trying CS for the first time now in Singapore and it’s great - I have a kind and accommodating host and an eager network of locals interested in showing me around.  CS is a great network for linking open and travel-oriented people together.

Aleah 05.04.08 | 8:52 AM ET

I’m 29 and i have just returned from a trip to China. It was my first overseas trip; i didn’t have enough money before to pay for travel expenses plus accommodation. When i read about CS in the Reader’s Digest, though, i realized that with this online community, my dream to explore the world has come within my reach! Thru CS i have met so many wonderful people who share my passion for traveling. It’s certainly a great concept and i hope that it continues to be so.

Denise 05.04.08 | 3:15 PM ET

Hey Kristin,
Fascinating artical, I LOL and got a little frightened but I couldn’t stop reading. I love to travel but I haven’t as yet visited the far away places that intrigue me due to finances. This sounds like a GREAT ADVENTURE for those who are willing to jump in and weave their way out of anything! I just might try CS, but until then, I’ll be looking forward to reading about your next adventure.

Amy T 05.06.08 | 11:37 PM ET

I just read about a kid from the place I just moved, Petaluma, California, who graduated high school and set off walking across America. He’s couchsurfing all the way.


Amazing, no?

Alex 05.07.08 | 5:48 PM ET

Can’t believe I just learned about this a few months ago. What a great resource. Even though anyone can sign up, does it tend to be mostly 20-somethings?

Kristin Luna 05.10.08 | 1:56 AM ET

Wow, I hadn’t thought to check the comments until now, so I’m thrilled to get so much feedback.

Tim, Justin, Chris and Aleah: I’m so happy you guys have both had positive CS experiences. Like I was telling someone earlier, at the end of the day, all travelers are kindred spirits; no matter where you come from, what work you do, what your cultural background is, we all have something to learn from one another, and likewise something to teach, as well.

Think: I understand you not wanting CS to become polluted with those who aren’t there for the right reasons, but the World Hum readers are exactly the type of people us CouchSurfers want out of other members—people who are open and accepting of all walks of life and who have a natural curiosity for the world.

Carol, Nousha, and Denise: I highly encourage each of you to join. Even if the thought of staying on someone’s couch doesn’t appeal to you, it’s always nice to have someone with whom to grab a drink, dinner or coffee when you’re off seeing the world.

Amy T: Thanks for the link! When I was living in NYC, I met up with several Europeans who were traveling all the way across the USA only using CouchSurfing. What a fun trip that must be!

Alex: I’ve met CouchSurfers from 16 to mid-50s, and I’ve come across plenty of profiles of members in their 60s and 70s as well. I even came across a 92-year-old CSer at one point! I wouldn’t say it’s mostly 20-somethings, but the majority of really active CouchSurfers seem to be in their 20s, 30s and 40s (so a pretty wide range).

Thanks again, everyone!

Marilyn Wargo 05.14.08 | 4:17 PM ET

Kristin, This has me relieved as I am about to go back to Ireland and want to go to the Europe, too. All these peoples’ responses have answered my musings on Couch Surfing. It is a wanderers dream
network. Whatever faults there may be seem less than what one encounters in camp
grounds and hostels. Thanks for all the
good vibes and encouragement. Good luck to
all of us on the road and enjoy the
opportunities you find there! Mar

John M. Edwards 05.15.08 | 6:18 AM ET

Hi Kristin:

You should join Servas, a homestay organization loosely affiliated with the UN.

I call it “Serve Us” because you get a free place to spend a couple of nights (or longer) abroad.

It’s located on John Street in the Financial District of Manhattan.

John M. Edwards

kristin luna 05.16.08 | 2:33 PM ET

Marilyn: Good luck on your future CouchSurfing pursuits. You’ll love it, I feel it!

John: I’ve never heard of Servas, so thanks for the helpful tip!

think 05.25.08 | 1:28 PM ET

Kristin: No, you don’t quite understand my point. Again - You state “CouchSurfing is not for everyone”...then why are you telling “everyone” about it? The internet isn’t your local paper - its circulation is much much wider and you don’t know who reads worldhum.

T 06.04.08 | 4:29 AM ET

As a solo female traveller who is couchsurfing without a set itinerary through Europe for three months, I’ve got to say that the hosts and fellow surfers I’ve met along the way have been the best part of my journey.  To date, I’ve been to the UK, France, Turkey, Egypt, Solvakia and I’m now in Hungary. I wouldn’t do it any other way.

Hosted Exchange 10.29.08 | 1:59 PM ET

I have reservations about this. You hear too many stories about travellers being befriended by people who turn out to harbour ulterior motives. Alhtough it may be a great experience and save money i would say be careful.

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