5 Keys to Understanding and Succeeding at CouchSurfing
To commemorate my hundredth night hosted through CouchSurfing, I’ve decided to offer a few key tips to get started (or improve your current experience) with this wonderful social network.
Before we begin, here’s a little explanation for those unfamiliar with CouchSurfing: CouchSurfing is a means to find (usually) free accomodation around the world/strong>. Aside from it being cost-free, it works rather like ebay in that you have a profile with references from other CouchSurfers you’ve met, hosted, or been hosted by, to determine a level of confidence.
Everyone, host or traveler, can join. There is no obligation to do both, but usually if you do one, you’re inspired to do the other.
UNDERSTANDING THE PHILOSOPHY OF COUCHSURFING
CouchSurfing is often presented as a way to stay somewhere for free. It’s a really a base understanding and is, at least partially, wrong.
The key element to understand is: ask yourself why someone would take the time and spend their own money to host (the costs being extra electricity, water, and sometimes meals)? Good karma? Religious charity? No. Simply because they want to meet people from other cultures, other backgrounds; share, talk, learn. This simple question highlights everything else.
If you are looking for a free hotel or simply place to crash for the night, look elsewhere. CouchSurfing is not for you. You will be disappointed and your host will regret having received you.
If, however, you want to meet locals, discuss their lives, your life, discover a new culture up close, share tips, discover the city togetherby visiting the less touristic areas, then yes, start here.
YOUR PROFILE: THE KEYSTONE OF THE SYSTEM
At CouchSurfing.org, everyone has a profile page that must be filled out with as much detail as possible. This is the biggest key of them all. This is how your potential hosts or guests determine whether or not you’re someone they want to meet. Confidence in yourself is everything.
Your profile must have a picture, and your interests (music, film, books, travel, hobbies)…
Speaking of photos, think of postingmany photos of yourself where you’re clearly visible; no sunglasses covering your face, no blurring, no landscape photos or group photos where it’s impossible to determine where you are (though you can add a marker with photoshop identifying your location if you know how to), no images so far away that you can’t be seen… It’s possible your guests or hosts will think you have something to hide.
Be honest regarding your education or profession as well. Some hosts may refuse you because your profession is “living my life” or “M&Ms lover”. Yes, it’s a bit harsh, but again it’s better to lay all the cards on the table from the beginning.
It’s also important to write your profile in a language that will be understood by your potential hosts/guests. E.g. while your native language might be Spanish, it’s probably still better to write out your profile in English. In my opinion, it’s better also not to mix the languages. It makes the profile a bit confused.
LEARN TO READ PROFILES
A profile is a wealth of information on the person who may accommodate or stay with you. If you know how to read a profile properly, you will avoid many unnecessary couchrequests.
First, you must recognize the need to find active profiles. There’s no use contacting someone who has abandoned their profile. To check whether or not someone is active, check their last login time and their response percentage.
These two elements are directly visible under the couch availability symbol.
The response rate indicates, obviously, the percentage of requests responded to. So, if your potential host’s rate is 0%, it means that they never respond to requests sent. It’s better to move on and concentrate on profiles with higher percentages.
The last login time/date is a bit misleading, since you don’t need to reconnect each time you visit your account. Even though it’s not completely reliable, it gives enough of an indication of how reachable they might be.
The response time can be an important element if you’re making last-minute requests. If your potential host averages 7 days to respond and you’re looking for someone for today, there’s little chance you’ll have their answer in time.
Then, it also helps to be sure of exactly where they are. Sometimes people do not change their statuses when they travel, so if their profile shows Dallas, Texas 6 hours ago and they’re supposed to be in New York, there could be 2 answers: 1. they use a VPN or 2. they are traveling without having changed their status. If it’s during the week and the connection is close to their home, it’s possible they connected at work. For example, in France, if you see your host is in St. Symphorien in the Limousin region, don’t worry. They simply connected to their profile via the Orange network on their cell phone. See? Not always completely reliable…
No description of where you’ll be sleeping? Search another profile, especially if their status is set to “maybe”. It’s usually a sign of a profile created in a hurry or even automatically from a Facebook profile. In essence, this person probably isn’t really much of a CSer.
Read their profile carefully. The more you have in common, the easier it will be to find a catchphrase when writing your request. You host will also tend to answer positively this way.
A good lead-in is in the list of countries to be visited or the list of amazing experiences they’ve had.
Similarly, many profiles indicate an number of rules to follow for CouchRequests. For example, some host only one sex, some ask for a “password” to prove you’ve read their profile, some do not host certain days of the week or never for only one night. Read these rules and adhere to them.
Read their references. Read referencees taking care to consider the detailed figures and not just the total number of references. Within the total number of references could also be neutral or negative responses. So, 10 total references isn’t such a great number with when the score is actually 3 positive, 5 neutral, and 2 negative.
Similarly, if a profile has 12 positive references and in the details you see “1 surfer” and “0 traveling”, that means all their references have come from meeting people at a party or other CS meeting and therefore doesn’t really legitimize their quality as a host. In this case, you will have to settle for the opinion of the previous surfer.
Stay alert.(e)s, Just because we’re on CouchSurfing doesn’t mean we’ve entered the magical, happy land of the Care Bears. There are weird people, dishonest people, obsessed people… Anyway, read the references left by previous guests and ALWAYS consider references that are too nice as well… There are very few negative references on the site, mainly for fear of receiving one in return, so trust your instincts. If, for example, you see a male profile set to only accept female surfers, you can guess that he’s using CS to “try his luck”, as they say. Although it’s not necessarily dangerous, perhaps you should think twice about sending that request.
WRITING A COUCHREQUEST: A DIFFICULT EXERCISE
An accommodation request is not a simple “Hi, can you host me for 2 weeks?” Unless you’re some gorgeous blonde, that doesn’t work. Put the odds in your favor by following these simple rules:
- Send a real couch request and not a private message. Even though it seems obvious, many people do not seem to notice the big orange button. There are many reasons for a host not to even consider applications sent via private message. The first reason is simply that it is not the right method to use and second, if they don’t respond, it doesn’t affect the response rate. There is also a lot of essential information given to the potential host via the couchrequest option; i.e. how you will arrive, when, if your dates are flexible, etc. Also, when they respond, they can easily add pre-written directions on how to arrive at their home via the “include directions” button only offered through the couch request option.
- Be specific. In addition to the mandatory elements (dates, number of people, means of transportation), write the context of your trip, detailing what brings you to the city and, especially, if you are traveling without any plan. Be interesting. Stand out.
- Be personal. Show your potential by proving that you took the time to read their profile. Find a common interest and discuss it. (You also like ping-pong and you dream of going to Jordan and would love to discuss his trip there over a game during your stay.)
- Be brief. Avoid gushing. Sure, it shows you’re really motivated to stay with them, but it’s sometimes a bit much. Some will take one look and think “too long to read”.
- Prepare in advance. If your requests are always last-minute, you’ll have less of a chance of it being accepted. Remember that your host has a life too. The ideal amount of time is around 10 days before your arrival date. I even met people at a breakfast in NYC who accept requests 2 months in advance!
HOW TO BE THE PERFECT GUEST
Here is where we enter the realm of respect and common sense.
Would you like it if your guest were to spread their belongings all around your living room? How about if they were to use your razor? What if they were to tell you 5 minutes after arriving that they’re leaving for a party and won’t be back til 4am? No? You wouldn’t like that? So don’t do it either.
You’re a guest in someone’s home. You’re not at a hotel./strong> So, stay quiet, keep your belongings organized, put back what you’ve moved.
Do not spend 2 hours in the bathroom, especially if it could put others behind schedule making them late for work/school. You also might not know that you’ve used all their hot water and have therefore robbed your host of the pleasure of a nice shower themselves.
Do not use anything on your own. Always ask permission. From a glass of water to turning on the television, such trivial things really make or break a host/guest experience.
It is important to spend time with your host. It’s what you’ve come for, and certainly what they’re expecting. In addition, it is the best way to experience things you wouldn’t even consider. They can give you tips on places to go, things to see. You can share stories. In any case, I guarantee it’s a good thing!
It is important to thank them! This can be anything from a simple thank you, a drink in a bar, a small gift from your home country, a dinner prepared by you… In short, anything you can do to show your appreciation is welcome.
I will quote from the “International Diplomacy Guidebook” which was shown at the beginning of a Blue Man Group concert and well reflects my thoughts about being thankful on CouchSurfing:
“When you meet someone from a foreign culture, offer a few gifts that reflect your interests as a gesture of friendship. Better yet, offer something you have created yourself. Also, explore their interests and their culture. Ultimately, the best way to forge a lasting relationship is to create something together. Whether it’s a meal, an art project, or a spontaneous dance party, when you create something with others, you build a connection that lasts a lifetime.”
Once you’ve left your host, write a reference as soon as possible. 1. so you won’t forget and 2. they will also be quick to write one back, increasing your “score” and making future searches (a little bit) easier.
There is also the option to add them as a friend so you can stay in touch and have access to their friends in the future couchrequest filters, which often makes things easier.
I also invite you (francophones) to listen to my interiew on Allo La Planet where I give my opinion on “free hosting”.