Couchsurfing is one of the oldest sharing-economy travel websites out there. It (and sites like it, such as BeWelcome, Servas, Hospitality Club, and GlobalFreeloaders) is one of the best ways to connect with locals, get off the main tourist travel path, make new friends — and save money by getting free accommodation. All of these websites were started by people searching for a way to get out of the hotel/hostel paradigm, connect with locals, and get to know a place deeper.
I’ve been using Couchsurfing since I started traveling in 2006. My first host was a woman in Athens who let me stay for two nights. My second host was a guy who let me stay in his guesthouse (with a pool!) in Australia for as long as I wanted. (After coming off eight months of backpacking in Southeast Asia, it was much-needed luxury!) I’ve been taken on tours of cities and to rock shows, college parties, and even a family’s Sunday dinner. Couchsurfing has opened up a world of amazing people to me while helping bring down on the biggest costs in travel.
So it should be no surprise that the service is very popular with travelers — and hosts get inundated with requests!
In fact, I hear from a lot of people who say they never get a response when they apply for stays. For example, a traveler staying at my hostel recently commented that he had a zero response rate from hosts when looking for a place to stay in Austin. A friend who was with me said she always replies to people and openly wondered what his emails said. Maybe the issue was how he approached hosts.
If you’re sending out dozens of requests and not one host writes back — even to say no — then something is wrong with your approach. Hosts can usually smell the travelers who just want to use them for a free place to stay a mile away (a lesson I learned the hard way early on).
So how do you succeed at Couchsurfing? How do you find people who will say agree to host you but won’t be total creeps? Show that you want to be involved in the community. That you care. That you took the time to fill out your profile in detail and aren’t just using this as a way to avoid paying $30 for a dorm bed. To that end, some tips follow:
Always have multiple (and current) profile pictures
This just shows me, as a potential host, that you’re a real person. Have pictures of you with your friends, from your travels, and having fun. I can see you took time to put the photos up. It shows you care and you have a social life. Moreover, make sure they match your age. If your profile says you are 30 and your photos look like they were taken ten years ago, that’s a bit weird. Keep them updated. I am constantly adding photos from my travels. I currently have five uploaded. I don’t think there is any magic number to this but the more the better.
Have recommendations and reviews
Both hosts and travelers can accrue recommendations from other hosts, friends, and guests. As always, the more positive reviews, the better. If you see that other people have stayed with the host and had a fun and safe experience, you probably will too. You might not get along with the host in the end, but at least you know they aren’t a creep or will steal your stuff.
The same works for you, the potential guest. Hosts want to see that you aren’t a creep too!
However, if you are new to the service don’t have any reviews, ask your friends who use the service to write you a review and describe you as a friend. I accept a lot of people as guests because, while they are new to the service, they have positive reviews from people they know (who also have positive reviews), from other people they’ve met traveling, or from Couchsurfng meet-ups.
One way to start the process of getting the social proof required to succeed at Couchsurfing is to attend meet-ups and local events. After all, Couchsurfng is more than just staying with people. It’s about being part of a community. Each city has lots of activities, groups, and events that you can attend, even if you aren’t staying with someone. Meet people — whether as a local or a traveler — and get to know them. Go places. Hang out. Get reviews from people. Not all your reviews need to come from people who have stayed with you!
Plus, this is a great way to make new friends who like to travel!
Be a host first
One way to earn reviews is to host people first. Being a host isn’t always about having people stay with you either. Sometimes it’s just being a tour guide. I’ve had amazing hosts who just showed me their town — from the girl in the Ukraine who brought me to a university party, to the guy in Oxford who took me rowing, to the friends in Munich who took me an amazing rock concert.
So, if you don’t want to have people in your home, offer to take people out and show them around your city. If people have spent time with you — even if they haven’t stayed at your place — you’ll increase the likelihood people will consent to have you at their house!
Fill out your profile in detail
If you’ve taken the time to fill out your profile, it probably means you are serious about this site. It will give people a chance to learn what kind of person you are instead of guessing based on the one email you wrote them and that ten-year-old photo you quickly put up. Profiles with thought and detail get a lot more responses. I want to know about the stranger I am going to have in my home, and your complete profile lets me do that.
Couchsurfing offers different levels of verification. Members can be verified by other travelers, with a mailing address, or with a credit card. Knowing that a person has been verified reduces the likelihood that they are going to be a crazy psycho killer. However, if someone isn’t verified but has a lot of reviews, that’s OK with me as a host. Verification isn’t a must, but it does help! (Note: I haven’t gotten verified yet myself!)
Write a captivating and personal email
Write a personalized email about why you want to stay with someone. Talk about what you liked about their profile, why you would be a good fit, your habits, what you want to get out of it, and even what you can offer the host. Be interesting and be personal.
The reason most people fail at Couchsurfing is that they send out boring, generic, cut-and-pasted emails. Here is an example of that:
I’m coming to Austin next week for 3 days. Can I stay with you?
I would ignore or respond no to that email. It doesn’t tell me anything about the person. I have to do the extra work to go to the person’s page, click around, and figure out on my own if this person is normal or not.
A much better email is would be:
How are you? I’m coming to Austin next week for three days and saw your host page. Like you, I’m also a big fan of Game of Thrones, whiskey, and Thai food. It would be awesome to have a host who could show me those things around Austin. I’ve heard lots of wonderful things about the city and am looking to get outdoors and explore. I also love to cook and would like to cook you a meal from my country, France! I’m quiet, clean, and won’t be in your way if you need to work or something.
That’s the kind of email would get a response from me! Moreover, Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months, who has hosted over 2,000 couchsurfers, offers this advice:
Think of what you can do for that host. People tend to be very self-centered in their emails and say how amazing a person they are, which would make me roll my eyes a lot. But the odd email would be from someone who picked up on something on my profile, such as a language I’d like to learn, and saying that in exchange for the couch, he can teach me some of that language. That would pique my interest and get me to host them more!
When there is a sense that someone deserves to be hosted, forgetting that I’m giving them the roof and local tours, etc., free of charge, it’s a breath of fresh air when someone says that if I take him to a local club, he’ll teach me hip-hop dance moves.
Don’t be self-centered. It’s obvious you are looking for a free place to stay but you have to go beyond that. Let hosts know what you can do for them and why it’s going to be a fun experience.
Send out multiple emails
Part of Couchsurfing is playing the numbers game. It’s just a fact of the system. If you email just one or two people, especially in a city with few hosts, it’s doubtful you’ll find much success. Email as many hosts as possible to maximize your chances. Saying “sorry, I’ve found another host” is not going to cause any bad blood, and most hosts recognize you are mailing multiple people. I don’t email potential hosts who haven’t been active on the site within 30 days because it’s less likely they will respond to you.
And always remember to be a good guest — be respectful, be clean, be tidy, and follow any “house” rules set by the hosts.