Tuesday, May 1, 2012

CouchSurfing Tips

As I mentioned in my other post, CouchSurfing can be good, fun and sometimes smelly. I've personally never encountered safety issues or had to kick anyone out, so if you follow the rules on their site and trust your instincts, I think you'll find it's a great way to get to know people and a fun way to visit a city.

Here are my extra tips that have worked for me:

Before I host, I clean the place top to bottom. No one wants to stay in a dirty place and two, it gives your guests a baseline that they should try to leave your place at during their stay and when they leave, at the very least.

I hide money and spare keys. I have a safe where all important documents, credit cards, check books, etc go. Yes, I work on a presumption of trust, but I also work to eliminate temptation.
If there is something I don't want to be used, say my favourite body lotion, I hide it also. Otherwise I work on the assumption that everything will be touched and if I cannot be comfortable with that, I shouldn't host.

Some people are ok with this, but I do not give my guests a key to my place. They can be in our space only when we are home. We let them know ahead of time when we are leaving and coming back and they have to work around our schedule. I give them my cell phone number so they can reach me.

I give my guests a section of the fridge for their food and tell them where they can put their bags/stuff. I found from experience, if you don't tell them where appropriate spots are, they don't tend not to ask and then you'll have stuff all over the place, or worse yet, food rotting that should be in the fridge.

I give them a tour of the place and explain how taps and appliances work here (since it's often very different in Europe). This is also a good time to discuss house rules - turning on/off lights, is it ok to listen to rock music at 3am in your place, or whatever specific rules you want followed.

I don't do this, but you have a right to ask to see identification from the surfer you're hosting. In the end, it's your place and you make the rules. If you are not comfortable, don't let them in. Anyone who puts up a fuss about being asked for identification probably is not trustworthy.

Involve your guests in what you're doing. Invite them to watch a local TV show with you. Going grocery shopping? Invite them along. It's a great way to break the ice and have a chat and it's also a cultural experience for them. Make them feel welcome.

I very much enjoy playing tour guide and taking surfers to see sights in my city. I think that's a big part of what makes hosting so much fun.

As a guest, I ask a lot of questions. I want to know if I can take a shower, what time is convenient and for how long. Hot water can be super expensive in some places and it's best to follow the lead of the locals. Take quick showers and don't monopolize common areas like bathrooms and kitchens - especially if other people are getting ready for work.

I unpack only what I need for that day and keep everything packed and in one place, making sure to take up the least amount of real estate possible. No one wants to be tripping all over your stuff, especially if you're staying in a common area and not a private room. The more you can keep stuff consolidated and make it seem like you're not actually there, the better.

Bring pictures of your home life to show your hosts and also small trinkets or gifts of appreciation. You don't have to spend a lot, just stop at a souvenir shop in your home town and bring them some postcards from your city, or a small keychain. Make your guest feel appreciated and not like hotel staff.

Clean up after yourself! If you use a dish, wash it. Wash the whole sink of dishes if there are some in the sink. Little things like that help "pay back" your free lodging. Leave the place better than how you found it.

Say "thank you"! This is a biggie. I had a couchsurfer who didn't say thank you. Ideally, since you're saving so much on lodging, you should have enough money to buy your host dinner. It doesn't have to be an expensive dinner, but you shouldn't be so skint that you can't afford to buy dinner or flowers or a small box of chocolates. That being said, if you really can't, "thank you" goes a really long way. I will forever remember the one who didn't say, "thank you." That's not a good thing!

Don't keep to yourself on your phone or on your computer the whole time. It's tempting when you're homesick to want to talk to home, but you're missing the best parts of travel otherwise. Immersing yourself in your travels or with your hosts can snap you out of your funk a lot faster. I found that even when I found a certain city boring, my hosts made up for it big time. Sometimes the people are better than the place! Get to know them.

Eat outside of the home or buy your own food to cook at your host's place. Do not steal their food! You should ask if they have certain food restrictions before bringing foods into their place. Are they vegetarian, do they have food allergies, do they keep a kosher kitchen?

If you had a good time, start hosting in your city and return the favour. That's what makes CouchSurfing special and the world a smaller place.

Any other tips you can think of?

Couchsurfing: The Good, The Fun and the Smelly

My first real solo travel experience was also coincidentally my first CouchSurfing experience. I joined after it was suggested by a friend and with only one reference on my profile (from said friend) I searched for hosts at my destination: Stockholm, Sweden. I had no idea what to expect, but I spoke with two people before I arrived and offered to bring them presents as a thank you.

The first person I met was Sarah, a Scottish woman who spoke fluent Swedish. She was about my age and asked for vodka and a hockey player (me being Canadian and all). I brought her a bottle of vodka, a stuffed moose and a keychain with a hockey player on it. She was pleased. In exchange, I received a small mattress on the floor of her living room, where I camped out for 3 nights.
I also met Anders, who could not host me, but made me dinner and showed me around his city.

That all sounds really simple, but it was a very deep experience to me: we knew hardly anything about each other, yet I was welcomed into their homes and fed. It took an exceptional amount of trust and humanity - me to trust them and them to trust me. Though we were only in each other's presences a few days, we are still in contact to this day. That's a testimonial to the power of CouchSurfing.

When I arrived back in Montreal, I opened my doors to many people. My husband and I continue to host and we both continue to CouchSurf solo (we've never actually done it together).

So here are our stories. It has always been good, some people are more fun than others and some are just smelly.

Our first guest was from England and was very well traveled. She stayed with us for seven days. Seven days can be a really long time when you don't know someone. It could be hell if they're not good guests, but she was absolutely great and we enjoyed her company. I can't say I was the best host at the time since it was minus 18 Celsius and I was working long hours late at night, but she is a very cool person. I met up with her the last time I was in London. I recommend her to all my friends who are visiting her city. We definitely lucked out with her!

We had one couple who were very strange. They arrived very late at night and left early the next morning, so we didn't really get to know them, but I learned a few things from them. One, it's important to explain how things in my apartment work, even if it's late at night. For example, when one person is in the shower and someone turns on the water in the kitchen, the person in the shower gets burned with hot water. I was the person in the shower at the time. Grrrr!
Then it seems like they didn't know where the garbage was and didn't bother to ask, so they left their bag of garbage on my kitchen table. Those ones were weird, but again, they only stayed the night so I can't complain too much.

In general people are clean, but extended backpacking can make anyone stinky. The stinkiest one we had was a young one with really cheap shoes. You know the type. Those cheap shoes that just stink. This girl's feet were SO BAD and I didn't know how to tell her. Surely she must also know?!
What made it worse was I was pregnant at the time, which gave me a heightened sense of smell. I can tell you, I never threw up while pregnant. I didn't even throw up during labour, but this girl's feet had me gagging! When she went into the shower each morning, I Febrezed all her stuff and sprayed inside her shoes. I washed all the floors as quickly as possible before she got out. I think she only stayed three nights, but it was almost three nights too long.

Otherwise, CouchSurfing is a lot of fun. You get to see a city in a way you would never get to otherwise. You get insider's tips on where to go and what to avoid. Sometimes you get a free tour. Sometimes you get a free ride. And sometimes it's as simple as having company when you're homesick and tired of traveling.
I'll put up with some stinky feet in order to keep those special friendships that last a lifetime.

What have your Couchsurfing experiences been like? Feel free to link to your posts about CSing in the comments and share the love!