Couch-Surfing: Idealism, travel and inspiring experiences

A member of the couch-surfing community, Christoph, in Paris. Photo: Christina Edlinger

A couch is just a piece of furniture, but for the founders of www.couchsurfing.org (CS) it’s a piece of furniture that can change the world. Not literally, but the couch is an important symbol for a global hospitality community, who believe couch-surfing has the potential to break down barriers and improve understanding between people – and this in turn, can create a more harmonious and better world.

Creating a better world is an ambitious goal, but it’s the same idealism that drives millions of organisations, communities, individuals and politicians in their daily work. Most individuals and organisations try to do this by promoting or facilitating a particular cause. CS believe they can do it by creating a global community of travellers and hosts, giving everyone the opportunity to explore and have inspiring experiences with people from all over the world – by staying in somebody’s home in a place they visit, or at home hosting somebody on their couch.

How it works

So although couch-surfing offers travellers free accommodation, it’s far from being a free service. Members are expected to spend time with their hosts or guests and learn from each other. But the couch-surfing community is open to anyone, regardless of your ability to host or surf. The community also encourages members to meet for coffees and organise events with other members and travellers in the same location. There are currently over 2.000.000 CS members, and over 600.000 couches available. 334 languages are spoken within the community, so explorers are spoilt for choice.

Pete’s Story

Pete Masters is from Cheddar, England but lives in London. He first came across couch-surfing via a friend who is an active and enthusiastic couch-surfer. Pete was inspired to try couch-surfing first hand, and his first experience was during a work trip to Russia in February 2010. Since then he has travelled and met people through couch-surfing in Russia and Norway and he has hosted three times. He plans to keep surfing, but can’t host anymore as his new living space, on a boat, is very limited.

The best experience he says was during a visit in St Petersburg, “I sent a request to this girl, but she sent me back a message saying she couldn’t host as she lived with her parents. But she offered to show me around. It turned out to be my best couch-surfing experience ever. We spent eight hours visiting all these different places, that I would never have seen otherwise. She was a great story teller and very enthusiastic – an amazing personal guide. Spending a day with her in St Petersburg made me realise how little I actually know about London.”

Pete says he hasn’t really had any bad experiences, although not all of them have been good, “one girl I stayed with in Moscow was probably a little jaded, I think she had hosted too much. She made dinner and after we’d eaten I did the washing up. When I finished I realised she had gone to bed without telling me where I should sleep. It was a little awkward waking her up.”

Christina Edlinger's accommodation in Bulgaria. Photo: Christina Edlinger

Christina’s Story

Sneaking in to your host’s bedrooms while they are in bed, is probably the greatest taboo and would without doubt ensure you a negative reference within the couch-surfing community. But that  didn’t stop photography student Christina Edlinger from doing just that, during a couch-surfing photo project. With prior permission it’s another story of course, but Christina says it still felt very strange tiptoeing into her hosts’ bedrooms in the early hours of the morning to take sleeping portraits.

Christina first heard about couch-surfing when she was in school in Falun, Sweden. Back then she remembers thinking it was a ‘cool idea’, but nothing she thought she would be able to do – then. In Belfast, where she studies, she was introduced to the couch-surfing community by her flatmate Linda at a pancake party; “I was asking her in amazement how she knew all these different people – the answer was through couch-surfing.”

The pancake party sparked an idea. Christina had been interested in exploring the relationship between technology and human relationships and couch-surfing felt like the perfect theme for her BA project. In November 2010 she set off on a photography couch-surfing journey through Europe. She stayed with 7 hosts in 5 countries; France, Germany, Slovakia, Rumania and Bulgaria. The project will be part of her Bachelor thesis and exhibition, and she has exclusively let The first pint readers see some of them here first!

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A Learning Experience

Christina says she is hooked on couch-surfing, and plans to continue; she can’t host in her current home, but in the long term she says she really wants to give something back to the community, “I imagine hosting to be just as amazing as surfing.” Couch-surfing is about connecting with and learning from people from different cultures, “more then anything I got the sense of how similar all humans are”, says Christina. “But for me the most important learning experience was to break down my own personal boundaries and to learn to trust strangers.”

Sofa Security

But is it safe? CS says on their website that it’s like meeting a friend of a friend, but you should always be careful to read people’s profiles properly and look at their references. CS offer rigourous advice and warns that you should always plan your trip carefully and never be desperate for a couch. Always have an alternative. Pete Masters says he’s not really a nervous person, and he’s always felt safe while surfing, but he says, “You have to trust your instincts. I would never have stayed with somebody if it didn’t feel right.” And what word of advice can he given to aspiring couch-surfers? It’s simple, “just be open minded”. And when Christina Edlinger says “It’s the best way to visit a place”.