Saturday, November 14, 2009

Couchsurfing to Save Money and Make Friends While Traveling: Our Experiences.

Reminded by the mention of couchsurfing in Man vs Debt's recent post that I compiled for the Money Hacks Carnival I hosted last week, I've decided to write a review, of sorts, of couchsurfing based on my and MDT's experiences as couchsurfers. We have not as yet had the pleasure of hosting any surfers as we've been in the process of moving first across the U.S. and then to Central America and setting up shop here. But, as we've been here in Costa Rica a whole month now (!!!) and just purchased an air mattress, perhaps we'll receive guests soon and I'll be able to update this article with our experiences hosting.

What is CouchSurfing?

I heard about a year or two ago, but didn't try it out until this fall. MDT and I had decided to move to Costa Rica, but needed a place to stay during our two-week house-hunting visit. describes itself and its purpose thusly: "CouchSurfing offers you, via our website and regional events and activities, the opportunity to intimately encounter the world. Through meaningful connections with locals, Couchsurfing seeks to promote self-awareness and understanding of others. Being a CouchSurfer means you are part of an international community of travelers who recognize similarities and appreciate differences in all peoples."1 It's a travel community with a (supposed) purpose and with a general attitude of acceptance that can come off sounding a bit peace-and-lovish. Not that I have anything against peace and love, of course. But I've had enough random experiences with, let's say, "the less down-to-earth" sort to be slightly wary of people one might encounter via couchsurfing. However, my concerns have so far been unfounded.

As an aside, I have had a close encounter of the hippie kind here (an aging—and braless—Californian woman who invited me to her monthly New Moon women's group where they dance and "summon [their] ancestors and [their] progeny," but it had nothing to do with couchsurfing.

I will say, however, that on the couchsurfing site it's best to carefully read the profile of anyone you're considering staying with. Personally if I see phrases like "sacred space," "auras," "star-child of the universe," (yep, that one's real) in a profile, I just move on. Depending on where you're traveling to, the type of people you'll see on couchsurfing vary widely.

To sign up for, you simply fill out a basic profile (10-15 minutes, depending on how in-depth you want to be) and then you're free to start searching for available couches. The search feature is easy to use and includes information about each registered couchsurfer (and/or host—you can choose to be one, the other, or both). Select the area you're planning to travel to and start browsing profiles. You can do more in-depth searches if you're traveling to populous areas with a larger selection of profiles.

Our Experience

We e-mailed (via's interface) eight or nine people. A few didn't respond, and a few who did weren't available at the times we needed, but we ended up finding three available hosts in different areas.

Our first night in Costa Rica, we stayed with a young Tico man in what turned out to be his mother's house (though she was out of town). This first couchsurfing experience was the worst: the house was filthy, I mean disgusting. It looked like nothing had been cleaned or so much as dusted for five years. The young man and his friend, who was also staying the night, were mostly friendly and we chatted, somewhat uncomfortably for me at least, for an hour or two before we were shown our room. It was during the chatting that MDT spotted and discreetly pointed out to me the biggest roach I've ever seen in my entire life—and I've lived in New Orleans. This thing was big enough to have facial features I'd probably recognize if I saw it again. I behaved very well, however, and no one noticed my horror. The bathroom was horrible, so much that we couldn't even shower for fear of coming out dirtier than before, and the bedding was so repulsive that we slept (or attempted to sleep), fully clothed, on top of our jackets laid on top of the bedding. It was an experience I hope never to repeat.

At this point, I was pretty terrified of what to expect of our next "couch," but thankfully, our second host, another young Tico, just our age, was a ray of sunshine—and has since become our good friend, whom we hang out with often. He, too, lives with his parents (or rather they live with him), but his house is very clean and he and his family are very hospitable. We only planned on staying with him for a day or two, but he offered for us to stay as long as we like, and he even devoted several days of his time to driving us around town and helping us house-hunt. He showed us how to make traditional Tico-style food and introduced us to his friends. We felt very much at home, even though he is the only one in his family who speaks English and our Spanish at the time wasn't fantastic. After a few days, we were already friends, hanging out, going to the bar, etc. He even took us to the beach for the day where we all swam, ate home-grown oranges, and picked coconuts. You couldn't ask for someone more generous and friendly.

We stayed at a hostel in another town for a few nights, and then for our last night in Costa Rica we stayed just outside the capital with an Italian girl a few years younger than us (and her mother), who own a nearby gelato establishment. The girl picked us up in a taxi and brought us back to her home, which was pristine, huge, and magnificent. I'm not sure if I've even been in such a fancy house. The girl was very hospitable, but left soon after we arrived to go to a friend's party. She invited us along, but we'd been traveling for two weeks and just needed to shower and rest that night. She very trustingly left us alone at her house, telling us to make ourselves at home, and after briefly showing us around disappeared for the rest of the night. We had showers and a snack and settled down to watch one of the movies she'd pointed out to us before she left. Her couch was magnificently comfortable, but we were given the guest room to sleep in, whose bed was also immensely comfortable. I commented to MDT that we might as well have been in a hotel. The girl returned around 3 am with a friend, partied a bit more (which woke up MDT but not me), and was still sleeping when we left in the morning. We had a bit of trouble maneuvering around her two very large (but deceptively friendly) dogs whilst attempting to unlock and get through the front gate without letting them loose, but otherwise it was a relaxing and good experience.

The verdict:

If you're looking for a possibly wild and crazy experience and are the adventurous (and imperturbable) type, give a try. Don't expect to be waited on or fed—though it could happen. If possible, talk with the person on the phone before you stay with them, just to get an idea of who they are and if you'll get on well. Again, much of your experience will depend on the culture and general way of life of the area you're visiting. That said, we had three very different experiences in the same region of the same country. My advice, if you're interested in couchsurfing, is to try it out in your own country first and see what you think before you do it halfway across the globe.

If, however, you're not an extremely social person or are just looking for an easy, relaxing vacation and you're on a budget, you might want to skip couchsurfing and check out some hostels or budget hotels.

Even if you don't need a place to stay, I'd say that couchsurfing is a good way to meet people wherever you are traveling, or even in your hometown. There's even a search option to find people who are willing to just meet you for coffee or a drink and talk with you about their country, culture, travels, etc. It's a great way to get to know an area and to meet a variety of people.

Other Opinions?
Have you ever couchsurfed? If so, what do you think about it? If not, would you ever consider doing it?

1. From the homepage.

Thanks to The Financial Blogger for including this post in this week's Festival of Frugality, to Sadie for including it in the Carnival of Savings, and to One Mint for including it in the Economy and Your Finances Carnival.

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