What Is the Future of Couchsurfing?

A new business model may have irreparably jeopardized the site, so what's next?

Still-life of suitcase and carry bag, on the floor of cool holiday apartment
Oscar Wong / Getty Images

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Get any solo backpacker talking about their extensive travels on a shoestring budget, and nine out of 10 will bring up Couchsurfing. Launched in 2004, the online home exchange service matched up travelers with hosts who agreed to provide a couch for them to sleep on in destinations worldwide, free of charge. Initially run entirely by volunteers, the site branded itself as a non-profit with the goal of building a travel community (it would later become a for-profit company in 2011). Fresh out of college and definitely unable to afford $200 hotel rooms, my friends and I often used Couchsurfing. Throughout my early 20s, I slept on strangers’ couches in at least 10 different cities. 

One of the first businesses to harness the sharing economy, Couchsurfing quickly became a staple of backpacking culture. Its message boards were a key place for backpackers to meet each other, and meet and greet events popped up in locations worldwide. I shared beers with Couchsurfers in Montreal, met up with a group of artists in Baltimore before crashing their couch that evening, and even found myself attending local meet-ups just to meet travelers passing through when I was back home in New York City. The site had become more than just a free home exchange service—it became what it set out to be: a community. The company and the culture seemed unstoppable. 

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic changed all that. The concept of people from around the world entering your home on a nightly basis not only became impossible but potentially dangerous. “Personally, I probably won't be hosting again until there's an accessible vaccine,” read a May 2020 comment on the active Couchsurfing subreddit. “And even then, who knows how much a vaccine will cost in other countries. Will I need to start screening travelers based on what country they're from and how well that health care system has dealt with the whole situation?” Other hosts agreed. “I’m a host who typically says yes to about 90 percent of requests,” read another comment that month. “I changed my status to not accepting guests for the first time ever because of the pandemic.”

With the lack of users came a 90 percent drop in active engagement on Couchsurfing, and inevitably, loss of advertising revenue. In May of 2020, the company announced a pivot to a membership fee.

“Due to the economic downturn and the direct impact on travel, the sources of funding for Couchsurfing have been depleted, and we have no other option than to turn to you, the community, for support,” the company wrote in a blog post on its website. The new membership fee would be $2.39 a month—“or $14.29 per year if paid upfront.” (Fees vary by country, and some smaller countries are exempt.) It was a first for a company that initially began as a community-based non-profit organization. “This is a decision of last resort,” the company stated on their official website, “and not one taken lightly.” 

The announcement stunned members of the Couchsurfing community, who felt the membership fee was a departure from the site's ethos. Many referenced a 2011 blog post by the company written shortly after it gained for-profit status. “CouchSurfing will never make you pay to host and surf," it said at the time. "It’s against our vision to exclude anyone from having inspiring experiences for financial reasons, and that’s not going to change just because our methods of generating revenue do.”

Even more staggering was the company’s choice to immediately paywall the site, leaving many without access to their account data. “All our friends lists, photos, references, groups were suddenly held hostage behind a paywall,” wrote travel blogger Bren on the Road in a May 2020 post. “After promising Couchsurfers would never be forced to pay to host or surf, we were now being forced to pay just to log in.”

Droves of scorned former Couchsurfers began emailing the company, requesting their data be released. Couchsurfing competitor Trustroots, a non-profit based in the United Kingdom, immediately hopped on the opportunity, creating the profile exporter Couchspinner, allowing users to preview their profiles and messages again. “We built the functionality anyway for Trustroots and wanted to give it away for everyone,” read Couchspinner's FAQ page. “We’d love it if you also join Trustroots, of course!”

With vaccine rollouts around the world speeding up and the return of travel on the horizon, will Couchsurfing’s post-pandemic user base return to what it once was? Or will the loyal surfers that created Couchsurfing’s thriving culture move on to competitor exchange sites like Trustroots and BeWelcome—both non-profit organizations with no membership fee—or Warmshowers, a non-profit home-sharing site for cyclists which recently instituted a one-time $30 registration fee? 

BeWelcome, which launched in France in 2006, has already seen signs of the great migration. Anja Kühner, a co-founder, said that the organization saw “thousands” of new members join in the days after Couchsurfing’s announcement. “We were one of the biggest profiteers of the Couchsurfing paywall,” Kühner said. “We absolutely saw a correlation in the rise of membership [on BeWelcome] after that decision.” Kühner notes that BeWelcome is completely run by volunteers and has no intentions of becoming a for-profit company. “If you’re being nice [by receiving guests], why should someone else profit from it?” she asked. “We try everything to prevent all possibilities of BeWelcome turning into a commercial thing.”

Kesi Irvin, a full-time solo traveler and blogger at Kesi To and Fro, has used Couchsurfing since 2012 to couch surf in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and Canada. She says she’s created accounts on both Trustroots and BeWelcome and is eager to try them out after the pandemic. “I hear it’s what Couchsurfing used to be like,” she said. “I’m curious to try them out because I think that’s where the Couchsurfing community is moving towards.”

Like many others, she was also surprised by the methods used in Couchsurfing’s paid membership announcement. “I would have loved more transparency, versus blindsiding the community and blocking people out of their accounts without paying,” she said. Still, she feels that she has found authentic travel experiences with Couchsurfing and is “happy” to pay a low-cost fee. 

Regardless of what platform they choose, will travelers event want to crash couches again after COVID-19, or will the anxiety caused by the pandemic take more time to subside? Those who have spent time hosting or being hosted know that logging into an app is a small part of the greater experience. Sharing meals and spending time with new people will now have to be reimagined to create a "new normal.” Neither Couchsurfing nor its competitors are yet to release protocols on what a post-pandemic hosting process might look like, but it’s not hard to envision a structure of matching guests and hosts that will look very different. Personal verification processes may now include things like vaccination status. 

“I definitely expect the community to be fully active again,” said Kühner. She notes that BeWelcome’s users have been engaging in the site’s chat rooms throughout the pandemic, with users even setting up video calls with each other to meet future hosts and guests. “Some members took the initiative and were like, ‘Hey, I still want to meet other people. I miss this traveler feeling.’ Most people are just waiting for travel to start.”

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