What Is Couchsurfing?

How to use Couchsurfing for Free Accommodation

Couchsurfing host greets a guest with luggage

Maskot / Getty Images

Back in 1999, "hacker" and traveler Casey Fenton had no idea that his idea for a website to connect travelers with locals would be so popular. He was simply looking for an inexpensive way to visit Iceland. When the site launched in 2004, it had lots of people asking: What is couchsurfing?

Roughly two years later, the website became such a popular tool for budget travelers that it crashed. Hard. Much of the database and registered-member information were lost. Through the help of volunteers and donations, the site was rebuilt from the ground up to be more scalable.

Today, the newly resurrected Couchsurfing.com site has a community of over 15 million travelers and 400,000 hosts; lasting friendships and great experiences are formed there every day.

Even with using a few tricks to save money on accommodation, sleeping costs typically end up being the biggest expense for budget travelers. The idea behind couchsurfing is simple: "Couchsurfers" leverage the hospitality of friendly people around the world who open their homes to travelers—an act of kindness that dates back millennia.

Unlike Airbnb, couchsurfing travelers don't pay to stay in someone's home. Good couchsurfers "repay" their hosts with fun interactions and potential friendship.

How Couchsurfing Works
TripSavvy / Nusha Ashjaee 

What Is Couchsurfing?

Although the term "couchsurfing" loosely refers simply to staying with hosts while you travel, over 4 million couchsurfers a year turn to Couchsurfing.com for a safe way to find hosts who offer free accommodation. It's the online hub and premier social site for helping budget travelers and backpackers meet potential hosts all over the world.

Some hosts are former travelers themselves or expats who moved to another country. They enjoy staying in touch with the travel world. In other instances, hosts are locals interested in meeting friends from other countries and practicing English. All agree to open their homes to strangers for free. The interaction often develops into lasting friendships!

"Couch surfing" has a catchy ring to it, but there is some good news: You won't always be relegated to sleeping on couches. Many hosts have spare bedrooms; you could even have your own bathroom. On some glorious occasions, guest cottages are available!

Couchsurfing a few nights can dramatically lower expenses when traveling in places such as Hong Kong, South Korea, and Singapore where accommodation is notoriously pricey.

Is Couchsurfing Free?

Yes. Money shouldn't be exchanged, but bringing a host a thoughtful gift is good road karma. A trinket from your home country or bottle of wine will work, however, neither are expected. If turning up empty handed, offer to cover a meal or the groceries to cook at home.

What is expected from you as a couchsurfer is a little interaction. Just as when hitchhiking, the recipient of a freebie should interact with hosts, not just use them for convenience. Don't remain aloof or so busy that your host winds up feeling used or neglected. A big part of the couchsurfing experience is having a local available for giving advice that can't be found in the guidebook. Their insider recommendations can save you money and enhance your trip.

The Benefits of Couchsurfing

Along with the obvious benefit of finding a free place to stay, couchsurfing can enhance your trip in other ways:

  • You get a peek behind the tourist scene and can go a little deeper to connect with a destination. A good host will provide a better understanding of the place you are visiting.
  • Your local friend will know the hidden hotspots and can offer money-saving advice for insider sights and activities. You'll learn about scams to avoid and where to find the best food in town away from the tourist traps.
  • You may have access to a kitchen. Grocery shopping and cooking meals at home are cheaper and healthier than eating out in restaurants every meal as travelers often do.
  • Even if you already have accommodation, you can use the Couchsurfing website to find traveler meetups and hangouts.
  • Lasting friendships are often formed through couchsurfing.

Couchsurfing isn't just for solo backpackers! Couples and families with children regularly find hosts who share the same interests.

Rethink Couchsurfing the Entire Time

Free accommodation is great but so are personal space and privacy. Don't plan to stay with hosts or share hostel rooms every night of your trip. Doing so will exhaust you and cause you to be less excited about meeting the hosts at your next destinations.

Interacting with hosts and travelers from all over the world is great fun, however, doing so also requires energy. Plan to treat yourself to private rooms every now and then for some personal space and relaxation.

Is Couchsurfing Safe?

Although staying with complete strangers seem inherently dangerous, particularly if you watch the nightly news, the social-network system on Couchsurfing.com is designed to weed out bad hosts and guests. A lot of emphasis (tips, suggestions, etc) is placed on safety—for obvious reasons.

First, you can choose what type of host with whom you wish to stay (e.g., male, female, family, etc). You can get a feel for their personalities and interests based on their public profiles. The more time and information put into your own profile, the better. Couchsurfing.com recommends having conversation (through the Couchsurfing website) and asking relevant questions before agreeing to stay with a host.

Before choosing a host, you can see reviews left by other travelers who stayed before you. If the public reviews don't provide enough confidence, you can even contact those travelers privately to see if they had a good experience and would stay with a particular host again.

Couchsurfing.com once made use of a vouching system to increase safety. Vouching was retired in 2014, but you can still clearly see how much experience someone has with hosting travelers. A multi-level account verification system prevents people from dumping old profiles and starting new ones if they get a bad review. Sticking to verified, experienced hosts is one way to increase safety. The app allows people to photograph their government IDs to gain verification.

Hosts know misbehaving with guests will result in negative ratings and reviews, effectively eliminating their chances of hosting travelers in the future. This is usually enough to keep members of the Couchsurfing.com community in check.

As with any social network with millions of members, you are ultimately responsible for your own personal safety when making contact with strangers.

The CouchSurfing.com Website

Couchsurfing.com first became a public website in 2004 as a way to match travelers with willing hosts. The site operates much in the way as other social websites; people add friends, build profiles, upload photos, and send messages.

Signing up for an account on Couchsurfing.com is free, however, members can optionally pay a one-time fee to become "verified" for additional credibility.

Of course, most people visit the website when looking for a place to stay, but it also serves as an online community for travelers. Need to buy a motorbike in Vietnam? You can probably connect with a traveler who is leaving Vietnam and wants to sell hers. The Couchsurfing app also features a way for travelers to meet up.

Couchsurfing.com is good for meeting real-life friends, even at home! The community pages are handy for getting real-time information from other budget travelers about upcoming destinations.

The groups on Couchsurfing.com are operated by local volunteers known as ambassadors. Local groups often have informal meetings and gatherings. Even when not traveling, you can use the groups and ambassadors to meet fellow travelers and fun people at home.

Tip: Trying to learn a new language? Use Couchsurfing.com to find people from that country who may be passing through your hometown. Travelers are often happy to meet up for coffee and a practice session.

How to Be a Good Couchsurfer

Although couchsurfing is completely free, remember your host isn't compensated for offering up their home and time—they are doing so to meet people and form new friendships.

Be a good couchsurfer by getting to know your host; plan to spend a little time with them rather than just turning up when it's time to sleep. Don't treat their home as a free hotel. Bringing a small gift is optional, but always plan to interact a bit. After departing, leave a nice referral on the website for them if the experience was positive.

Benjamin Franklin once said, "Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days." No matter how positive the interaction, heed that sage advice and never overstay your welcome!