I’ve been an active member of the CouchSurfing.com community since 2009. The site enables travelers to find hosts around the world who are willing to open up their homes and offer up their hospitality. It’s like AirBnB but free of charge and more social, in that the homeowners/primary residents usually interact with their guests.
It appeals to those who, like myself, prefer to visit a city less like a tourist and more like a local. Further, because not everyone is comfortable letting complete strangers into their homes as overnight guests, the people I’ve hosted and stayed with through CS are usually like-minded, easy-going folks who become fast friends.
It’s because of these built-in character traits among CSers that it’s easy to feel a sense of community with guests and hosts. Just by virtue of being a member of the site, it’s likely you already have quite a bit in common with those you encounter through it. Birds of a bohemian feather…
Over the years, I’ve probably hosted about 100 people from various apartments and houses I’ve lived in, mainly in Oakland and L.A. Since moving into the container last year, I’ve hosted CSers on about 18 occasions. Who knew OKC was such a touristy destination for international travelers? I’ve had guests from Nepal, Thailand, Singapore, Eritrea, Spain, the U.K., Quebec, Nashville, NYC and L.A. Some were pretty crunchy hippy types hitchhiking across the U.S.; others were on road trips across Route 66; and some were just in town for work-related stuff or headed West to relocate.
“But Josh, you live in a 270-square foot box that’s only 7’8″ or so at its widest interior width. How can you host strangers, sometimes three at a time, in such a small space? How long do they stay? Doesn’t it get cramped?”
Good questions! My CS profile limits the number of guests to three at a time, and that’s the max that I’ve hosted in the container. Usually, surfers only stay for the night and leave the next morning, although one has stayed for a week recently.
Yes, it does get kinda cramped at times, and not everyone is capable of keeping their things quarantined into an orderly mess, which can complicate moving about the space (and drive me crazy). I’ve tried to learn from each surfer what works and what doesn’t in this space. It helps that hosting surfers has been something of a hobby of mine for so long.
CS considerations from early on to present
Even when designing the layout of the container and considering furnishings, the ability to host travelers was a consideration. For example, I knew I would want to create two completely private spaces, one for myself and one for guests, plus I would want bathroom doors that locked (to spare everyone some potential embarrassment/awkwardness). I also knew I would want some kind of spare bed, so, taking a cue from the name of the site, the plan was always to have a couch that could convert into a bed and a living room that could accommodate both configurations.
In the living room, I use an old footlocker as a coffee table. This footlocker actually does three things:
- It’s a coffee table.
- It stores bedding for the fold-out couch.
- It can store surfer luggage during their stay while the bedding is on the hide-a-bed.
There’s also an unused kitchen cabinet that can be conscripted as a makeshift locker. As long as we keep the floor clear, the space remains navigable, and my mind remains free from clutter-related stresses.
What’s in it for me?
While it’s nice to save some money while traveling and stay someplace for free, CS is also (and more importantly) about sharing cultures and exchanging perspectives. Guests are generally very gracious and willing to cook, buy a drink or two, practice languages or otherwise contribute in a positive way in return for even just a night’s stay. Just look at the maple syrup and caramel a Canadian recently sent me by way of saying thanks:
Plus, I like hosting. I like being an ambassador for OKC and making recommendations for what I consider the best things to do, see and eat. Sometimes I personally give the guests a tour of the town; other times I’m busy, and they do their own thing. If we’re both at home, though, I find it a welcome change of pace to have interesting conversations with a temporary roommate.
There’s also the possibility that a host, while traveling, would be able to stay with someone they’ve hosted before. While this kind of reciprocity isn’t expected and certainly not required, I have stayed with prior guests in Poland and Germany and met up with prior guests in Holland. So, while it’s a free platform, the fringe benefits of networking help create value for everyone. At the very least, for times when I’m unable to travel, I can let the world come to me, one guest at a time.
Give it a whirl!
For those who travel frequently (and would like to travel frequently if only it weren’t so expensive), I highly recommend joining CS before your next trip. Even if you’re not sold on the idea of staying at a stranger’s home or hosting them, it can be a great way to find event listings in a new city, meet up with locals and/or other travelers, find rides to share or simply get recommendations. Because it’s free to join, you have nothing to lose. In return, you may just make some really good friends and have the kinds of experiences money can’t buy.